Six pointers to Assad’s fall (Brian Whitaker, 04/12/2012)

Each day’s news brings more reasons to believe the Assad regime’s fall cannot be far away. Viewed individually these signs may not in themselves spell doom for the regime but collectively they do.

1. Withdrawal of UN and diplomatic personnel: The UN announced yesterday that it has cancelled all missions to Syria from abroad and suspended its activities inside the country. All non-essential staff are to be withdrawn because of the « prevailing security situation ». The European Union, which has a diplomatic office in Damascus, also said it will cut back activities  » to a minimum level due to the current security conditions ». In effect, the UN and EU are now only a step away from ordering a complete evacuation.

2. Jihad Makdissi flees: The foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, has fled Syria and yesterday was reported to have arrived in London. This may not be as big a loss as some of the earlier defections and assassinations but it does tell us how someone who was privy to a lot of regime information now views the situation.

Whether Makdissi actually has a political quarrel with the regime is unclear but the Washington Post, citing a friend of Makdissi,
says he is « taking a break from the pressure of being the official face of the government in the media while having no security protection for himself or his family ».

If we take this at face value and assume he has not fallen out with Assad, it’s a message of no confidence in the regime’s once-feared security apparatus.

3. Damascus airport: A capital city without a functioning airport isn’t really a capital city any more. Syrian officials insist the airport is still open, but to what extent it may be operating is a different matter. Travel to and from the airport is dangerous and very few of the few remaining scheduled flights appear to be arriving or leaving. Egyptair announced yesterday that it was resuming flights but then changed its mind.

4. Internet shutdown: Last week’s two-day shutdown of the internet and mobile phones was widely seen as a deliberate move by the regime – and a sign of desperation, if not panic. Many recalled that a similar tactic had been tried by the Mubarak regime in Egypt shortly before its fall.

Syrian officials blamed technical problems for the shutdown. Even if that were true, the length of time taken to fix it would be a further sign of the regime’s declining capabilities.

5. US reviewing its options: A report in the New York Times on Saturday said the US is « considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power ».

There are several ways of interpreting this story. One is that US fears it won’t have much influence in a post-Assad Syria:

“The administration has figured out that if they don’t start doing something, the war will be over and they won’t have any influence over the combat forces on the ground,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer and specialist on the Syria military. “They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won’t have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory.”

Another interpretation is that the US, since it doesn’t really have any new ideas about what to do, is simply making noises to step up the psychological pressure on Assad at what it sees as a critical moment in the conflict.

Either way, the subtext is very clear: Washington’s calculations are now predicated on an expectation that Assad will soon be gone..

6. Chemical weapons: Considering that Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction provided the excuse for war in Iraq, it’s natural that people should be wary of Obama’s latest statements about Syrian chemical weapons. But there is an important difference: Syria has never denied having chemical weapons and has indirectly admitted possessing them – courtesy of Jihad Makdissi who, when he was still foreign ministry spokesman, said they « will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression ».

« All of these types of weapons, » he said, « are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces ».

Even among Assad’s opponents there is a general belief that he is unlikely to use chemical weapons except as a last resort. If the US has really detected signs of « potential » preparation for use, it would mean the Assad regime is actively thinking about the end-game.

Alternatively, it’s possible the US has merely detected the movement of some chemicals by the regime in order to keep them from falling into the wrong hands. But even that would be a very bad sign.

Back in July, Makdissi assured everyone that the chemical weapons were being carefully guarded. Indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that chemical weapons would have been among the Syrian military’s most heavily-protected equipment.

If they are having to be moved now, it’s yet another sign that places once considered by the regime as ultra-secure are secure no longer.

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