Below: As heavy urban fighting in Damascus and Aleppo erodes the cohesion of President Bashar al-Assad's military and security apparatus and prospects for him retreating to a "rump state" harboring his Alawite faith fade, the regime appears fatally damaged.
By Victor Kotsev
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be mortally wounded, but its rule is not yet over.
Assad tried to stick to the narrative that national unity could be salvaged by appointing three Sunni Muslims, all of them his hard-line supporters, to fill in for the security chiefs who were assassinated last week.
"The notorious Rustum Ghazali, who ruled Lebanon with an iron fist, is among them," the prominent Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, Joshua Landis, wrote in his blog. "This is an effort to keep the Sunni-Alawi alliance alive. Baathist rule has been built on the Sunni-Alawi alliance, which has all but collapsed since the beginning of the uprising. The defections of high level Sunnis recently underscores that it is moribund."
The influential American-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor concurs with the conclusion that despite all his efforts, Assad's days are numbered. "We have argued that so long as the military and security apparatus remain intact and effective, the regime could endure," Stratfor wrote in a recent analysis. "Although they continue to function, neither appears intact any longer; their control of key areas such as Damascus and Aleppo is in doubt, and the reliability of their personnel, given defections, is no longer certain ... The regime has not unraveled, but it is unraveling". 
Nor does the option of Assad retreating to some sort of an Alawite "rump state" seem particularly viable. Some commentators have suggested that such a state could center around the Western port city of Latakia, a traditional Alawite stronghold (to see a map of the Syrian conflict, click here).
"Recent attacks, such as the massacre on July 12 in the village of Tremseh, appeared calculated to push Sunnis in western Syria out of their traditional homes and east, away from potential Alawite strongholds," the newspaper writes.
However, the long-term sustainability of such a state is almost as questionable as the methods that may be implemented to usher it in. As Joshua Landis writes in a separate blog post,
Most importantly, an Alawite state is indefensible. Alawite shabiha (thugs) and brigades of Special Forces may fall back to the Alawite Mountains when Damascus is lost. But how long could they last? As soon as Syria's Sunni militias unite, as presumably they will, they would make hasty work of any remaining Alawite resistance.
Whoever owns Damascus and the central state will own the rest of Syria in short order. They will have the money, they will have legitimacy, and they will have international support. Syria could not survive without the coast. More importantly, it would not accept to do without the coast and the port cities of Tartus and Latakia. All the coastal cities remain majority Sunni to this day. 
Comparisons with Libya are unavoidable even when diplomats seek to distance themselves from them.
She rejected references to the situation in the Libyan city of Benghazi just prior to the aerial campaign against former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, saying that "There are a vast number of differences," yet her words suggested that the differences pertain more to Assad's military strength and foreign backers, as well as to the lack of unity among the opposition, than to the American desire for action. 
There are signs of a new initiative to unite the Syrian rebels. It is spearheaded by General Manaf Tlass, dubbed "Syria's most prominent defector," who abandoned Assad several weeks ago.
"I will try to help as much as I can to unite all the honorable people inside and outside Syria to put together a roadmap to get us out of this crisis, whether there is a role for me or not," Tlass told the newspaper Asharq Alawsat on Thursday during a visit in Saudi Arabia.
In any case, however, neither rebel unity nor a foreign intervention in Syria appear to be imminent, whereas the decline in rebel momentum could mirror the failed opposition offensive in the city of Homs earlier this year, when speculations that Assad was finished proved similarly premature.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime seems to be implementing a lesson or two of its own from the Libyan case. Whether or not it was involved in any of the recent terror attacks in Bulgaria and elsewhere ~ Gaddafi also had threatened Europe with terror ~ Assad appears ready to take the fight into his enemies' territory, for example by allowing greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria as a way of destabilizing Turkey.
In the last days, the Syrian army reportedly withdrew from at least six Kurdish towns, where a coalition of Kurdish (mostly political) forces took over. The Syrian Kurds are split among themselves, and have allegedly vowed to stay neutral in the civil war, but at least some of them are allied with Assad and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which is responsible for much of the terror activity in Turkey. The situation in which the PKK would have a base to operate freely in Syria is unpalatable to the Turkish leaders, and mirrors Ankara's treatment of Assad.
