Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime will soon be no more, says a former defense intelligence analyst who has been closely monitoring the violence in Syria.
“In my mind, the regime’s forces could collapse at any time now,” Jeffrey White, a 34-year veteran of the Defense Intelligence Agency who now serves as a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Thursday at a panel discussion on Syria organized by his think tank.
“So how long does the regime got? In my view, at best, a few months, more likely some weeks, you know, a few weeks.”
Since the uprising against Assad’s regime began 21 months ago, the bloody and often brutal conflict is believed to have claimed the lives of tens of thousands civilians and combatants. But the rebel forces have now gained momentum, and the Assad regime is in a perilous position, White said during his presentation.
“In my mind, the likely prospects are for the regime’s position to deteriorate further, perhaps dramatically, in the weeks ahead, unless there’s some major change by the regime in its approach to the war,” White said.
“That could be large-scale intervention by Hezbollah forces, Iranian intervention in some way, although it’s sometimes hard to see how that could happen, or maybe the use of chemical weapons. Those are ways the regime could change, or potentially — or hopefully from its standpoint — change the direction of the battle.”
But as it stands now, Assad’s forces are “starting to look like a defeated army,” he said.
White went on to outline several indicators outsiders might look for that would further demonstrate the end of Assad’s regime is nigh.
“We might see some desperate pleas by the regime’s allies to get a ceasefire, sort of before a massacre occurs,” White said.
“We might see another U.N. effort to broker a ceasefire as the rebels close in on Damascus and the regime’s last days are evident. Could see evacuation of Russian citizens or may see the abandonment of the regime by its allies.”
He also said that regime leaders might flee the country and “suicides by regime leaders” could occur.
Whole army units could begin to defect to the rebels or go “rogue,” he said.
“My favorite indicator would be the burning of papers at the Iranian embassy,” he added. “We’ll know it’s over when we see smoke coming up out of the Iranian embassy.”
Iran is a major ally of Assad’s regime and has supported it throughout the conflict.
While Syria doesn’t have nuclear weapons, it is believed to have a rather large supply of chemical weapons, and outsiders have expressed concern that the regime could potentially use them against its own people.
In August, President Barack Obama warned that the use of such weapons — or even just moving the weapons around — constituted a red line that, if crossed, would spark some unspecified reaction by the United States.
White said that his view on whether Assad’s regime would use its stockpiles of chemical weapons against its people have changed.
“I used to say that I did not believe that the regime would use chemical weapons against its own people. I don’t believe that anymore,” he said. “I believe, you know, they may well use it against their own people in extremis.”
White added that he thinks the regime was readying some chemical weapons several weeks ago as fighting intensified in and around Damascus and it looked like the rebels could threaten the airport there.
But there are other scenarios in which he could imagine chemical weapons being employed.
“It could be rogue use — a commander with both the weapons and access to the means to deploy them could use them,” he said.
“Could be a demonstration use to, you know, terrorize population in a given area, try to break the link between the civilian population and the armed elements and so on. Or it could be an actual military or tactical operational use to try to stop something or achieve a change in the military situation.”
“I think we should be prepared to see that happen,” he stated.
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow a the Washington Institute who lived in Syria for eight years, said that though the regime may soon fall, he doesn’t believe that will be the last of the fighting.
“I think one phase of the battle is over, but I don’t think the struggle, or the war, over Syria will be complete for sometime,” he said during his presentation.
“While the regime’s forces seem close to the breaking point in large parts of Syria, the Assad regime, either as an organized force or a reconstituted Alawi-led popular army … may be positioned to fight in one form or another for some time in different parts of Syria,” he added.
“It will be not only to maintain their grip on the country, but also to probably maintain the security and safety of the Alawi population and the other minorities.”
Assad’s regime is largely comprised of a minority Shiite sect, the Alawis. While they constitute roughly 10 percent of Syria’s population, they have ruled the country, often brutally, for four decades. If the regime falls, many believe the Alawis could be in danger from a majority Sunni Muslim population seeking revenge.
During the question and answer period after the presentations, White was asked to put himself in the mindset of one of Assad’s military commanders and offer the embattled dictator advice.
White said he would first suggest that Assad see what he could get from negotiations. Failing that, he would recommend Assad attempt to pull back his forces to a segment of the country which might be more easily defended instead of attempting to fight everywhere.
“Third option I’d give him is [chemical weapons], to see if you could shock the situation enough that everyone comes rushing in to get that cease-fire,” he added ominously.
While the end of the Assad dictatorship may be rapidly approaching, Syria’s post-Assad future doesn’t immediately look particularly bright. Various Islamist militias are considered to be the best-armed of the rebels. In fact, perhaps the most effective fighting force, Al Nusra, is strongly linked to Al Qaida in Iraq and was recently designated a terrorist organization by the Obama administration.
If the Assad regime does collapse as predicted, it will be these Islamist forces who will wield power, at least initially, according to Tabler.
“I believe that those who are taking shots against Assad, will be calling them once he’s gone, at least in the interim,” he said.
Tabler argued that the U.S. should involve itself more than it has to date in Syria so that it can attempt to help shape what the country becomes post-Assad.