Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime is facing collapse. Defections have escalated over the past month, but the magnitude of al Assad's problem became clear July 6 when the influential Tlass clan publicly broke ties with the al Assads. This signaled the unraveling of the Sunni patronage networks that have helped sustain the minority Alawite-dominated regime for more than four decades.
The next blow came July 18 with a bombing at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that eliminated several of the regime's top security bosses.
Those targeted in the bombing — Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani, Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar, National Security Council chief Hisham Biktyar and Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat (the president's brother-in-law, who was rumored to have been killed by the regime prior to the blast) — were top suspects in a palace coup scenario. The fate of the president's brother Republican Guard and Fourth Division Commander Maher al Assad after the blast remains a mystery, but his troops are still fighting in and around Damascus and have not shown signs of a breakdown in the army's command and control.
There are some vague indications that the bombing was a pre-emptive move by the al Assads to eliminate suspected coup plotters. Whether it was a deliberate action by the al Assads or a sign of the rebels' effectiveness in penetrating the regime, the bombing is a clear sign that the regime is falling apart.
There have been too many defections, arrests and assassinations for any regime member to be certain of his or her future with the al Assads. With the loss of certainty comes the loss of unity. The Syrian president faces two stark choices. He can either make an exit before his personal security is compromised, or he can try to hold out and regain control of the situation. Al Assad's reported appearance at the presidential palace in Damascus with his newly appointed defense minister July 19 indicates he is opting for the latter, but Stratfor does not believe he will succeed. The risks of sticking with the al Assad clan are surging, and the time has come for members of the regime to seek alternatives.
The Role of Foreign Interests
Foreign diplomacy surrounding the conflict, rather than the rebels fighting within Syria, will determine what the endgame looks like. Stratfor expects a scramble among the foreign stakeholders in Syria to protect their interests and emerge from the growing chaos with some degree of leverage.
The Iranians may have the most to lose. For decades, Iran has deployed a great deal of financial, military and intelligence assets to maintain its strategic foothold in the Levant. That investment evidently is not paying off. In addition, Iran is trapped by demographics. Alawite minority rule in Syria and the regime's extension in Lebanon are the keys to Iranian access to the Mediterranean. The Syrian rebels would not have come this far without a regional campaign backed by the United States, Turkey and the Saudis to reverse Iran's geopolitical fortunes over the past decade through the resurrection of Sunni rule in Syria.
Iran is becoming desperate to secure a position at the negotiating table over the impending Syrian transition. Depending on who the perpetrators were, the July 18 bus bombing targeting Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and botched attack on Israeli tourists in Cyprus suggest that Iran is relying on its militant arm to intimidate its way into this negotiation by sending the message that the cost of excluding Iran is too high to bear. Stratfor reads this as more of a sign of desperation than confidence from Tehran.
Israel will prepare for the worst but is unlikely to get militarily involved in the north. Israel Defense Forces are already on high alert for fallout from the Syrian crisis, and the Israeli government is contemplating how to respond to the recent attacks on Israeli tourists. Iran could be attempting to use an Israeli-Hezbollah rematch to divert attention and force its way into a negotiation, but neither Israel nor Hezbollah is interested in a fight. Israel sees no need to get entangled in southern Lebanon when Hezbollah is already in crisis over the impending collapse of the Syrian regime. Indeed, Hezbollah has been telegraphing to Israel that it did not carry out the attack and that it wants to avoid a confrontation. This indicates that Iran may not be able to count on Hezbollah as a reliable proxy as Hezbollah recalibrates its position in Lebanon without a Syrian sponsor.
Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia and France will be trying to create an alternative regime that will ensure their interests against Iran. It is still very unclear which individuals from among the remnants of the regime and the rebel opposition will be able to come together and have a chance at unifying a demographically split military to stabilize the country and regain control of jihadists mixed in with the insurgents. Several of the inner-circle members these countries could have intended to work with perished in the July 18 bombing. There are also deep disagreements among the sponsors, former regime insiders and the various opposition factions over how far regime change should go and what the composition of a new regime should be. At this point, the degradation of the al Assad regime is outpacing the planning for a transition.
The key country to watch is Russia. The Kremlin has been coy over the past several weeks, refraining from dropping support for the Syrian regime altogether yet signaling that it is ready to deal with alternatives. So while Russia continues to adamantly reject U.N. Security Council sanctions against Syria, it is also meeting with opposition groups and selectively reducing military support for the regime. Russia thought it would be able to prolong the Syrian crisis for a while and thus keep the United States preoccupied with a stalemate between the regime and the rebels by playing both sides of the conflict. But like everyone else with an interest in Syria, Russia is being pushed into action.
Moscow can see that the al Assad regime is expiring, and the Kremlin does not want to miss an opportunity in this transition.
Russia has numerous important reasons to remain deeply involved in Syria. It needs access to a warm water port in the Mediterranean without having to access this body of water from the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits. Syria is also the seventh largest customer for the Russian military industrial complex.
The third reason is the most relevant to the current geopolitical environment. The Syria-Iran axis has given Russia a useful tool for dealing with the United States. Through its relationships with Syria and Iran, Russia can either pressure the United States or open the door for negotiations, depending on where Moscow and Washington stand in their crucial part of negotiations. Russia does not want to lose that leverage and so must find a way to use the Syrian transition to keep the United States dependent on Russian cooperation in this region.
Russia has a deep intelligence footprint in Syria that it has maintained since the Cold War. Stratfor expects Russia to use the relationships related to its intelligence presence to shape a non-al Assad alternative. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French President Francois Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama have all reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past week to consult on Syria. Clearly, these countries believe Russia has an important role to play in this transition, from deciding the fate of al Assad to piecing together a new regime.
Russia may have a different view of how this transition should play out, but it has to make itself appear indispensable to the process if it hopes to maintain a strong bargaining position with the United States. The pressure is on Moscow to demonstrate that indispensability — assuming of course, that the intentions of the foreign stakeholders are not subsumed by the growing chaos in Syria.