Bashar Assad’s days as Syria’s leader appear numbered. As the fighting drags on between government and rebel forces, the question increasingly is not whether he will leave, but when and how. The United States must do what it can to influence the terms of his departure and avert the chaos he could leave behind.
Anti-Assad forces overran two military bases in northern Syria last week. The rebel faction responsible in both cases was one of the Islamist groups — some of which claim ties to al-Qaeda — that are a growing presence in the opposition.
Also last week, President Obama and, separately, more than 100 other nations recognized the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The White House warned Assad’s government against using its suspected chemical-weapons stockpile against the rebels. And Mr. Obama announced that he was sending two batteries of Patriot missiles and about 400 U.S. troops to Turkey as part of a 1,200-member NATO contingent to guard against Syrian missiles being fired into Turkey.
The Russian foreign ministry’s Middle East envoy hinted last week that Assad could lose his fight to retain power. A day later, a government spokesman backpedaled, saying Russia remains committed to a political solution in Syria. Still, experts speculated that support for Assad in Moscow may be crumbling.
As Assad’s grip on power slips, it is not clear what he may do. Residential areas controlled by rebels have come under missile attack. This week, a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus was targeted with deadly effect.
In addition to the threat of chemical warfare, experts fear that Assad might trigger a broader conflict. Fighting that could threaten the fragile stability of the entire region has spilled over into Turkey and Lebanon.
When Assad does fall, the rebel coalition may not be able to prevent Syria from imploding, especially if Islamist influence continues to grow. In addition to its majority Arabs, Syria is home to many Kurds, Turkmen, Palestinians, Druze, and Iraqi refugees. Nearly three-quarters of the population is Sunni Muslim, but 13 percent of Syrians — including Assad’s ruling Alawite sect — are Shiite, and 10 percent are Christian.
Whoever ends up ruling Syria after Assad goes may not consider the United States a friend. Opposition fighters and supporters are bitter that Mr. Obama has not established a no-fly zone as he did in Libya. There was anger over the U.S. decision to blacklist a Sunni rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra, as a terrorist organization.
And there is a humanitarian crisis: After 21 months of fighting, food is in short supply in some places. The World Food Program says as many as 1 million Syrians may go hungry this winter.
As many as half a million Syrians — mostly women, children, and old people — have fled their homeland. Most ended up at refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Humanitarian groups say that number could increase by summer, whether Assad is overthrown or not, straining relief efforts.
Syria is at a dangerous juncture. British Prime Minister David Cameron correctly noted that while “there is no simple answer” to the crisis, “inaction and indifference are not options.”
The United States is drawing up plans in case Syrian chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands. But the White House must do more to dissuade Assad from desperate last acts, and to encourage his replacement by a moderate government.