With the brazen attack on a Syrian defense council building in Damascus on July 18 that killed three senior officers, including Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, the stakes in the Syrian civil war have dramatically increased. Will this be a tipping point in the long struggle, with more senior officers turning against Assad, or will the regime double down on its strategy and unleash more ferocious counterattacks than we have seen to date?
So far, the Syrian armed forces have refrained from using their heaviest weapons and fixed-wing aircraft against the Free Syrian Army and other rebels, in part because they are aware that if they do, the international backlash will be severe. It could trigger direct intervention or persuade Russia and China that they can no longer veto any UN Security Council resolutions calling for the transition to a new government.
The next few days will be critical as Assad replaces his most trusted aides, struggles to control Damascus and works to retain a semblance of stability. The stakes could not be higher for Assad’s few friends. For Iran, what’s happening in the Arab world does not conform with its original narrative that the uprisings are all against the West and in keeping with its own Islamic Revolutionary tradition. What has happened in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt is not to Tehran’s liking, since in each case the governments that have emerged have vowed they will not impose strict Islamic codes on their people and rather will attempt to abide by some semblance of pluralism. If Syria falls, Iran and its supporters, especially Hezbollah, will be seriously weakened, which in turn will change the whole dynamic of the Middle East.
From a diplomatic standpoint, the events in Damascus strengthen the case for the United States to work ever more closely with Turkey and the Arab League. This coalition should prepare for a post-Assad regime and try to avoid all the disasters that happened in Iraq, where the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was accompanied by the dismantlement of the Baath Party and the Iraqi Army, leading to anarchy and chaos.
In Iraq, sectarian polarization led to civil war and drove out minorities. Syria is just as diverse. If Assad’s largely Sunni opposition prevails, it likely will seek revenge against the Alawites that have served as the regime’s thugs. If the Alawites and their minority allies prevail, they may crack down ferociously. Regional Sunni and Shia powers see proxies in Syria’s diversity and are working to ensure the final outcome favors their interests. They might instead deepen the region’s sectarian divisions, which could reopen conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq.
It may be only a matter of time before the Assad regime collapses, but caution is in order. In July 1944, an extremely sophisticated operation code named Walküre (Valkyrie) was launched against Adolf Hitler by, among others, Count Claus von Stauffenberg. Had the plot succeeded, it could have ended the war in 1944, and millions of lives would have been saved. The bomb, however, failed to kill Hitler, and the revenge wreaked upon the plotters was extraordinarily brutal. The war lasted nearly another year.
The similarities between the Valkyrie plot and the bombing in Damascus are uncanny—a bomb hidden in a conference room, quite possibly by a dissident officer, aimed at key elites. Though the Syrian plot found more success than Valkyrie, the story is not over. Assad’s violent crackdown has made a peaceful resolution all but impossible, and it has made Syrian society into a jagged collection of irreconcilable interests. The Assad regime may prefer going down in flames to exile in uncomfortable quarters, which would be far removed from the luxury in which he and his family have wallowed for so many years.
Geoffrey Kemp is the director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Center for the National Interest.