x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Just a matter of time before the fall of Assad

If Syria settles into bloody stalemate, pressure to arm the opposition will increase. As charges of crimes against humanity are considered, and the economy shows sign of collapse, it is hoped that Al Assad will depart without a civil war.

Calling themselves "Friends of Syria", officials from 60 countries met in Tunis this weekend and agreed to recognise the principal Syrian opposition group. But they stopped short of promising weapons to the foes of President Bashar Al Assad as Saudi Arabia recommended on Friday.

Providing small arms, or more, will become a more tempting option if Syria's torment continues. More than a year after the Arab Spring reached Syria, thousands have died at the hands of the army and regime thugs. This brutal response to peaceful protest has led to more violent protests, and to army defections. The economy is a shambles. Regional powers - and now even Hamas - have turned against Mr Al Assad. Amid all this tumult, the referendum on a new constitution scheduled improbably for today has attracted almost no interest.

But the opposition has been divided and poorly organised, and military units loyal to the Alawite regime have been able to assault one centre of protest after another at little cost. China and Russia have wielded their Security Council veto to block meaningful UN action. And Syria's influential urban middle class, as well as some minorities such as the Druze, have mainly remained silent. Their intervention against Mr Al Assad could be decisive but is not evidently imminent. For all these reasons, many Syrians and outside observers are resigned to continued repression and stalemate.

That's why there is a debate about weapons. Saudi Arabia's demand that the Tunis meeting approve of arms supply reflected a policy that many believe Qatar is already engaged in. When the meeting did not agree, the Saudis left. Their empty chair became a silent reminder that arms shipments are not always heralded by press releases.

To be sure, if the slaughter of civilians continues, pressure to help the opposition fight back will grow irresistible. But the risk of full-scale civil war - which could spill dangerously across Syria's borders - leads many states to think of such intervention as a last resort.

Even without foreign weaponry, however, the stalemate scenario is showing cracks. As The National reports today, over Dh6.4 billion has drained out of Syria's banking system in the past year. The currency has tumbled, liquidity is vanishing, factories are closing. Military analysts believe that the regime can only completely rely on perhaps two Alawite divisions in the armed forces, meaning that it can pound a single city into submission, but not pacify the entire country.

Meanwhile, a new tool for regime change presented itself last week: the world learnt that the UN has compiled a list of regime officials to be investigated by an international human rights court for alleged "crimes against humanity" in the conflict, such as ordering snipers to kill small children. Mr Al Assad's own name is said to be on the sealed list.

Investigation and prosecution could be blocked by China or Russia, and in any case international courts have a mixed record at best. But the list and the shame attached to it may well help to fracture the regime, especially if there is immunity from prosecution for those who abandon Mr Al Assad now. This weekend, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on army officers to topple Mr Al Assad.

Also, it is hard to believe that Russia and China will stand by the regime as Syria descends into chaos and the Arab world watches, judging both Mr Al Assad and his foreign friends.

For all these reasons, it is too soon to conclude that the true friends of the Syrian people must fuel bloodshed and chaos by arming one side in a civil war to end this crisis.