If there was any writing on the wall that the Assad government never wanted to see, it was writing in Russian. Let the Americans fume, the British sigh, the Turks expostulate and the French deplore, Damascus seemed to think, as long as the Russians stayed faithful.
True, the Russians have on a number of occasions said they were not wedded to the Assad regime, but they have nevertheless been by far the most important of Syria‘s outside supporters. On Thursday Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said what would have been unthinkable even a couple of months ago – that it was entirely conceivable that the rebels would win.
He underlined this by saying that Moscow was already preparing plans to evacuate its citizens. He did not say that a rebel victory was desirable. Indeed, he said that such a victory could come only after much further bloodshed, the main responsibility for which would lie with the rebels and their western and Arab backers. But he nevertheless implied that a rebel victory was not only possible but likely. Bogdanov’s plain words will jolt the Syrian regime at a time when its military hold is slipping. The Russian perception is shared by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, who said in Brussels on Thursday that he believed the Syrian government was approaching collapse.
The new leader of the Syrian National Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, had earlier said that the Syrian people no longer need international help to oust Bashar al-Assad. The coalition is a flimsy umbrella organisation whose lines of communication with, let alone control of, the fighters on the ground in Syria is very limited. Yet Khatib is nevertheless probably reflecting a more optimistic mood among rebel commanders.
The problem for the government in Damascus has always been that, having chosen the path of repression rather than that of negotiation, it could only exert its military advantage over its relatively poorly armed opponents by using heavier and heavier weapons. Each such escalation, unavoidably indiscriminate, alienates more people, even when civilians also blame the fighters for bringing death down on their heads. First, it was artillery, then bombers, and now, it was alleged on Thursday, ground-to-ground missiles. The Scuds said to have been used are particularly imprecise.
Whether or not they achieve their objective of battering rebel forces in and around a northern air base, they will almost certainly kill innocents as well. As bad as the immediate effect, there is a further terrible consequence, in the shape of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Our report on families who have fled the battle zones is another sad reminder of the fate of those who have not only lost family members but have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed. They are under-nourished and sick, with only makeshift shelter in the dismal cold drizzle of the Middle Eastern winter. Some of them will die, many more if aid does not get through to them quickly.
The final, and most vicious, escalation would be the use of the chemical weapons the Syrian government possesses. This is a red line that the Syrian government itself has said it will not cross and, in any case, the use of chemical weapons would be bound to affect its own troops and supporters as well as its enemies.
Nevertheless the Americans have said their surveillance suggests the recent movement of some of these weapons. The United States may in truth be more concerned about such weapons in a post-Assad era than it is about them now. If they were deployed, let alone used, it would be a clear signal that the Assad government was in its final desperate moments, moments when, perhaps, the departure of senior figures might be negotiated. That is a point not yet reached, and it is right to remember that the regime has been written off too casually before. But it is a merciful fact that wars must end, and the end of this one may be closer than we think.