The Shape of Assad’s End?

by Patrick Brennan

Reports suggest that the violence and conflict in Syria continue to intensify and widen. An activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, tallied 302 deaths in the fighting yesterday, including 139 civilians. Rebels captured three border crossings yesterday as well, with the Iraqi government confirming that at one border crossing, the Syrian government flag had been replaced with the Free Syrian Army flag. The government has since attempted to retake the posts, and the Iraqi government reported that it has succeeded at one of them. Meanwhile, a variety of reports also suggest an increasing flow of refugees out of the country, with supposedly 30,000 people crossing into Lebanon in the last 48 hours. Meanwhile, reports about Assad himself and his family being in different parts of the country have begun to circulate, surely a bad sign. If it’s a civil war and the country doesn’t know where its dictator is, he’s in trouble.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council, in a delayed vote, unanimously agreed to extend the existing observation mission for another 30 days, though with the expectation that it will then be ended or replaced. The mission was almost tragically ineffective, and Russia and China, Syria’s remaining enablers, had agreed to it in the first place, but their willingness to extend it may be a part of a general softening on this issue.

This makes the most sense for Russia, which has demonstrated a significant shift recently: The government’s ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, said yesterday that Assad was prepared to step down in a “civilized” manner, having seen the conflict spin out of control, “in some way he has accepted this.” He later revised his statement and played it down, but the more significant point, probably, is what he said about his own, and by some extension, the Russian government’s, opinion: “I believe it is difficult for him to remain after everything that has happened.” That statement, by a highly placed Russian diplomat, reveals a change of thinking in the Kremlin, toward acceptance that Assad will have to go, via an Alawite-led coup, or a more balanced transition, with Moscow still attempting to preserve its alliance. Given the U.S.’s apparently laissez-fair attitude, as Elliott Abrams pointed out yesterday, we are allowing Russia to shape Assad’s end how they will.

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