BEIRUT Syrian President Bashar Assad's hard-line speech last Sunday is likely to trigger a new and decisive final phase of the conflict in the country. It will also promote more vigorous discussion of several critical aspects of the conflict that must be addressed quickly if the death, destruction and regional damage are to be contained.
The Assad speech merely confirmed what the regime has made clear since the outbreak of the citizen revolt against it in late March 2011: It will use massive and indiscriminate military force to crush its opponents and terrorize the civilian population into permanent submission.
Only a military solution now seems possible in Syria, and the most likely one is the collapse of the regime at some point. The opposition forces realized this last summer, during the Kofi Annan mediation effort, when two critical issues were clarified: There would be no political solution to this conflict because Assad insists on remaining in full control of the state and its resources, and, the international community that supported the opposition's efforts to overthrow the regime would not provide substantial military aid or intervene militarily to help the rebels, as had happened in Libya.
Assad's speech simply confirmed his refusal to come to terms with the fact that massive numbers of his own citizens and most governments around the world irrevocably want to remove him and his family from office.
As military actions increase all around, a handful of important political issues may now come to the fore.
The first is the international community's "responsibility to protect" civilians in cases of imminent crimes against humanity and war crimes. The United Nations estimates that someabout 60,000 people have died in the fighting in Syria. Combined with the savage nature of the killing and the steadily rising average daily death toll, all suggest that this is a moment of reckoning for the responsibility-to-protect doctrine that has been so widely debated across the world in the past three decades.
Increasingly, one wonders if the responsibility to protect applies only in cases where the vulnerable are white Europeans (Kosovo) or citizens of oil states adjacent to Europe (Libya).
The second is the question of whether to indict Assad and his top officials at the International Criminal Court, or leave them unindicted so that they have an option to leave and end the conflict that way, as happened in Yemen.
This is both a philosophical dilemma and a hard political reality: Is it best to seek justice through indictments that would probably only increase the violence and death, and may never bring anyone to trial, or end the killing by allowing Assad and his family to leave the country for a safe haven?
The third is working out an arrangement with the Alawite community in Syria so that its mainstream leaders do not choose the option of ethnic cleansing against Sunnis and retreating into an Alawite homeland as the desperate last resort in the fall of the Assad regime.
This is a critical step to foiling Assad's strategy of making the Alawites feel that their survival depends on fighting with him against everyone else in Syria who opposes him.
The fourth is establishing clear, credible and realistic transitional justice mechanisms that would hold accountable those in the Assad regime and in the opposition who are responsible for the worst war crimes being committed against the Syrian people, so as to promote a smooth transition into the post-Assad era based on respecting the rule of law and human rights.
However the transition happens, it will be critical to avoid the mistakes of Iraq, where the state structures collapsed or were destroyed, and instead to preserve the integrity of core systems of state and society, such as police, food distribution, transportation and justice.
This will need a mechanism to identify and hold accountable in court those involved in the worst crimes, while making it clear to thousands of other civil servant and security personnel that merely being part of the government system under the Assad's is not a crime.
A fifth issue that transcends Syria, but is also likely to preoccupy many people in the months ahead, is whether the current U.N. Security Council mechanism for ensuring peace and security in the world remains viable, or should be changed. The Russian-American disagreement on how to proceed on Syria paralyzed the Security Council, but did not prevent the conflict from moving ahead on the ground.
ASSAD PLANS A FIGHT TO THE END
Excerpts from a Washington Post editorial following last Sunday's speech by Syria's president.
Syrian President Bashar Assad delivered a speech Sunday that had the virtue, at least, of offering clarity. No, he insisted, he would not step down. He would not negotiate with the rebels who control much of the countryside and parts of major cities. He would not consider the compromise "transition" proposal being peddled by a U.N. envoy with the backing of his ally, Russia, as well as the United States. Instead, he said, he would fight to the end against "enemies of God and puppets of the West."
Mr. Assad is not the only one who will bear responsibility for the frightful carnage (U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay) has documented (60,000 people killed in Syria since protests began nearly two years ago). As she put it, "the failure of the international community, in particular the U.N. Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the bloodletting, shames us all." Syrians, she said, have "repeatedly asked: 'Where is the international community? Why aren't you acting to stop this slaughter?' We have no satisfactory answer to those questions. Collectively, we have fiddled at the edges while Syria burns."