Syria's President Bashar Assad is still clinging to power. But many governments are expecting his regime to fall - and are planning for what comes next.
It was only eighteen months ago that the US government sent an ambassador back to Syria. But Robert Stephen Ford did not stay long. In October 2011, after only ten months, the American envoy left again - for safety reasons, Washington said. The peaceful protests of the Syrian population against their government had turned into a violent conflict. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad has come under heavy international pressure for sanctioning brutal attacks against his own people.
Invitation from Paris
Until violence broke out, there were strong indications that the Syrian regime had moved closer to the West - and vice versa. Politicians from Germany, France and the United States traveled to Damascus in order to develop their contacts with the Syrian government. At the invitation of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma visited Paris in 2008. Many experts argued peace in the Middle East was not possible without Syrian involvement.
Western politicians also wanted to loosen Syria's close alliance with Iran. A previous Saudi attempt to do so had failed. In 2002, the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to intensify its relationship with the formerly hostile Syrian regime. Bashar Assad became an important Erdogan ally.
The Western politicians' policy shift was remarkable because it was assumed that Syria, together with the Shiite Hezbollah militia, was responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 - one reason why the United States withdrew its then-ambassador from Syria. For five years, the US diplomatic post remained vacant in Damascus. In late 2010, the US, with its new ambassador, tried to jumpstart Syrian-American relations. The attempt failed.
That's because for the Americans - like for many other governments - Bashar Assad cannot leave the political stage quickly enough.
"No one can predict how soon this regime will finally be brought to an end. But we know the day will come," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Istanbul on Saturday (11.08.2012).
At a press conference with her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, she announced the formation of a joint US-Turkish working group on Syria. The US and Turkey, which broke off ties with Syria in 2011, intend to strengthen their coordination. The intelligence agencies of both states and armed forces should play an important role, Clinton said.
Clinton added that the two countries had worked together closely over the course of the conflict in Syria.
"But now we need to get into the real details of such operational planning. It needs to be across both of our governments," Clinton said.
Davutoglu suggested the possible establishment of a safe zone in Syria to protect refugees from possible attacks by soldiers and fighter jets loyal to Assad. "We must prepare for an intervention," Davutoglu also said, without giving details.
There is speculation that in addition to weapons shipments to the rebels and the use of special forces on the ground, this could mean a no-fly zone to break the military and technical superiority of Assad's troops.
Clinton stressed that the Syrian opposition had to be helped after the anticipated fall of the regime in order to protect the institutions of the state and build a democratic and pluralistic government. Moreover, chemical weapons depots would have to be brought under control after the fall of the regime, the two foreign ministers said.
New task force
The United States and Turkey are not the only countries that are already preparing for what comes after Assad. In early August, the German government appointed a new task force in Berlin. Under the direction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Middle East envoy, Boris Ruge, it is intended to bring together the work of various ministries. Besides the foreign ministry, these are the ministries of defense, the interior and development.
"The German government supports a democratic, multiethnic Syria," Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "All who wish to prepare for this course will receive support from Germany if they turn to Germany."
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle supports putting Assad on trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But to avoid further bloodshed, encouraging Assad's departure into exile is also conceivable.
"If another death can be avoided by Assad leaving the country voluntarily, punishing him would not be my priority," Westerwelle said in an interview with the newspaper "Bild am Sonntag."
An initiative from France
France also expects the Assad regime to fall. President Francois Hollande said on Saturday that France would support the Syrian opposition and continue to support "a political transition in Syria." In the past week, France has stationed a group of physicians at the Jordanian-Syrian border. They are not only there to support the war refugees, but also fighters against the Syrian regime.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, however, recently made an indirect call for military intervention in Syria, triggering a storm of indignation. Sarkozy, who had campaigned for the intervention in Libya, justified his statement with Syria's "great similarities to the Libyan crisis." The former president was also criticized because he could have made an issue of intervening while he was still in office.
A major difference to the situation in Libya is that a kind of proxy war between the Sunni camp under Saudi leadership and the Iranian-backed Shiite camp has been taking place in Syria. Numerous Sunni volunteers, including radical Islamists, are fighting on the side of the Sunni insurgents. Unconfirmed reports suggest money and weapons are coming primarily from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In return, Iran supports the Assad regime. As previously happened in Bahrain, the uprising in Syria threatens to become a religious conflict. Stopping a development of this sort after a fall of the Syrian regime may be the biggest challenge for the international community.