4 Dec 2012

Is the battle for Syria entering its final phase?

There is a growing sense that the scene is set for the coming, final, battle of the war to topple the Assad regime.

I recall months back, sitting with a glass of crisp Lebanese wine and some delicious grilled fish in Homs, in a restaurant full of military and not-so-secret police types, listening to Kofi Annan and the UN bang on about how Syria has reached a “tipping point”.

He was wrong. Wrong by several months. We said at the time it felt wrong. In the restaurant the military types shook their heads and smiled quietly. They knew. Everyone knew.

But fast forward to the events of yesterday. The UN evacuating all but “essential staff”. Given that the UN stopped any kind of monitoring months back, it isn’t clear what it means to be “essential” in Damascus now, if you work for the UN.

On the BlackBerry on which I write this, a message still sits from erstwhile government spokesman Jihad Makdissi, saying it would be good to meet for coffee next time I am in Damascus.

Jihad, we understand, is in London, as of yesterday. A Christian, I was told months back he’d already installed his family in the relative safety of Beirut. He has apparently been sacked. The reality is that he’s become the latest defector.

The internet is back up and running in Damascus, though it is erratic and increasingly so. Unexplained power-cuts of varying duration come and go.

The rebels are said to be massing in the northern, eastern and southern suburbs of the capital in greater numbers. There, they are bombed daily with attack helicopters and fixed-wing MIG fighters.

Every day, the president of the country bombs his own people in his own capital.

Yet we know from video released, and other credible sources, that the rebels have seized a number of military bases, acquiring surface-to-air missiles in the process with – crucially – the ability to use them.

Damascus international airport is quiet. Fighting in the vicinity and near the four-lane dual carriageway to town means nobody will fly in or out until further notice. The expectation is, that notice will not be given for some time yet. To paraphrase the ominous words, the lights are going out at the airport, and it may be some time before they are lit again.

The government appears hunkered down, bolstered by continuing military and diplomatic support from Iran close by and, of course, Russia and China beyond. Arms and even banknotes still coming in almost daily with Moscow’s blessing.

The West is still caught somewhat on the backfoot and increasingly so. Keen to see President Assad go with minumum fuss and bloodshed (not a hope in hell); wanting to support rebel groups with basically a western democratic agenda – yet terrified of the salafist and jihadist groups in the rebel mix who want anything but that: a sharia Islamist state which could develop into Washington’s perfect nightmare.

Result: tentative diplomatic support for the suits who would run the new Syria. Intel, communications equipment supplied, but not arms for the young men who do the fighting.

President Assad has been offered a way out by the UK and others. There are few physical ways in or out of his capital right now. The road to Beirut works. The road south to Jordan appears less secure for the government.

The parameters for a road from Damascus vision and exit appear to be narrowing by the day for the increasingly embattled government and military.

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