The Turkish attempts in the last months to lure the Kurds by cultivating a close relationship with Iraq's Kurdish leadership may not work well in Syria, where the regime has enjoyed a long relationship with the PKK. As a Kurdish politician told the web site Rudaw.net, "The areas where these Kurdish factions have raised their flags are those Bashar al-Assad gave to them." 
Reportedly, Western attempts to oust Assad are running aground also on account of deficient intelligence-gathering operations.
"Interviews with US and foreign intelligence officials revealed that the CIA has been unable to establish a presence in Syria, in contrast with the agency's prominent role gathering intelligence from inside Egypt and Libya during revolts in those countries," the Washington Post wrote on Tuesday.
"With no CIA operatives on the ground in Syria and only a handful stationed at key border posts, the agency has been heavily dependent on its counterparts in Jordan and Turkey and on other regional allies." 
It is believed that Russia has the most extensive intelligence network in Syria, greater even than that of Iran. It would be the most likely culprit for a palace coup ~ as one scenario has it ~ as well as the best potential broker for a deal for Assad's voluntary ouster. As a Russian diplomat hinted last week, Russia may not be opposed to such a deal. 
It is important to pay close attention to Russia's dealings with the Syrian opposition, as well as with figures such as Manaf Tlass.
It appears, therefore, that conditions are ripe for the Assad regime to hang on to power for a while longer, and for the violence to continue to escalate.
1. Consequences of the Fall of the Syrian Regime, , Stratfor, July 24, 2012
2. Assads' family rule makes an Alawite state impossible, The National, July 24, 20123. Five Reasons Why There Will Not Be an Alawite State, Syria Comment, July 21, 2012
4. US fears Syria planning massacre in Aleppo, al-Jazeera, July 27, 2012.
5. Kurdish Liberation Movement in Syria Continues Despite Criticism, Rudaw, July 26, 2012.
6. In Syria conflict, U.S. struggles to fill intelligence gaps, Washington Post, July 24, 2012.
7. Syria: Russian diplomat claims Assad 'ready to give up power', The Daily Telegraph, July 20, 2012.
8. US position on Syria directly endorses terrorism – Lavrov, Russia Today, July 25, 2012.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing
As articulated in the Annan plan, it might have been a workable, even desirable option for the Syrian people as well as the Assad regime.
But Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were determined not to let it happen. And the United States, in another case of the Middle Eastern tail wagging the American dog, has downsized its dreams of liberal-democratic revolution for the reality of regime collapse driven in significant part by domestic thugs and opportunists, money and arms funneled in by conservative Gulf regimes, violent Islamist adventurism, and neo-Ottoman overreach by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.
But a funny thing happened last week. The Assad regime didn't collapse, despite an orchestrated, nation-wide assault (coordinated, we can assume, by the crack strategists of the international anti-Assad coalition): a decapitating terrorist bombing in the national security directorate, near-simultaneous armed uprisings in the main regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo, and the seizure of many of Syria's official border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.
The border adventures revealed some holes in the insurgents' game, as far as showing their ability to operate independently outside of their strongholds to hold territory, and in the vital area of image management.
Juan Cole of the University of Michigan laid out the big picture strategic thinking behind some of the border seizures on his blog, Informed Comment:
If the FSA can take the third crossing from Iraq, at Walid, they can control truck traffic into Syria from Iraq, starving the regime. The border is long and porous, but big trucks need metalled roads, which are few and go through the checkpoints. Some 70% of goods coming into Syria were coming from Iraq, because Europe cut off trade with the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad.The rebels are increasingly in a position to block that trade or direct it to their strongholds. 
The top official said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs.
"Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers." 
They reportedly also raised the al-Qaeda flag.
By Saturday evening, a group of some 150 foreign fighters describing themselves as Islamists had taken control of the post.
These fighters were not at the site on Friday, when rebel fighters captured the post.
Some of the fighters said they belonged to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while others claimed allegiance to the Shura Taliban. They were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket launchers and improvised mines.
