President Bashar Al-Assad yesterday used weighty rhetoric to deter further support for the rebel forces, claiming that if they were to take power, it would "lead to a state of instability for years and maybe decades to come." Assad may be right to point out the dangers of a quickly and completely destabilised Syria. The rebel forces are disparate and some factions contain elements of extremism, including the Al-Nusra Front. Israel is already worried by incursions into the Golan Heights by rebel forces. There is also a great deal of concern amongst foreign leaders as to the whereabouts of chemical weapons within Syrian borders and the fact that they may fall into terrorist hands with a change of power. A concern not lightened by the Syrian authorities, as yesterday they refused entry to a UN group charged with inspecting the use of chemical weapons.
The rhetoric used by Assad suggests a worried leader on the back foot, adamant that he still lives in Damascus despite recent rebel advances on the city and having lost swathes of the country in the North and East. He condemns Western powers and claims that "the Turkish government is knee-deep in Syrian blood." Yet he fails to acknowledge the government forces part in the huge toll the war has taken on Syria. According to UN figures, the death toll is above 70,000. Here at the Next Century Foundation we continue to record a high death toll (last month the total was 5,399). More than a million refugees have left the country and, according to the Syrian Red Crescent, more than four million have been displaced internally.
It is clear that the sooner the conflict can be brought to a close, the better. The rebels are unlikely to be appeased by anything other than the removal of Assad from power, especially since the resignation of the moderate Moaz Al-Khatib from the opposition leadership. However, there is an element of truth in Assad's assertion. The shift of power must be handled carefully, as a rapid overthrow may lead to wider destabilisation in the region.