Syria's 20-month-long civil war appears to be approaching a tipping point as fighting around Damascus intensifies amid signs that President Bashar Assad's grip on power may be weakening. As the final phase in the long conflict apparently draws nearer, the U.S. needs be prepared for the challenges it will face in a post-Assad Syria that, like Libya, could well remain unsettled for years after the dictator's departure.
In recent weeks, Syrian rebels have captured a number of strategic military bases and weapons dumps, allowing them to press their advantage. The fighting around the capital has forced the Syrian army to concentrate on defending Mr. Assad's seat of power, opening the way for further rebel gains elsewhere.
Moreover, there are signs that Russia, which until now has backed Mr. Assad unconditionally, may be rethinking its support. After Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul this week, a senior Turkish official said the two discussed ways to get Mr. Assad to step down. At the same time, a Russian foreign ministry official told the Itar-Tass news agency that Russia was ready to assist any of its citizens who wished leave Syria. The United Nations has also announced that it is pulling all nonessential personnel from the country.
All these developments come against the backdrop of NATO's decision Tuesday to send Patriot missile batteries to Turkey as a precaution in case the fighting in Syria spills across its borders, and a stern warning to Mr. Assad from President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that any move to use Syria's presumed arsenal of chemical weapons against the rebels would be met with a strong international response. Syria is believed to have the third-largest arsenal of such weapons after the U.S. and Russia.
Mr. Obama's and Secretary Clinton's statements came after intelligence reports that Damascus has been preparing such arms for possible use over the last few days. Although Syria still officially denies that it has chemical weapons, and says even if it did have them it would never use them against its own people, Mr. Assad's father, Hafez Assad, did just that in Hama, causing the deaths of some 10,000 civilians.
American officials fear the younger Mr. Assad may become desperate enough to carry out a similar mass slaughter if he thinks it will save his skin. A Russian source says Mr. Assad has given up hope for either victory or escape, convinced that if he stays his opponents will kill him and if he tries to leave his supporters will take his life for leaving them to face the rebels' revenge. Either way, he appears set in the course he finds himself on.
The U.S. has been reluctant to arm the rebels out of concern the weapons might fall into the hands of Islamic extremists among their ranks, as apparently happened in Libya, according to a report this week in The New York Times. Shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that could one day target Western civilian airliners are of particular concern. That Saudi Arabia and Qatar have already provided such weapons has left many Syrians thinking the U.S. is ignoring their struggle. American aid agencies and the State Department must do a far better job of publicizing the massive amount of humanitarian aid — medical equipment, hospital supplies, food, clothing and shelter — that the U.S. is sponsoring for the tens of thousands of refugees forced from their homes by the war.
The Pentagon has drawn up contingency plans against the possibility Mr. Assad is seen preparing to use chemical weapons. The most likely military response would be airstrikes aimed at Syrian government military targets and quick-response Special Operations forces on the ground to secure, remove or destroy Mr. Assad's chemical weapons stocks.
But even without direct U.S. military intervention, the regime could suddenly collapse. If Mr. Assad falls, Syria could quickly descend into chaos, with bloody reprisals against the ruling Alawite minority by Sunni militias and a breakdown of social order. That's why the U.S. needs to start planning now for the post-Assad era by expanding its existing programs to train Syrian opposition leaders in public administration and policy so they can develop a robust civil society and democratic institutions.
We can't afford to leave Syria's political future up to whoever has more arms and the most effective military organization when the shooting stops. We need to empower the country's secular and moderate elements to step up to the task of governing, and in order for them to do that they'll need our help in rebuilding their country's shattered infrastructure and repatriating thousands of refugees. If we want a democratic Syria to emerge out of the chaos and war, we must pledge to help the Syrian people build it, and then keep our promises.