The fighters identified themselves as coming from a number of countries: Algeria, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates - and the Russian republic of Chechnya… 
Aside from occupation of frontier posts by the kind of hardened foreign Islamist fighters that, before Bashar al-Assad's removal became a pressing priority, served as the West's ultimate symbol of terrorism run amok, things have gotten quite lively at the Syria/Turkish border.
It is alleged that, in order to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Syrian border forces to fight the insurgents in the heartland, the Syrian regime has turned over local security to Syrian Kurdish political groups, and Kurdish flags are flying all over Syria's northeast.
Not to be left out of the rumpus, the president of the virtually-independent region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, announced that Syrian Kurd army deserters sheltering in northern Iraq have been organized into an expeditionary force that will, at the proper time, return home to keep order in the Kurdish areas of Syria.
Presumably the strongly pro-American Iraqi Kurds under Barzani can easily be induced to inflict mischief on Assad, but at the same time they will feel little incentive to minimize the Kurdish nationalist headache Erdogan has created for himself on Turkey's southeastern border. 
Now that the democratic opposition, the overseas agitators of the Syrian National Congress, and the insurrectionists of the Free Syrian Army have all taken their shot at the Assad regime and failed, at least for the time being, attention is once again turning to "the Yemen solution", a k.a. regime restructuring featuring the symbolic removal of an embattled strongman, lip service toward democratic reform, and the continuation of business as usual under a selected junta of more palatable regime strongmen.
Or, as the Syrian National Council put it on July 24:
"We would agree to the departure of Assad and the transfer of his powers to a regime figure, who would lead a transitional period like what happened in Yemen," SNC spokesman Georges Sabra told AFP. 
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to plan a political transition in his violence-plagued country.
"We do believe that it is not too late for the al-Assad regime to commence with planning for a transition, to find a way that ends the violence by beginning the kind of serious discussions that have not occurred to date," Clinton told reporters … 
But all of a sudden, it seems not everyone is singing from the same hymnal:
Earlier Tuesday, some Western media reported that SNC spokesman George Sabra said the main opposition group was willing to accept a transition led temporarily by a member of the current government if President Bashar al-Assad agrees to step down.
Makhous said the opposition would not agree to accept talks with the Assad government as "no persons associated with murders of the Syrian people could participate in the talks." 
One catches hints of a possible disconnect between Gulf-state intransigence (which has driven the "Assad must go" rhetoric of the last year and a half") and US and EU dreams of a quick, face-saving resolution along the lines of Yemen.
A "Yemen solution" would probably also be acceptable to Russia and China. Instead of Syria becoming a pro-Western/Sunni dagger aimed at the heart of Shi'ite Iraq and Iran, it would instead become a dysfunctional, expensive, and bloody liability for the West and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In other words, just like Yemen.
There are, however, problems with the Yemen precedent for Syria that go beyond the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to settle for anything less than a triumphal march into a conquered Damascus.
The key event in the "Yemen solution" was President Saleh getting blown up in his palace mosque. Although he wasn't killed, he was injured badly enough that he was removed from the scene for several months as he underwent medical treatment, allowing a new crew in the presidential palace to undertake the transition.
The anti-Assad coalition had worse luck with the bomb in Damascus; Assad was not present at the meeting, he is still the face of the Syrian regime, and his inconvenient presence makes it more difficult for the international community to claim victory in principle while allowing the regime to survive in practice.
There's another problem with the Yemen solution; although there are continued news reports, leaks, and analyses ~ and, most recently, a proposal by the Arab League ~ ballyhooing the idea that Assad can receive immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity under the International Criminal Court if he agrees to leg it to Russia, there is no way for the coalition to provide a convincing guarantee to him, let alone his family and associates under the current state of affairs.
The fact is, the entire purpose of the Treaty of Rome, which set up the International Criminal Court, was to prevent this sort of sordid deal-cutting.
In practice the ICC is something of an unhappy mutant. Its fundamental premise of "universal jurisdiction" ~ the idea that bad guys could be prosecuted in the courts of any member country - was undermined by the United States and other countries not to keen to see their political and military supremos vulnerable to prosecution in some remote do-goodery or hostile jurisdiction.
The result was an unwieldy two-tier system. Those states with a masochistic desire to permit other nations to interfere in their criminal affairs ratified the treaty, becoming "states parties". Within this exclusive club, universal jurisdiction reigns.
