It's no longer a question of whether Bashar al Assad's regime will collapse, but a question of how. Will he trigger the sectarian time bomb he has prepared, or will he go quietly?
A sectarian time bomb as Damascus clings to power
It is increasingly apparent in Syria that it may no longer be a question of whether the regime of President Bashar al Assad collapses, but how. Nor does it take great imagination to grasp that a violent, disorderly breakdown in the country could have dramatic consequences for the Middle East, particularly for countries such as Iraq and Lebanon.
In this context, it is remarkable how sanguine, even minimalist, Arab diplomacy has lately been toward Syria. Locked into their customary, obstinate defence of state sovereignty, Arab states have been reluctant to intervene in Syrian affairs (ironically, the Gulf Cooperation Council has advanced a plan to facilitate a change at the top in Yemen). Yet such diffidence, which has been just as glaring among decision-makers in the United States and Europe, not to mention at the United Nations Security Council, is a luxury no one can afford. If Syria disintegrates, this would constitute a significant threat to international peace and security.
There are deeply disturbing trends in Syria highlighting the nature of the danger. Recently, the Syrian army and security forces began attacking villages along the Lebanese border, notably Tell Kalakh. Sunni inhabitants who fled to Lebanon related that they had been expelled by Alawites, and that many villagers had been killed, their bodies left to rot in the streets. In Beirut, foreign diplomats are worried that this may be the beginning of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, whereby Syria's Alawite-led regime could be preparing a contiguous Alawite-majority area in the country's north-west coastal and mountain region, in the event Mr al Assad is forced out.
However, even if the Alawites are not planning a mini-state, the Syrian regime's behaviour has exacerbated sectarian tensions. Mr al Assad's praetorian military units are led by his brother and dominated by his minority community; the so-called "Shabbiha", or militias collaborating with the security forces, are by most accounts Alawite smuggling gangs, some led by relatives of the Syrian leader. And there have been numerous reports of the security services arming Alawite villages.
It remains unclear how Alawites in general feel about the regime's actions. There have been stories of dissent, although these are difficult to confirm. However, the widespread suspicion is that Mr al Assad and his acolytes have adopted a scheme to heighten sectarian contradictions in order to offer Syria and the world a stark alternative: either Mr al Assad remains in power or else Syria descends into chaos.
But things are not so simple. Syria's ruling family, made up of the Assads and their cousins the Makhloufs, has shown in recent months that it has nothing to propose but cruelty. The notion that Mr al Assad can yet introduce reform is fanciful. If the family has taken the risk of engaging in mass repression, with over 1,000 people killed, many thousands under arrest and the army having occupied major cities, there is an explanation. The Assads and the Makhloufs recognise that meaningful reform would only endanger their hold on authority. They could not survive democratic elections, presidential term limits, free media, respect for the rule of law, a proliferation of political parties and dissolution of Syria's myriad intelligence agencies.
A policy of subjugation can sometimes be effective if it attains two successive objectives: it must first silence those in the streets; and then it must follow this up with concessions or compensations that neutralise the protesters without otherwise undermining the regime's influence.
Mr al Assad has failed on the first count, and Syria's ruling family is incapable of engaging in the second. So rigid is the system put in place by the late Hafez al Assad, which aims to achieve equilibrium at the expense of potentially precarious flexibility, that the Assad-Makhlouf clan today finds itself wholly dependent on crushing dissent.
The Syrian people are unlikely to bend, and dissatisfaction is spreading. The regime's ability to stop all the leaks, from Qamishli in the east to Deraa in the south to Aleppo in the north, appears to be diminishing. Syria is notably vulnerable along its borders, so that the more sectarian the revolt becomes (not because of the opposition but because of Mr al Assad's tactics, and those of his collaborators), the more this may spur cross-border sectarian solidarities, loosening the grip of the Assads and the Makhloufs, especially if this leads to weapons transfers.
That is why much more Arab political audacity is required. It seems inevitable that the United States and Europe must take a leading role in such initiatives, but only the Arab states can operate on the ground and lend legitimacy to an effort to secure a peaceful transfer of power in Damascus. For a start, however, everyone must recognise that the Assad regime has forsaken all legitimacy, and act in consequence. Focusing on sanctions is a waste of time. The deterioration in Syria has moved well beyond the stage where such measures will change much.
A sectarian rupture, if the Assad-Makhlouf clan is permitted to pursue such a nightmare scenario, could severely destabilise Syria's neighbours. Lebanon could face turbulence, compounded by the complexities inherent in dealing with a Hizbollah that has lost a major regional partner. But Iraq, too, would have to absorb the shock waves next door, even as Sunnis and Shiites are still struggling to find a consensual social contract.
Regional and international lethargy toward dealing with events in Syria has been irresponsible. The issue is not one of state sovereignty, but of managing as well as the international community can a smooth transition away from Assad rule. Otherwise everyone might have a splendid mess to clean up, one that stretches beyond Syria's frontiers.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle