Syria has two friends left - and more enemies

The double blow this week to the Syrian régime - official isolation in the Arab world and the audacious attack by defectors against an Air Force Intelligence compound near Damascus - is further proof that time is running out for Bashar al-Assad. However, neither spell the end.

Even before the Arab League's decision on Saturday to suspend Syria, President Assad had few friends left in the Arab world. The stream of images emerging from Syria showing the slaughter of civilians has made it impossible for Arab governments, wary of their standing in this tense period, to identify with Damascus.

Syria's sole remaining allies are the other two members of the "axis of evil": Iran, and Hizbollah in Lebanon. Although the Iranians have begun to quietly meet rebel representatives, they are still funding the government. And while aid also keeps arriving from Lebanon, Arab denunciations will not make Assad scale down the violence.

The defectors have proved this week that they are now a force to be reckoned with. Their targeting of the Air Force Intelligence, one of the main organs of repression, will certainly resonate with Syrian civilians.

But there is still no clear indication of exactly what contribution the defectors can make. Syrian rebel sources have predicted that powerful members of the Allawite community will turn against Assad and try to cut a deal with the opposition to prevent internecine violence, but so far there has been so sign of this happening.

One IDF officer who has followed Syrian affairs for years is convinced that "Assad will be gone in a matter of weeks. He has ruined relations with his own people and with almost all the major power players in the region."

Another veteran analyst was more cautious: "The end of Assad could still take some months. The trend is irreversible but he is still showing no signs of wavering. Plus we still have not detected a weakening of Allawite control of the military and security forces."

Turkey, until a few months ago Syria's ally and main trading partner, holds the key. Twenty thousand refugees have already fled across the Turkish border and, if Turkey allows armed resistance groups to operate from its territory, the opposition will succeed in creating a "free zone" in northern Syria. Such a zone could swiftly cut the country in two and spark a civil war.

Last updated: 12:42pm, November 17 2011