Are the walls surrounding Syrian president Bashar al-Assad starting to crumble from within? To officials in the exile based Syrian National Council, the answer is an overwhelming yes.
It is not difficult to see why so many on the council and in the opposition more broadly feel this way. In addition to the concerted amount of international pressure that is being put on the regime by neighboring Arab states and the West, Assad’s armed opponents in the rebel Free Syrian Army are getting stronger by the day, in terms of manpower and military effectiveness.
Syria’s armed forces, once seen as one of the strongest in the region, are overstretched across broad swathes of the countryside. Last month was the deadliest on record for the Syrian security forces, with over four hundred killed in insurgent ambushes on government checkpoints and patrols.
Yet even while Syria’s soldiers are coming under more intense fire from their adversaries, analysts have been careful not to be too optimistic. Persistent statements from the White House that the downfall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime was imminent have been slowed down to a trickle, replaced instead with cautious optimism that the Syrian strongman will, one day, fall.
The change in rhetoric is a tacit acknowledgement that while its power is waning, Assad’s regime is still far more durable then what many would have expected after seventeen months of rebellion.
The last two weeks have been especially hard for Assad and his diehard supporters in the Syrian government. Coming after the news that a commander of a Republican Guard unit (and son of a former Syrian defense minister) escaped to neighboring Turkey, Syria’s first high rank diplomat decided to make his own move to Syria’s myriad opposition movement. Nawaf Fares may not be a name that most Arabs and Westerns have ever heard of but his decision to quit his post as Syria’s ambassador to Iraq in response to an escalating regime offensive is perhaps just as significant as General Manaf Tlas’ defection a few days prior.
Much like Tlas, Ambassador Fares was widely considered by Ba’ath Party officials to be a loyalist of the Assad family. His past record of Syrian government service would appear to confirm that belief. Before becoming Syria’s ambassador to Iraq in 2008, Nawaf served as the head of the Ba’ath Party in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour sometime in the 1990s. He has also been a governor to three Syrian provinces before his ambassadorship, which seems to confirm that Fares was a regime insider.
These are the same credentials that make Fares’ defection all the more important for the Syrian National Council and all the more detrimental to the Syrian government.
As encouraging as the Fares-Tlas duo is from a symbolic point of view, the fact of the manner is that their withdrawal from Assad’s government will not have much of an impact unless other top level Sunnis, whether from the military or diplomatic corps, find the courage to peel away themselves.
Part of Assad’s formula since his assumption to power over a decade ago is retaining the support of elite Sunni Muslim in conjunction to his Alawite base, a scheme that Bashar’s father Hafez created more than four decades ago.
Cracking that code, as most Syria watchers have argued, is one of the most cost effective things that the opposition can do to expose the president’s overwhelming dependence on Alawite backers, who together only constitute roughly 12 percent of Syria’s population.
The two latest defections may persuade other Sunni officials in Assad’s inner circle to follow a similar path. But even that development alone will not be enough to compel loosen the cohesiveness of Assad’s protective shell. What is needed is the right mix of a lethal armed resistance, a political alternative to the current government that can provide would be defectors with confidence and a United Nations Security Council that is able to act with one voice. Those remaining by Assad’s side will not leave unless they see a more promising future for themselves, their families, and their communities.
Absent those three elements — which are not yet on the horizon — Bashar al-Assad will maintain the power that is needed to stretch out his rule, even if a key general and a senior ambassador have resigned in disgust.