President Bashar al-Assad's own future is now significantly less relevant to whatever will happen next in Syria and external intervention, in some form, is more likely, according to a new report from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
The RUSI Syria Crisis Briefing 'A Collision Course for Intervention' claims the problem of containing the Syrian conflict; preventing it sparking even greater violence, fragmenting neighbouring countries and even provoking cross-border invasions, is now more urgent than dampening the violence inside Syria itself.
However loathe western governments have been to embrace a creeping intervention in the Syria crisis, the RUSI paper claims, the events of recent days have created a step change in the situation that will make a hands-off approach increasingly difficult to maintain.
'Whether or not Assad falls, the question of military intervention will remain a live issue,' writes report contributor Colonel Richard Kemp.
'External intervention has been under way in Syria for months, with Russia arming the regime. At the same time Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with US and Turkish facilitation, have been arming and funding the opposition; and this covert support has been substantially responsible for the progress opposition forces have made in recent weeks. Western political leaders may have no appetite for deeper intervention. But as history has shown, we do not always choose which wars to fight - sometimes wars choose us.'
Drawing on his experience as commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Kemp examines the question of military intervention offering a detailed, sober and pragmatic assessment of a range of different options available, as well as the risks associated with each.
'Military planners have a responsibility to prepare for intervention options in Syria for their political masters in case this conflict chooses them. Preparation will be proceeding today in several Western capitals and on the ground in Syria and in Turkey.'
'They will however have grave reservations over the consequences and the cost of intervention as well as the geopolitical implications. Aside from the stance of Russia and China, the absence of a coherent opposition movement that could replace Assad without potentially increasing bloodshed will be high among those reservations. Up to the point of Assad's collapse, we are most likely to see a continuation or intensification of the under-the-radar options of financial support, arming and advising the rebels, clandestine operations and perhaps cyber warfare from the West. After any collapse, however, the military options will be seen in a different light.'
Both Dr Jonathan Eyal and Shashank Joshi assess Syria's immediate future post-Assad and the potential implications which are reverberating around the Middle East and increasingly within western capitals.
'Western governments which have long worked for Assad's departure should now begin to fear what may lie in store. For, instead of imploding as other Arab countries did when they were gripped by revolutions, Syria will explode, disgorging its troubles across the entire Middle East, with potentially catastrophic consequences which will need to be managed, since they look unlikely to be avoided,' writes Dr Eyal.
'Either way, the fight for Syria is set to shape the future Middle East.' concludes Eyal.
Reflecting on last week's series of defections, assassinations, and the loosening grip on Damascus, Shashank Joshi warns of 'a high probability of sudden and unpredictable collapse' which would be destabilising for the region if left unchecked.
'If state authority were not established within a reasonable period after collapse, the longer-term prospects for a democratic, stable Syria would shrink even further because local militias would gain strength, helped along by foreign powers eager to cultivate clients - a process familiar to us from Lebanon's civil war,' writes Joshi.
Although the Assad regime recently pledged that no chemical weapons would be used for 'internal developments', the chemical weapon stocks themselves pose a significant international dilemma in a post-Assad Syria.
Paul Schulte outlines that the infrastructure for this arsenal is 'dauntingly extensive and dispersed', including potentially five chemical agent manufacturing plants and several dozen additional storage sites some of which are in hardened bunkers. Schulte argues that 'perhaps as many as 75,000 troops' will be required to safeguard and safely dispose of Syria's substantial chemical weapons stockpile thus decreasing the risk of terrorist chemical attack in the Middle East and beyond. Another contributor Michael Codner suggests a starting point for calculations of full scale intervention would be at least 300,000 troops. However, such an extensive undertaking carries its own dangers warns Schulte.
'Large numbers of Western (or even Jordanian) troops scattered around a major Arab country would undoubtedly attract attacks, including suicide bombings, and create a major force protection problem.'
The RUSI paper's contributors delve further into the internal and external aspects of this conflict, offering a sobering assessment of the prospects for Syria and the region. The Briefing analyses the changing political dynamic, not to recommend or condemn any particular course of action, but to understand the implications of the situation as it evolves.
To read the RUSI Syria Crisis Briefing 'A Collision Course for Intervention' please visit http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C500F639757A57/
NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. Any enquiries and interview requests, please contact : Daniel Sherman / +44(0)20 7747 2617 / +44 (0) 7917 373 069 / firstname.lastname@example.org
2. RUSI is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.