Rebel success in killing four members of the Syrian regime’s ruling circle sends a clear message: President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cannot win the civil war. However, it is not yet certain that the rebel movement will necessarily be in a position to take over power anytime in a hurry. Syria remains a slow-motion train wreck of a war, though the momentum is shifting against Damascus.
Syria’s civil war is the last chapter of the Arab spring. Yemen will remain in ferment for years, but the conflict there is about tribal loyalties not democratic possibilities. Tunisia, the first of the so-called jasmine revolts, has proven to be a remarkable political success. Libyans have surprised by voting for a centrist government. Egypt’s political contours, already visible, are notable for the absence of extremist influence. Syria may buck this trend if its civil war does not end soon. As a rule of thumb, the more violent the political transition, the more extremist the politics that emerges when the smoke clears. Libya’s anarchy is a consequence of the fact that, after Syria, it has been most violent Arab spring event. Al-Qaeda’s influence is now evident on the margins of the rebel movement and the Syrian opposition remains fragmented. There are no self-evident faces or names in its ranks when it comes to future Syrian rulers. The international community should have two primary goals. First is to persuade the Assad government to accept that its future is bleak and the best hope for the Alawite Shia minority, which it represents, is to negotiate for a liberal, post-civil war regime. International isolation is one way of helping push Mr Assad in that direction, which is one reason India’s votes against Damascus at the UN Security Council have been a welcome development.
Second is to start chivvying the rebel movement towards early elections, have it give assurances to Syria’s Christian and minorities and allow international securing of the country’s chemical weapons and suspected nuclear facilities. Neither of them is an easy task. And neither of them are areas where the international community will have too much leverage. But the world should begin the process now. As the war moves towards its denouement, India should consider offering advice to the opposition on how to hold elections — something it has done in Egypt. Elections will be particularly important for a Syria with so many disparate groups all claiming to be represent the vox populi. It will help move legitimacy from bullets to ballots. If Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad emerge as centres of democratic rule, the impact on the Islamic world would be considerable. This would have a virtuous ripple effect influencing even Muslims in South Asia and, thus, helping ease India’s own sectarian concerns.