Damascus on the brink

Julien Barnes-Dacey has just returned from a visit to Syria, and returned deeply pessimistic about the situation on the ground, with hopes for a political solution appearing all but dead.  

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

Julien Barnes-Dacey has just returned from a visit to Syria, and returned deeply pessimistic about the situation on the ground, with  hopes for a political solution appearing all but dead.

Predictably, the mood in Damascus is one of incredible tension, but in a significant shift  it now seems apparent that Assad is rapidly losing even the allegiance of the capital city with local residents saying there has been a notable change in mood over the past month or so. Long held up as a bubble of support for Assad, presenting an aura of strength and stability, public support in the capital has decidedly shifted away from the regime with much of the population now fed up with its false promise of stability. The regime line that without them the country faces chaos no longer holds true, and though people may not whole-heartedly support the opposition, they clearly no longer see any hope of stability or peace at the hands of the regime. With economic hardship also mounting (largely due to EU sanctions) and criminal violence on the up, those than can are planning their departure.

This week witnessed one of the first armed responses to a small peaceful protest in the heart of the capital (hitherto batons had generally been used to disperse gatherings within the inner cordon) and the nightly sound of fighting from the outskirts becomes more intense every night. True to form, the regime has over the past week responded with significantly heightened security measures in Damascus (particularly around the residences of key regime figures, suggesting perhaps some truth in rumours circulating about attempted assassinations), pointing to a growing sense of fear about the encroaching threat. It surely won't be long now until unrest hits the central streets of the capital and with the regime's hold over much of the country fragile at best, this could signal an important new phase of the conflict (particularly as the country's second city, the commercial centre Aleppo, is also witnessing an upsurge in unrest).

The window of opportunity for a political solution now appears about a millimetre wide, with everything dependent on whether Annan can secure immediate, meaningful concessions from Assad – pretty much the only step that would bring the country back from the abyss. However, this is now a highly unlikely outcome – and not because the regime feels strong, but by contrast because it appears to feel weak. As one figure with long-standing contact with Assad told me, regime stubbornness ensures that it will only sign off on meaningful compromises from a position of strength. And while it may be holding a semblance of security control, this would crack with the slightest let-up; meanwhile, state legitimacy and the reach of government institutions has all but collapsed. Quite simply the regime cannot afford to give anything meaningful to Annan. 

To my mind it does appear that it's now gone beyond the point of no return and that levels of brutal violence are only likely to increase further. With the psychological stance of the regime tending to lashing out when faced with growing insecurity the conflict could now enter a wider descent into even greater brutality as the regime desperately seeks to restore a cloak of utter fear across the country (hence perhaps Houla – again, a sign of weakness not strength). Meanwhile, among much of the mobilised opposition (armed elements included, some of whom are also going on the offensive and unleashing their own brutality), any compromise agreement with the regime – as necessitated by the Annan plan – is now out of the question. So, while much of the population – the silent majority so to speak – may still long for a settlement that prevents the country from descending into more prolonged violence, neither the regime nor the opposition would appear willing to now accept such a deal.

Click here for Julien's blog post from Beirut

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Author

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme