The Deteriorating Situation in Syria: A Discussion Among Four Brookings Middle East Experts

Editor’s Note: Following the bombing that killed Syria’s Defense Minister and Deputy Defense Minister, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the situation in Syria as “deteriorating rapidly,” while Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the United Nations to take “urgent” action and pass a new resolution on Syria.  Brookings Middle East experts

Michael Doran


Kenneth Pollack


Daniel Byman

, and

Salman Shaikh

discuss the current developments in Syria and the implications for the United States. 

Michael Doran: Today’s events in Syria are game changing. Bashar Assad might have to dump Damascus, because it lies outside the Alawite enclave. Take a look at this Washington Post article: Reacting to it, Michael Young (@BeirutCalling), tweeted the following question: “Will Assad’s reserve elite units defend Damascus if all is near lost, or will they redeploy to defend Alawi heartland?” That is a great question. My theory is that, in fact, they will redeploy, and the elite security services will eventually become an Alawite militia, a Syrian form of Hezbollah, with or without Assad. At any rate, the battle for Damascus may give us some insight into future trends. All of this, of course, raises the question: what is Iran’s Plan B? (The U.S. does not yet have a Plan A, so it is not worth asking what the Plan B is.)

Kenneth Pollack: I share Michael’s perspective. Holding Damascus might prove too much for the rump Syrian Armed Forces–increasingly just an Alawite militia, like the Lebanese Armed Forces became during the 1970s-1980s. The obvious move for them is to hunker down in the mountains around Latakiya and defend the Alawi heartland. But, as we are seeing, they won’t give up Damascus without a fight and their residual heavy weapons could make that a very long one. As I’ve said in the past, they might eventually end up as a Syrian version of the Northern Alliance, holed up in the Panjshir valley.

Daniel Byman: A question to me is whether the violence will spike dramatically — far more than it has already. We have both desperation (defense of Damascus) and revenge (death of a very prominent figure) that could lead to the units being moved from the Golan to use their firepower and simply level rebellious neighborhoods rather than cordon them off.

My understanding is that Damascus is a very diverse city. Clearly, many regime supporters are in the capital. But there are also poorer neighborhoods, outskirts of the capital, etc. that house many Sunnis that are very hostile to the regime. And as the violence rises in the city, we will see “cleansing” of neighborhoods by partisans of each side. So there are, and may be more, areas in Damascus where the regime can (if it chooses) employ heavy force in a demonstrative way.

Salman Shaikh: I don’t think the Alawi minority will stand with the regime to the end. At this stage, they cannot guarantee that there will be a “safe haven” in the mountains for the family. The environment around Latakia is increasingly hot with rebel penetration. There are also some indications of Alawis getting more and more nervous about this family’s ability to save them.

Today’s event means that we are on the road to the end of this regime. The one person whose name I have not seen is Mohamed Nasif – the “godfather” of the security apparatus. If he had gone, then really we would be talking about “game over”. Makhlouf was probably the number two of the security apparatus.

Together, they are the “two legs” of Bashar Assad (the closest to him). I have been in Cairo with quite a few of the folks involved in the operations in Damascus, Aleppo etc. They are working feverishly (one predicted “a big event” would happen today last night over dinner). We may still be headed for a big, drawn out bloody battle (especially since the rebels are still poorly equipped; though there has been a relatively large infusion of arms courtesy of Q/KSA via Turkey over the past week), but other scenarios of a quick regime collapse cannot now be ruled out.

It is therefore imperative that the opposition accelerate its readiness of to lead the transitional phase. They would need to form an as yet elusive coordination committee, involving the main opposition blocs (including Kurds and some folks from the inside) and get that committee to deepen their understandings on arrangements for the transition.

Daniel Byman: I think Salman has the key issue exactly right. The opposition’s ability to lead is what will determine whether this is a “win” for the U.S. (and Syria and its neighbors) in the long-term. And the opposition’s coherence will make it better able to topple Assad.

Kenneth Pollack: Salman, I hope that you are correct, but fear it will prove otherwise. I am afraid I have seen exactly the kinds of cross-signals too many times in the past. On occasion, and eventually they may prove correct (Yemen), but most of the time they are ultimately trumped by the fear of retribution for a failed coup and the sense that internal dissension would ultimately lead to collapse (Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, etc.)

Michael Doran: Another question for you: Whither Aleppo? It’s a mystery to me. I have never understood why the regime had such a good grip on it, and why Damascus would explode before it did. If by the end of the week, we have major violence in both cities, then the Alawis will certainly be heading for the hills. But I would like somebody with real knowledge to explain the stability of Aleppo. 

Salman Shaikh: Aleppo: Huge number of detentions (thousands); regime economic investments; MB has not wanted Aleppo to explode (their strategy is to be ready for the day after); Turks don’t necessarily want Aleppo to explode either (refugees).  Also protests have become large recently but are not well covered by Arab media. Regarding Tlass – this is seen as a failed Russian/Iranian play for a “constructive” scenario. They are too late.

Michael Doran: Fascinating re: Aleppo. I’m sticking by my Alawite enclave theory, however. I’m sure the average Alawites dislike Bashar and feel caught between the regime and the Sunnis, but will they really be able to resist when Bashar’s loyal divisions settle down in the north with Russian and Iranian backing? It’s speculation on top of speculation, I do admit. But I don’t know anybody who truly has a clue about intra-Alawite politics, so my speculation is as good as any!