Cracks in Syria’s Regime?

BY Larisa Epatko  July 18, 2012 at 5:10 PM EDT


Syrian police guard the road near the scene of the suicide bomb attack that targeted the National Security headquarters in Rawda, a high security district in the heart of the capital, Damascus, on July 18. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Syrian rebels made headway this week, pushing into the capital Damascus and killing at least three top government officials. The infiltration, coupled with continued defections of members of the Syrian military, show the regime might be starting to crumble, some analysts say.

“The attack is a significant blow to the regime” not only because of the loss of the senior officials but the inner circle is beginning to show signs of uncertainty about their survivability, said Steven Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “I don’t know how much longer the regime can hold on.”

As the conflict in Syria reaches a tipping point, Heydemann said he expects to see an increase in efforts in the international community to secure a negotiated settlement between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces.

The U.N. Security Council plans to meet Thursday to discuss continuing the U.N. observer mission in Syria and possibly impose further sanctions to try to end the 16-month battle.


A Lebanese man in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood of Lebanon’s northern town of Tripoli celebrates the Syrian rebels’ advancements on July 18. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Although the fighting has been drawn out, the end of the regime might come quickly, said Heydemann, and that’s a source of “enormous anxiety” even among governments that want to see the regime fall because there is no framework for handling a new, post-Assad government.

The armed groups could simply occupy government offices and exercise authority in an ad hoc fashion, and units of regime loyalists could continue to engage in violence, he said.

To try to bring order, the U.S. Institute of Peace has been working with Syrian activists for about six months on a comprehensive plan for whatever transitional authority assumes power, said Heydemann.

The plan covers six areas: security sector reform, rule of law, transitional justice, electoral system design, constitution making, and economic and social reconstruction.

The most urgent priority will be to maintain public order in an environment where there are still many armed groups, said Heydemann. A framework must be developed to disarm the government and opposition militias, and a system established to vet members of the Syrian military to possibly play a role in the security sector, he said.

The plan also includes an effort to secure intelligence files kept by the government on Syrian citizens. “Those documents will be critical in achieving national reconciliation in the future, just like the files were in East Germany in helping the people come to terms with the past.”

He said the Syrian-led group arranged for a meeting between the opposition and the leadership of the archives that maintained the files in East Berlin to help the Syrians recognize how important it is to manage the documents in such a way that does not promote revenge attacks.

The comprehensive plan will come out in the next few weeks.

Judy Woodruff asked Heydemann for more details about the plan in this online-only interview:

On Wednesday’s NewsHour, the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Steven Heydemann and Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussed whether the developments in Damascus mark a turning point in Syria’s civil war:

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