Syria’s Baathist regime is among the most opaque on earth, and an abiding uncertainty is just how much the young and inexperienced president, Bashar al-Assad, has ever really controlled the despotic apparatus he inherited from his father, Hafez. So there is inherent plausibility in the story current among diplomats in Damascus: When Bashar picked up the phone on February 14 and was told that former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had been blown up, he went ashen with shock. It was witnessed by the Western visitor he was receiving at the time.

Of course, there had always been the strongest suspicions that Syria masterminded this most fateful political assassination, and the report of UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis has now all but confirmed them. In doing so, he has also added critical weight to the longstanding expectation that this most damaging of self-inflicted injuries would eventually confront the regime with an existential crisis–one that, thanks to the legacy of its long misrule, could easily degenerate into a national crisis, even civil war.

Among the suspects Mehlis names are those two pillars of Assad family rule, Bashar’s brother Maher and his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat. Mehlis also strongly implies Bashar’s own complicity, with the account of a meeting with Hariri during which Bashar reportedly threatened to “break Lebanon on your head.” Yet the diplomat’s tale suggests that though Bashar must have been aware of the ways his father’s old guard dealt with defiers of Baathist power (Lebanese politicians conspicuous among them) and of the likelihood that the old guard would apply those methods to the troublesome Hariri, he was genuinely aghast when they actually did. And the tale coincides with what a lot of Syrians still desperately want to believe: that Bashar is fundamentally different from that old guard and its new guard successors; that he is a reformist at heart; and that reforms emanating from the apex of the system would be the best and perhaps the only way of achieving an orderly transition from despotism to democracy.

Only five days before Mehlis released his report, but partly in response to hopes for change that his inquiry had already aroused, the still weak but growing opposition promulgated a platform for reform and invited “people of the regime” to join it. They pledged to “work together to put an end to despotism…and do whatever is necessary to launch a process of democratic change in the country.” The well-known writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a former seventeen-year inmate of Baathist jails, hailed this “Damascus Declaration” as “historic.” He did so not only because of its aims but because for the first time since the Baathists seized power in 1963, such a comprehensive range of signatories–including secularists, Islamists, Kurds and prominent personalities–were joining forces. It offers an alternative, he said, to the only choices the regime is offering: its own perpetuation on the one hand, or chaos or Islamist extremism on the other.

If Bashar has the will and a strategy to save himself and his regime, his relationship to the Hariri murder (was it indeed complicity or a fait accompli thrust upon him?) must profoundly influence which of the two courses open to him–cooperating with Mehlis or defying him–he finally and irrevocably chooses. For he cannot just go on vacillating between the two. Not surprisingly, with Mehlis’s interim verdict Bashar has veered strongly toward defiance, clearly the easier, instinctive course, in the short term at least. The “masses” took to the streets in officially inspired demonstrations against the report. Parliament declared it to be “politicized” in America’s and Israel’s interests. The newspaper Al-Thawra called it another stage in the neoconservative grand design for the Middle East. But this is a road inexorably leading to international pariahdom, to sanctions in which Europe might join the United States, to a consequent aggravation of already deteriorating economic and social conditions at home. The domestic isolation of an unloved regime will only be intensified by the fact that the Syrian people, many of whom didn’t, or didn’t want to, believe it capable of such a crime–so stupid a one at that–are coming around to concluding that the regime, as much as Americans and Zionists, is the source of their woes.

Yet even now Bashar continues, all but schizophrenically, to offer cooperation–if only he gets the “concrete evidence” he is waiting for. Cooperating means, of course, what the unanimous UN Security Council resolution now says it means: “unconditionally,” and requiring the detention and hand-over for interrogation of, among others, his own kith and kin. Such score-settling, in a system of rival power fiefdoms often aptly likened to mafia gangs, would be as normal as it would be infinitely hazardous–witness the recent “suicide” of Ghazi Kenaan, interior minister and Syria’s former proconsul in Lebanon. If in fact the Hariri killing was not Bashar’s doing, one can well imagine that his personal as well as political impulse to hazard a decisive confrontation with the old guard must be very strong. Certainly he will never come into his own till he brings the fiefdoms to heel. And if he does, he will win back the popularity, and more, among the opposition and people at large, that he has now forfeited through his continuous subservience to the old guard and its hated system.

There is actually a third choice, much mooted these days, that might help him take the plunge–though this one isn’t his alone to make. Under a grand Qaddafi-style bargain with America, he would yield up those regional assets–such as his support for Hezbollah and Palestinian militias and any control he might have over the jihadi pipeline on the porous Iraqi border–that always furnished the means to impede or assist American purposes in exchange for survival and continued mastery in his own house.

Bashar barely hides what, in his weakness, has become his strongest suit–the prospect of his collapse and the “second Iraq” it might engender. That should be almost as alarming to America as it is to the Syrians–no small irony for a US Administration that, in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, not only expected to replace him with a compliant new order in Baghdad but, with the fall of other dominos (particularly the Baathists next door), to achieve the same result throughout the region. Bashar could hardly expect George W. Bush to abort the international due process the Mehlis inquiry embodies, yet surely he can hope for some pragmatic dilution of it. After all, if in his era of “freedom and democracy” Bush was cynical enough to strike such a bargain with a minor player like Qaddafi, mightn’t he do the same with Assad, for much greater reward–the more so in that Bush is almost as embattled as the Syrian leader himself?