States that merely signed the treaty - "non states parties" - are not subject to universal jurisdiction. Their miscreants can only be brought to justice by the consent of their own governments or if the UN Security Council decided that the overriding demands of international security merited the opening of a prosecution.
This was still not enough for the United States, which took the ungraceful step of "unsigning" the Treaty of Rome.
Yemen had placed itself in the exalted company of the United States by also "unsigning" the treaty in 2007, so a successor regime has no immediate recourse to the ICC and ex-president Saleh's fate is in the sympathetic hands of the United States and the rest of the UN Security Council.
Ironically (or predictably) the Yemen solution has short-changed the law-and-democracy friendly opposition we supposedly cared so much about, in favor of placing a new, tractable regime (best described as the old regime sans Saleh) in power.
This does not sit well with Tawakkul Karman, a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011for her brave pro-democracy and women's-rights activism in Yemen. She has been fruitlessly calling on the UNSC to direct the ICC to open a prosecution of
Saleh. After a visit to The Hague, she met with a reporter from AFP:
Because Yemen has not signed the court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, the only way the prosecutor could launch an investigation is if the United Nations Security Council tells him to.
"This is unfair," Karman said on the steps of the court's headquarters. "They have to find a new way to bring everyone who is killing his people to here, to this building." 
Libya had signed but not ratified the treaty; so it took a UN Security Council resolution to place Muammar Gaddafi and his family and associates within the jurisdiction of the ICC while they were still in power.
Syria is in the same boat ~ a signer but not a ratifier. With the current regime in place, it would indeed take a UN Security Council resolution to get Assad and his associates on the hook for war crimes under an ICC prosecution, and that simply isn't going to happen.
However, if Assad were to leave power, a successor regime in Syria can issue a declaration submitting itself to ICC jurisdiction retroactively, in order to cover crimes against humanity committed by prior leaders back to the date of the court's establishment in 2002.
That, indeed, is what happened in C๔te d'Ivoire, when the current government was turned over the former president, Laurent Gbagbo, to the ICC for prosecution for crimes against humanity allegedly committed while he tried to cling to power following a lost election in 2010. 
Given the intense rancor surrounding the bloody crackdown in Syria and the crimes against humanity that were undoubtedly committed, it would appear extremely difficult for the international coalition to offer a convincing assurance that a victorious opposition (which, in addition to rebels bought and paid for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, also includes a large number of principled and righteously and rightfully incensed Syrians) would not, as its first order of business, call on the ICC to prosecute quite a few leaders of the previous regime for crimes against humanity.
This was a point made by Navi Pillay, head of the UN Human Rights Commission. Reportage at the time characterized Pillay as gratuitously adding complications that would make it harder to cut a deal with Assad, but she was simply making a statement of fact.
So the offer to allow Assad to go into exile with a promise of immunity is unlikely to sway him, his backers in Russia and China, or the military and security officers nervously regarding the red harvest of judicial and extra-judicial revenge that would follow any regime overthrow.
With the Syrian regime proving resistant to a quick collapse, and anti-Assad sentiment within the regime stifled by fear of victor's justice, what's Plan B?
IT SEEMS TO BE SEND IN THE CLOWNS.
In other words, find an ex-regime figurehead who is at least superficially palatable to the Syrian populace and sufficiently obedient to the foreign coalition, and can also persuade the Assad regime that his first act will be to push a bill through the (presumably unrepresentative, hand-picked, and tractable) transitional legislature granting a graceful exit to Assad and amnesty to his associates (aside from some carefully-chosen scapegoats) from prosecution for their past crimes in the name of reconciliation.
(It should be noted in passing that the ICC is not supposed to recognize this kind of legislated impunity and the victims of Assad and the Ba'ath regime would still have the right to apply to the ICC prosecutor to open a case, but presumably this can be finessed.) 
The initial candidate for the exalted role of transition leader is Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, who fled Syria amid widespread huzzahs a few weeks ago.
He is also, apparently, France's great hope for clout in Syria, as this priceless excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor reveals:
Now, Mustafa [his father] and Tlass's sister, Nahed Ojjeh, are living in Paris, where Ms. Ojjeh is a prominent socialite who once dated a former French foreign minister.
