He can't last more than a few months, the experts said. When months flew by, they said it again: in just a few months he'll be gone. But ten months later, universally hated and despised for his brutality, Bashar Assad is still very much in control of his country.
A few days ago Assad was even blasé enough to open embattled Syria for the first time to US and European television crews and correspondents. They needed permission to move out of their hotels in central Damascus – and then only with Syrian officers in attendance, but they were allowed to interview opposition members, film freed prisoners who had been tortured, and record the terrible destruction wrought by the regime's tanks in Syrian flashpoint cities.
In other words while Assad might have lost most of the Syrian people, he is still the undisputed lord of his domain. But this might be about to change, yesterday local residents in Zabadani, an embattled mountain town near Damascus, say government troops have pulled out after two days of fighting.
After five days of alleged fighting in Zabadani, the Syrian army and rebel forces reportedly reached a cease-fire, and the Syrian army pulled back Jan. 18. This is a psychological pivot in the 10-monthlong Syrian uprising. For the first time, the Syrian government conceded territory seized by a rebel force. Thus events on the surface in contrast to two month ago, now might start to turn against Assad’s Alawite regime.
The continued presence of Arab League monitors in the country could explain the regime's apparent display of restraint in Zabadani. The regime may fear that conducting a bloody crackdown, would generate widespread condemnation of the regime that would turn the international community further against the al Assad regime. In this scenario, the regime could negotiate now and strike once the monitors leave. However, the recent rift between Damascus and the Arab League - the Gulf states leading the effort to increase Arab pressure on Syria - may not sufficiently explain this scenario.
This situation raises a key questions: Are al Assad's forces capable of retaking Zabadani? Al Assad appears weak right now. If he is not weak, he will soon act to prove it. Nevertheless, the Syrian regime's response to reports of rebels taking control of Zabadani brings the Syrian uprising to a defining moment.
Compromise happens when neither side can impose its will - and when each is afraid of becoming weaker. A temporary cease-fire is one thing, but negotiations could end up empowering the opposition, which could try to replicate successful tactics and pressure the regime into making piecemeal concessions. The regime can keep reverting to military force, but after 10 months that has not been enough.
Zabadani also gives outside powers something to help defend, should they choose to do so. Intervening in a civil war against weak and diffused rebels is one thing. Attacking Syrian tanks moving to retake Zabadani is quite another. There are no indications that this is under consideration, but for the first time, there is the potential for a militarily viable target set for outside players acting on behalf of the rebels. The existence of that possibility might change the dynamic in Syria.
However the United States is reluctant to engage in yet another complex military campaign with major spillover effects, along sectarian lines, in the wider Islamic world. At the same time, the Syrian regime has calibrated its crackdowns to avoid building the kind of moral pretense that led to the military intervention in Libya. This dynamic has led the United States to engage in quieter and less risky efforts to train and supply the Free Syria Army (see below) in Turkey -- yet U.S. reticence toward military intervention has also enabled the al Assad regime's survival.
The al Assad regime can likely hang onto power for quite some time if the United States continues to lack the bandwidth and political will to intervene in the country. This is especially true if European powers remain too wrapped up in their financial crisis to take military action, and as local parties opposed to al Assad -- including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- don't have the capability to intervene.
Even if it survives, the regime's clout in the region will emerge dramatically reduced. Syria is already losing its leverage with Hamas -- and thus a powerful tool against Israel -- now that Hamas’ exiled leadership is choosing to move its headquarters from Damascus. Hamas is warming relations with Jordan, Egypt and Qatar at the expense of the increasingly unpopular Iranian-backed Syrian Alawite regime.
Syrian influence in Lebanon remains significant. But rebels are increasingly making use of supply lines emanating from northern Lebanon, thus casting doubt on the strength of the usually pervasive Syrian intelligence and security apparatus in Lebanon. Without a strong presence there, the Syrian regime could see its influence over its web of militant proxies decline -- and actors such as the United States and Israel will see less reason to negotiate with Syria if Damascus can no longer provide a reliable check on Hezbollah’s actions.
The Syrian regime's diplomatic relationship with Ankara is also badly deteriorating. Even if a surviving Syrian regime were able to re-establish relations with its Turkish neighbor, Turkey's long-term priorities will continue to include the replacement of the Alawite regime with a Sunni government backed by Ankara.
Finally, a surviving Syrian regime would be greatly isolated from the Arab world and all the more dependent on Iran for support. But even Iranian support for the al Assad clan is not iron-clad: While Tehran wants to maintain an Alawite regime favorable to Iranian interests, Iran is not wedded to the al Assad clan. Russia, too, wants to maintain a minority regime on the Mediterranean coast -- a regime more likely to turn to Russia for foreign backing, rather than the United States or Turkey, and to allow Russia to maintain a base at Tartus. Rumors circulating in the region over the past couple of months suggest that Russia and Iran have consulted on a possible exit strategy for the al Assad clan that would leave Damascus with an Alawite regime friendly to both countries. It is still too early to tell whether the al Assad clan would acquiesce to such a plan while they might yet ride out the crisis. And even if Moscow and Tehran could help execute a largely superficial regime change, the move could backfire if new leaders are unable to consolidate control and civil conflict breaks out. What is becoming increasingly evident, however, is that survival for the Syrian regime will likely come at the cost of significantly reduced regional clout for an extended period of time.
Free Syria Army supply lines
The Free Syria Army (FSA), consists of Sunni army defectors and some Libyan mercenaries are backed by Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. With a US-NATO-Turkish-Syrian Rebel operation Center in Southern Turkey.
For the FSA to hold and defend territory in Syria, it needs lines of supply for not only weapons, but also food, water, communication devices, medical supplies and other essentials which currently are as follows.
It remains unclear whether the network that Syria has long relied on to maintain a dominant position in Lebanon will be enough to meaningfully curtail support for the FSA, particularly as the rebels involve sympathetic Sunni majorities near the border. The large amount of resources needed to combat resistance at home may be undermining Syrian intelligence efforts beyond its borders and giving the FSA the space it needs to build up its defenses in Syria. Any rebel supply lines from Lebanon will remain inherently vulnerable to the Syrian regime, but the apparently increasing rebel traffic across this border does not bode well for Syria's defenses at home or for its position in Lebanon.