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Next for Syria: Showdown or stalemate?

Story highlights

  • The past few weeks have seen a flurry of activity regarding the Syrian crisis
  • Civil war threatens the country's two largest cities, including the capital of Damascus
  • A couple of high-level defections suggest possible cracks in al-Assad's inner circle
  • The U.N. Security Council will meet Thursday to vote on a possible resolution

Clashes between the Syrian military and opposition forces have made their way into the capital of Damascus, where a bombing killed three of the country's top officials, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.N. Security Council is weighing a tough resolution that could potentially lead to military intervention in the country.

And high-level defections, along with some economic red flags, suggest that al-Assad's power might be weakening under international pressure.

But do any of these recent developments mean we're any closer to the end to the Syrian crisis? Or are we looking at more of the stalemate we've seen for the past 16 months?

Civil war in the big city

More than 10,000 people in Syria have been killed since civil unrest began in March 2011, according to the United Nations. Opposition activists say the casualties are closer to 15,000.

Timeline: How the horror has unfolded

For much of the crisis, those casualties have come from smaller areas such as Daraa, Homs and Idlib.

But in the past month, fighting has moved to Syria's two largest cities: Aleppo, the country's economic hub, and Damascus, al-Assad's backyard.

"The battle for Damascus is coming," said Abdulhameed Zakaria, a former Syrian army colonel who is now part of the opposition.

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Perhaps it has already begun. An explosion at a national security building Wednesday killed Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha, Assistant Vice President Hasan Turkmani and the president's brother-in-law, Deputy Minister Assef Shawkat, state media reported. Rebels claimed responsibility for the blast, which state television said also injured Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar.

The attack represents "a massive psychological blow to the regime" and will accelerate al-Assad's demise, predicted Anthony Skinner, an analyst with the think tank Maplecroft.

Many of al-Assad's supporters also live in Damascus and to this point have been able to avoid direct conflict. Newsweek's Janine di Giovanni recently spent time with some "thriving elites" and described to CNN "a sense of delusion that this isn't going to happen to them."

With violence now closer to home, will their outlook change? Will it damage al-Assad's support or strengthen it?

"I think that for many people in Syria, there's a great fear of what will happen," di Giovanni said. "And so even while this elite continue -- or try to continue -- with their lives, most are questioning what will come after this if Assad goes. When he does go, what will become of us? Will we have to go into exile? Will we have to flee to Lebanon or Paris? What will come next?"

What is clear is that the conflict is no longer confined to a few restive cities. This is now a civil war, as confirmed this week by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It's an important distinction, because it now means that the two sides are subject to the Geneva Conventions. Going forward, anyone can be charged if they commit war crimes -- "grave breaches" of the law that include inhumane treatment and torture.

Q&A: Can the Geneva Conventions stop the carnage in Syria?

Two weeks ago, the Syrian government was accused of carrying out "a state policy of torture" in its attempts to quell unrest. The New York-based organization Human Rights Watch issued a report identifying 27 detention centers where prisoners were said to have been tortured.

"At the core, the crisis in Syria is about human rights violations," said Ole Solvang, a Human Rights Watch researcher. "That is what is driving the crisis and driving people to take up arms."

The Syrian government, however, has denied allegations of such abuse. Throughout the conflict, it has described opposition leaders as terrorists looking to destabilize the country.

Worrying signs for the regime?

Two major defections this month have fueled speculation that al-Assad's inner circle might be starting to crack.

Manaf Tlas, a Syrian military commander and son of a former defense minister, left the country to protest the government's brutality, an activist told CNN.

Days later, a high-level diplomat, Nawaf al-Fares, abandoned his post as ambassador to Iraq.

"I was at the top of the Syrian regime," al-Fares said. "But what happened in the last year during the holy revolution, all of the killing, the massacres, the refugees, and the declaration of war by Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian people, stopped any kind of hope for reform or real change. ...

"I tried during the last year and a half to convince the regime to change its treatment of the people. But I wasn't successful, so I decided to join the people."

Both Tlas and al-Fares are Sunnis, not Alawites like al-Assad. "But if the increasing number of top-level defections is a signal that the Sunni elite, which is comprised of generals, businessmen, bureaucrats and which has so far stuck with al-Assad, is now moving away from him, that's a huge shift -- and one that will ultimately bring down the regime," said CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

Global Public Square: Pressure valve off in al-Assad's Syria

Zakaria also said Syria's economy is a major concern for the regime. Western sanctions have significantly cut off Syria's oil revenue, 90% of which used to go to the European Union. Inflation has also been reported at 30%.

"Tourism and trade have, of course, plummeted," Zakaria said. "And monetary support from Iran cannot be counted on indefinitely. Tehran itself is buckling under unprecedented sanctions."

Although the United States and many of its Western allies have issued sanctions against Syria, condemning al-Assad and demanding that he leave power, they have not persuaded the U.N. Security Council to do the same. China and Russia -- two of Syria's commercial partners -- have vetoed all proposed resolutions on Syria to this point.

In the meantime, we've seen the failure of a six-point peace plan proposed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. A U.N. observer mission was suspended last month because of the heavy violence. And every week, a new horrific story seems to surface, such as the reported massacres in Tremseh and Douma.

Dark images of horror and despair smuggled out of Syria

The council is now considering a new resolution that would impose sanctions if Syria doesn't comply with Annan's peace plan and withdraw its troops and weapons from major cities. The resolution, under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, would also give the council the potential to authorize military action if necessary, something that doesn't sit well with China and Russia. Discussions are continuing, and a vote is scheduled for Thursday.

"Our experience of the past year makes it absolutely clear that the Assad regime will not do anything without further pressure," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a recent visit to Cambodia.

Al-Fares, the diplomat who defected, believes there's only one way this conflict can end.

"I support military intervention because I know the nature of this regime," he told CNN's Ivan Watson. "This regime will only go by force."