The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi by Libyan rebels supported by NATO forces focuses international attention on the five months of unrest in Syria, which has shaken one of the most tightly controlled Arab states.
Opposition figures and activists fear the successful use of force to topple Qaddafi may encourage Syrians to follow Libya’s example. Syrian protests have been mainly peaceful but there have been increasing reports of attacks on security forces.
Following are some possible scenarios in Syria and the risks and opportunities they would present:
The United Nations says 2,200 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown on dissent since protests broke out in March. Syria says over 500 soldiers and police have been killed by armed groups which it blames for the violence.
Despite growing international condemnation, Western sanctions, and escalating economic pressures from the unrest, Assad’s rule shows no sign of imminent collapse.
Nor is there any indication that the protests across the country are about to stop, although the number of protesters appears to have fallen since Assad sent troops into several major cities earlier in August.
If Assad cannot crush the protests completely, he may be able to contain their impact, staying in power despite the major upheaval and economic disruption caused by the unrest and growing international isolation.
Deal with opposition
Assad could reshuffle his ministers and bring in some opposition figures in a symbolic move that will not stop street demonstrations but may convince some that he is serious about reforms, including the promise of multi-party elections by February.
After a wave of criticism from regional countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey earlier this month, Arab states have moderated their language in recent days, hinting at a possible easing of pressure on Assad.
Many opposition figures have dismissed Assad’s promise of political reform and said they cannot talk to the authorities while the violence continues.
But if the deadlock continues, some members of the fractured opposition may feel there is no alternative to negotiation, despite the chasm of mistrust between the two sides.
So far no country has proposed carrying out in Syria the kind of intervention undertaken by NATO forces to help Libyan rebels topple Muammar Qaddafi.
But the collapse of Qaddafi’s rule has encouraged some Syrian opposition figures and protesters to support international intervention in Syria, including the idea of a Turkish buffer zone in northern Syria.
“Please! NATO help us,” read one banner, in English, at a protest in the northern province of Idlib on Friday.
But any military intervention could destabilize a region in which Assad enjoys strong support from Iran and backs groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“Any negative or bad development will affect the whole region,” Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday.
International intervention could also lead some Syrians to choose Assad over perceived foreign interference.
Analysts and some opposition activists have warned that the continuous killing may encourage people to take up arms in big numbers, pushing the country toward civil war.
“I fear that some in the opposition who are in a hurry to end the regime, who we have always warned against repeating the Libyan example, will say now it has been successful and resort to arms,” said opposition figure Louay Hussein.
Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect which makes up around ten percent of the Syrian population. Most of the demonstrations are taking place in Sunni Muslim areas.
There have been sectarian killings in some cities including Homs, but activists say so far it has been a minor part of the unrest.
Syria suffered repeated coups in the 1960s before Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, seized power in 1970 and purged his opponents from positions of power.
Despite reports of some low-level defections, and Assad’s replacement of his defense minister at the height of the military crackdown in August, the army has so far stood behind the president, unlike in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
But some activists see little prospect of Assad being toppled by street demonstrations and see a military coup as the best chance of removing him. They hope Western calls for Assad to step down and targeted sanctions against senior officials might encourage those around the president to break away or carry out a coup to avoid prosecution.
It is not clear how any new military leaders would deal with protesters’ demands for greater political freedoms.
Attention has also focused on the wealthy merchant classes of Damascus and Aleppo which have made no public move yet to disassociate themselves from Assad.
Unless they feel their interests would be protected in a post-Assad Syria, they would be reluctant to push for revolutionary change. But their patience may be tested as the economy reels from the collapse of tourism revenues and foreign investment, loss of trade and a fall in manufacturing output.
By MARIAM KAROUNY