We have entered the endgame in Syria. That doesn't mean that we have reached the end by any means, but it does mean that the precondition has been met for the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. We have argued that so long as the military and security apparatus remain intact and effective, the regime could endure. Although they continue to function, neither appears intact any longer; their control of key areas such as Damascus and Aleppo is in doubt, and the reliability of their personnel, given defections, is no longer certain. We had thought that there was a reasonable chance of the al Assad regime surviving completely. That is no longer the case. At a certain point -- in our view, after the defection of a Syrian pilot June 21 and then the defection of the Tlass clan -- key members of the regime began to recalculate the probability of survival and their interests. The regime has not unraveled, but it is unraveling.
The speculation over al Assad's whereabouts and heavy fighting in Damascus is simply part of the regime's problems. Rumors, whether true or not, create uncertainty that the regime cannot afford right now. The outcome is unclear. On the one hand, a new regime might emerge that could exercise control. On the other hand, Syria could collapse into a Lebanon situation in which it disintegrates into regions held by various factions, with no effective central government.
The Russian and Chinese Strategy
The geopolitical picture is somewhat clearer than the internal political picture. Whatever else happens, it is unlikely that al Assad will be able to return to unchallenged rule. The United States, France and other European countries have opposed his regime. Russia, China and Iran have supported it, each for different reasons. The Russians opposed the West's calls to intervene, which were grounded on human rights concerns, fearing that the proposed intervention was simply a subterfuge to extend Western power and that it would be used against them. The Chinese also supported the Syrians, in part for these same reasons. Both Moscow and Beijing hoped to avoid legitimizing Western pressure based on human rights considerations -- something they had each faced at one time or another. In addition, Russia and China wanted the United States in particular focused on the Middle East rather than on them. They would not have minded a military intervention that would have bogged down the United States, but the United States declined to give that to them.
But the Russian and Chinese game was subtler than that. It focused on Iran. As we have argued, if the al Assad regime were to survive and were to be isolated from the West, it would be primarily dependent on Iran, its main patron. Iran had supplied trainers, special operations troops, supplies and money to sustain the regime. For Iran, the events in Syria represented a tremendous opportunity. Iran already held a powerful position in Iraq, not quite dominating it but heavily influencing it. If the al Assad regime survived and had Iranian support to thank for its survival, Syria would become even more dependent on Iran than was Iraq. This would shore up the Iranian position in Iraq, but more important, it would have created an Iranian sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is an Iranian ally.
The Russians and Chinese clearly understood that if this had happened, the United States would have had an intense interest in undermining the Iranian sphere of influence -- and would have had to devote massive resources to doing so. Russia and China benefitted greatly in the post-9/11 world, when the United States was obsessed with the Islamic world and had little interest or resources to devote to China and Russia. With the end of the Afghanistan war looming, this respite seemed likely to end. Underwriting Iranian hegemony over a region that would inevitably draw the United States' attention was a low-cost, high-return strategy.