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Q&A: Are Bashar al-Assad's days as Syria's president numbered?

A devastating strike at the Syrian president's military brain trust raises questions about the regime's imminent demise.

Syria assad damascus bombing coffin december 2011Enlarge
Syrian mourners carry a coffin during the mass funeral of 44 people killed in twin suicide bombings which targeted intelligence agency compounds at the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus on December 24, 2011. The bombing of a security meeting on July 18, 2012 raises questions about Assad's future. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria's civil war is escalating.

Last week, an alleged massacre in Tremseh was reported to be among the worst in the 16 month uprising. Over the past few days, violence has ripped across Damascus, the capital, raising questions about how much of his country President Bashar al-Assad really controls.

And hours ago, a bomb attack targeting a senior level security meeting killed several of President Bashar Al-Assad's key security officials, including his defense secretary and brother-in-law.

To put the events in context, GlobalPost spoke with Daniel Serwer, an expert in Syria and conflicts.

Dr. Serwer is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Formerly a US diplomat and vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, he has led peace-building work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Balkans. He also served as Executive Director of the Hamilton/Baker Iraq Study Group, and negotiated the first agreement reached at the Dayton peace talks for the Balkans.

He blogs at www.peacefare.net. Follow him on Twitter @DanielSerwer.

The interview has been edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

GlobalPost: How would you characterize today's bombing? Does this mark a turning point in the civil war? Is this the beginning of the end for the Assad government? Or is this merely a temporary setback?

Daniel Serwer: A lot of people will tell you this is the beginning of the end for the Assad government, but they’ve been saying that for 6 months and in some cases for a year.

I think it’s really too early to tell. It’s certainly a big strike against the Assad regime. But it’s very difficult to predict at this moment whether it really is a turning point in that victory for the rebellion is imminent – or whether it’s a turning point in that even more chaos is around the corner.

It could also be the beginning of a transition to democracy, or a temporary setback for Assad, though it’s very difficult for me to picture how he’s going to re-impose order even on Damascus, never mind beyond. But that doesn’t mean Assad is coming down; It just means it’s going to be a chaotic situation.

The attack appears to be highly sophisticated, succeeding in taking down several key figures at once. What does this tell us about the rebels, their ability to infiltrate the regime?

Certainly someone was able to infiltrate rather well. Who it is and how they did it is still unclear, but that they were able to infiltrate the very inner circle of the regime is quite clear. I’m not sure I would necessarily describe that as highly sophisticated, but it does suggest some weaknesses in the regime structure.

Will the loss of these key people make it much more difficult for Assad to run Syria?

Yes. These are experienced people who are at the top of the hierarchy. Yet it would be foolish to imagine that there won’t be deputies who will step into their places, that he won’t find someone else. He’s not really running Syria anyway at this point. He’s running his side of the civil war and there are enough people who believe their lives are at stake that he’s going to find people who will fight this war for him.

Both the Free Syrian Army and the Islamist rebel group Liwa al-Islam are claiming responsibility for the attack. If it was indeed the Islamists who staged the bombing, is this cause for concern for the West?

Yes, it’s cause for concern. I think the real concern has to be about what happens after the Assad regime goes. If it falls to an Islamist group that is not oriented towards the democratic transition, that’s going to be quite different than if it falls to a relatively democratically oriented people in the Syrian National Council. I think it’s very unclear what the post-Assad direction of Syria is likely to be.

If Syria fell to Islamists, what would be the most significant concern?

Let's not talk about Islamists. The Syrian National Council has lots of Islamists — the Muslim Brotherhood is well represented there.

The real question is, if it falls to extremists and they are able to exert control, you could end up with a group in charge of Syria that is highly intolerable of its several minorities — Christian, Alawite, Druse and Kurds. You'd be living with a very serious risk of a post-Assad Syria that is not a liberal democracy.

According to live feeds from Damascus, Syrians are quite fired up about the bombing. What will this do to rebel morale?

I would imaging that it will heighten morale significantly, but morale is not the only factor behind who wins in warfare. The fact that the rebels are crowing at the moment blind us to the very real that there lie ahead some very bad days, even for the rebellion in Syria.

The day after the Assad regime is a very dangerous at which many lives are at risk. We need to ask ourselves whether the international community is really ready for that day.

How should the international community respond?

I think a Security Council resolution that reiterates the need for a democratic transition in Syria is in order, additional sanctions are in order, but I also think that the international observers should be renewed, because an international presence in Syria if the Assad regime comes down will be necessary. And if it doesn't come down, it's also necessary, in order to maintain a level of transparency.

The observers haven't been able to do what we would like them to do — which is to arrange a peaceful transition. But they have been able to give us some transparency about what's happening in Syria. They've assigned responsibility for some of the atrocities, and that's a very positive factor in keeping the international community informed.

I may be the only guy on earth who thinks the international observers are useful, but I think they have been.

You mentioned that the day after an Assad fall would be a particularly dangerous one. Can you elaborate on that, and contrast it to post-Gaddafi Libya, which hasn't been flawless but they did manage to pull off elections.

Right. They've been doing quite nicely in Libya.

The short answer is that, first of all, Syria's conflict has been very violent. Second, the Syrians are much less united against the regime than the Libyans were. And the Syrians don't just lack military unity, but also political unity. The Syrian National Council has found it very difficult to put forth a vision for the future of Syria that everyone can share. And Syria is a much more diverse society in terms of ethnicity and sects. It has very significant minorities, a number of which are strong supporters of the Assad regime — not universally, necessarily.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/120718/qa-are-bashar-al-assads-days-syrias-president-numbere