"France has a longstanding relationship with the Tlass family, going back to the 1980s. Manaf's sister … throws lavish dinner parties and infiltrated the French political and media elites," says Mr. Bitar."When she became the mistress of a foreign minister, there was a national security risk for France, but the president then chose to turn a blind eye because he felt there was need for backchannel diplomacy between France and the Assad regime.
"Given these old ties, France today might be thinking of grooming Manaf Tlass and counting on him to play an important role in the post-Assad transition phase." 
Perhaps this is because Tlass, with his embrace of non-Islamist financial and moral values, would present a reassuring secularist face to the West while at the same time serving as a compliant accessory to Gulf interests.
The man is Nawaff al-Faris, formerly Syria's ambassador to Iraq. According to an interlocutor communicating with the As'ad AbuKhalil's Angry Arab blog, Ambassador Nawaff is quite a piece of work, having earned his bones with the Ba'ath regime as battalion commander during the legendary Hama massacre of 1982, the action that routed the Muslim Brotherhood from Syria at the cost of around 20,000 lives in that one city:
"I know about this man, Nawaf al-Faris, the defecting ambassador of Syria to Iraq, from the ... the Hama area. Hama people remember him well. He was commanding one of the battalions that committed atrocities there in 1982, and i heard it from Hama and Halab older people (now dead) that he personally threw 16 young boys youngest was 6, from the rooftop of a building before their parents' eyes.
…he was very close to the regime, as much as the Tlass clan, except that he commands a larger following among Bedouins in the Euphrates area…his flight through Qatar, rather than Turkey, means that the Qataris have big plans for him in post-Assad Syria. You will hear his name again. Avery very dirty and cruel man." 
However, when we talk about "events spinning out of control in Syria" we can also take it as a reference to the international game plan for Syria.
Indirectly enabling regime collapse through a disorderly collection of guerillas is no substitute for sending in a big, shiny army to occupy the capital and dictate events.
Therefore, even as international support for the insurgency escalates, the anti-Assad coalition finds it particularly frustrating that China and Russia have refused to vote for escalated UN Security Council sanctions that, under the pretext of supporting the moribund Annan peace initiative, might expedite the collapse of the Syrian regime.
For all the principled talk by Russia and China concerning non-interference and the right of the people of Syria to control their destiny, it is difficult to escape the inference that they are not particularly unhappy with the current turn of events.
After the West rounded on China and Russia for vetoing another round of sanctions against Syria, Beijing shrugged off the criticism.
People's Daily approvingly reproduced a Global Times editorial that stated:
This is a bottom line that must be upheld so as to prevent the West from overthrowing any regime at will. 
1. Syrian Rebellion Enters new Stage with Aleppo, Border operations, Informed Comment, Jul 22, 2012.
2. Syria rebels 'control all Iraq border points', AFP on Google, Jul 20, 2012.
3. Turkish truck drivers accuse rebel fighters of looting, AFP on Google, Jul 22, 2012.
4. Iraqi Kurds train their Syrian brethren, Aljazeera, Jul 23, 2012.
5. Syria rebels would accept transition led by regime figure, Hurriyet Daily News, Jul 24, 2012.
6. Clinton urges Syria's Assad to plan political transition, Xinhua, Jul 25, 2012.
7. Syria opposition denies reports on forming coalition government, Xinhua, Jul 24, 2012.
8. Yemen's Nobel laureate calls for ICC trial for Saleh, Tehran Times, Nov 29, 2011.
9. Gbagbo's ICC Transfer Advances Justice, Human Rights Watch, Nov 29, 2011.
10. Yemen: Amnesty for Saleh and Aides Unlawful, Human Rights Watch, Jan 23, 2012.
11. As blast rattles Syrian regime, defecting general reemerges in France, Christian Science Monitor, Jul 18, 2012.
12. Meet the defector: the Syrian ambassador Nawwaf Al-Faris and the Hamah massacre of 1982, Angry Arab News Service, Jul 12, 2012.
13. West wrong on Chinese public's Syria view, People's Daily, Jul 23, 2012.