Much is still not known about what happened. There is not yet any explanation for this extraordinary breach of security, raising questions about the possible role of trusted insiders. It is not clear whether the bombing was a suicide attack and no perpetrators have been identified, although two different opposition groups have claimed credit. There is even some question whether there was any bomb at all. The BBC’s Lina Sinjab reported seeing no broken windows at the scene and “no sign of any explosion” or any emergency vehicles.
The bigger uncertainties, however, are about what these dramatic events and the intense fighting in Damascus that followed portend for the future.
One result, at least in the short term, of Wednesday’s attack seems to be an escalation of the violence. The deaths of key figures must have shaken the regime. But that may make the survivors, among them Bashar’s brutal brother Maher, even more determined to fight on. Nothing we have seen in the past few days suggests that the regime has lost its appetite for killing.
Even if it is severely weakened, the regime appears to have made ominous preparations for a protracted conflict. The location of some of the worst recent massacres — which resemble the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia 20 years ago — suggest a possible plan to consolidate the Alawite stronghold in the northwest. That could mean a protracted war and possibly a de facto partition of Syria.
A third possibility would be a collapse of the regime and a victory by the opposition. One would think that would be the hoped-for outcome for those countries that call themselves “Friends of Syria”. But it was the scenario that Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, seemed most to fear when she appealed for “a political transition process” to “save the Syrian state from a catastrophic assault that would be very dangerous not only to Syria but to the region”.
US policy seems fixated on the idea that a negotiated transition to a Syria without Assad can avoid the dangers that could accompany an opposition victory. But there is little sign the Russians intend to force such an outcome and less reason to think the regime in Damascus would accept it. But hardest of all is to understand how the opposition could accept any “transition” that left some power in the hands of Assad’s cronies.
There is certainly much to worry about if the regime collapses: violence among competing armed groups; recriminations and revenge attacks against the Alawite and Christian minorities; the rise of Islamist extremists, or perhaps even elements associated with Al-Qaeda; and a loss of control over Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
But those are not the only possibilities. In Libya we have seen the first tentative signs of a more positive scenario, one in which people oppressed for decades by an anti-American dictator demonstrate a desire for a free and normal life and a productive relationship with the rest of the world. And one thing we do know: Assad’s defeat will be a defeat for the regime’s Russian and Iranian backers and a setback for Tehran’s influence in the region.
Concerns about the aftermath of a fall of the regime should have been a reason for more active support for the opposition, rather than a justification for inaction. The failure to provide the opposition with the capability to defend liberated territory has helped preserve the regime’s military advantage and prolonged the fighting.
If America and other democratic friends of Syria had been working more actively with the opposition over the past months, we all might be better prepared for the regime’s fall. For example, agreement might have been reached on the deployment, post-Assad, of an Arab peacekeeping force to give some assurance of safety for Syria’s minorities.
It’s not a question of sending Nato troops to fight in Syria — Syrians have shown they don’t need foreign troops to die for them — but they do need better weapons and matériel.
What they don’t need are more UN resolutions. In Tripoli, the Libyan capital, there is a billboard that says “Thank you for all”. It displays the flags of eight countries, with the Nato flag in the middle. There is not likely to be any similar display in Damascus.
It is too late to undo the consequences of 16 months of inaction. But, late as it is, it would be better even now to act, particularly since there is no way of knowing how much longer this bloodshed will continue or what the result will be.
Paul Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former US deputy secretary of defence. Mark Palmer is a member of the board of Freedom House.