Regime defectors are the best hope for peace in Syria

Michael Stephens
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THE ONGOING conflict in Syria is an acute counterweight to the optimism unleashed by the Arab Spring. Gloomy forecasts of this protracted conflict, not to mention all too frequent pictures of brutally massacred civilians, are creating an ever-growing scrapbook of the chaotic descent of the Syrian nation into endless civil war.

Syria’s President Bashar al Assad continues to stand firm in the face of growing international anger. Only two days ago, in an interview with the German Tagesschau TV channel, he stuck to the now tired line that his forces were standing firm against “terrorists” and “Al Qaeda”, seemingly testing Goebbel’s dictum that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

But the time for such games has passed, as it has for Assad’s numerous promises for reform. On three separate occasions these have not amounted to remotely serious structural political change. Accordingly, the Syrian opposition will no longer enter into dialogue with a man they do not trust.

The Syrian conflict exists on two spheres. The first is on the macro-diplomatic level, where a coalition of Arab and Western nations (including Turkey), nominally led by the US, has sought to place increasing pressure on the Assad regime. These efforts have been critically undercut and officially rebuffed by an obstinate Russia and a silent but complicit China. There is very little chance that much can be done internationally, given that Russia will not let an ally fall that it has expended so much energy to support.

But it is on the second, micro level that the conflict will find its end. The recent high-profile defection of brigadier general Manaf Tlass, the son of a former defence minister, and a number of senior colonels, armoured brigades and even a fighter pilot complete with his jet, point to the best hope of change. While the core security and intelligence pillars of the regime (dominated by Assad loyalists) remain intact, the ability of Assad’s conventional forces to maintain control across broad swathes of the country is diminishing daily.

The hope has been for some time that loyalist defections will reach a critical mass, forcing the Assad regime to realise that it cannot suppress the Syrian uprising by force. It is at this point that a negotiated settlement can be taken seriously. The signs that this process is taking place are encouraging and, in the coming months, the fulcrum of Assad military dominance will tip in the rebels’ favour, as long as they continue to hold on and not suffer total defeat.

Then begins the really hard work; reconciling the different opposition factions, ensuring the construction of more egalitarian government institutions, balancing parts of the old order with newly-enfranchised segments of Syrian society and, crucially, preventing a wave of revenge attacks against Assad loyalists. How successful this will be, no one yet knows. But for this to happen, Assad must first be made to relinquish his grip on power.

Michael Stephens is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) Qatar.