As world leaders huddle at the United Nations to debate whether to demand Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, the smart money is already betting that his time is short. The president of Syria is a “dead man walking,” according to one U.S. diplomat, a view shared by Israel’s military and predicted by a surveyed group of foreign policy experts. Reports of Assad’s death, however, appear greatly exaggerated. The Syrian president has survived almost a year of demonstrations and growing violence, and if not pushed by outside actors he may yet cling to power.
It’s easy to see why many think Assad’s time might be up. Despite the deaths of over 5,000 protesters and the arrests of thousands more, Syrians have bravely defied the regime, which seems unable to intimidate them into submission. As the protesters have stood strong, Assad’s international support has plummeted. Although the world initially did little while Syria gunned down its own people, President Barack Obama declared in August, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” The European Union joined the United States and imposed comprehensive sanctions against the Syrian regime, including over its oil sales. Meanwhile, the Arab League has repeatedly called for a ceasefire and tried to broker a deal for Assad to hand over power, and some Arab leaders — like Jordan’s King Abdullah II — have taken the unprecedented step of demanding that a fellow head of state must go. Assad scorns these calls for regime change, but the collapse of trade and investment and massive capital flight are souring many Syrians on the government, and the cash-strapped regime will soon find it harder to pay its security services. Rather than kill their own people, thousands of soldiers have defected from the Syrian army. The pace is escalating, and many more are confined to barracks because the regime doesn’t trust them. The Free Syrian Army, apparently composed largely of defectors, has gotten stronger and is operating freely in more of the country.
Each blow has hit the regime hard, but Assad has neither bent nor broken — and he still has a number of serious assets on his side of the equation.
Look first to the loyalty of the military and security services. The opposition army is getting stronger, but it lacks tanks and other heavy weapons and can’t hold its own in an open battle. Without mass defections, the regime is still stronger than the opposition. The officer corps in particular is still loyal, and Assad’s relatives hold key positions. The overwhelming majority of the officers come from the president’s minority Alawite community, and most Alawite families have at least one member in the security service. And the Alawites — a religious minority, often scorned by mainstream Sunni Muslims for their supposedly deviant religious practices — have a visceral reason to resist regime change.
Although only a tenth or so of Syria’s population is Alawite, this community is a strong base for the regime: It is armed, mobilized, and fearful that the fall of Assad might mean a brutal death, not just a loss of perks. The regime has mobilized Alawite militias along with military forces, using them as thugs and snipers against their Sunni fellow citizens. As the violence escalates, sectarian killing increases too.
Sunni Arabs dominate the opposition, but Assad has long tried to co-opt other minority groups, such as Christians, Druze, and Kurds — as well as leading Sunni families — in order to prevent a united front against the regime. None of these are as loyal as the Alawites, and none has as much to lose — but that doesn’t mean they will go over to the opposition. Minorities look fearfully at Iraq, in particular, and worry that the collapse of the regime and civil war will lead to massacres.
Sanctions are dealing blows to the regime’s popularity, but when the pie shrinks access to the government becomes even more important. Those with guns eat first; the opposition eats last. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq endured crippling sanctions for over a decade: It found work-arounds and used the scarce revenue to reward supporters while denying aid to enemies. And the humanitarian toll was a particularly effective public relations tool to discredit those who would isolate it internationally. Remember, it took a foreign invasion to topple that dictator.
Nor is Assad standing alone. Iran looks to be doubling down on Syria, its only Arab ally. Tehran, though it is under pressure itself, can give the regime an economic lifeline and enough bullets and shells to keep shooting down protesters — resources that can make all the difference. Next door, Assad’s and Iran’s partner Hezbollah offers the Syrian regime another ally and an economic lifeline for smuggling through Lebanon. Iraq’s regime, which may be eager to do Tehran a favor, may also turn a blind eye to smugglers bringing goods and weapons into Syria from Iraqi territory. And then there’s Russia — an arms provider and the veto-wielding immovable obstacle at the United Nations, blocking international efforts to isolate the regime.
Perhaps the biggest hope for Assad is the disorganization of the opposition itself. No charismatic leader unites the opposition. Syria has strong local and regional identities, and the opposition Syrian National Council’s factionalization reflects this on-the-ground reality. How many Syrians the SNC speaks for is an open question, and critics claim it is dominated by Islamists and does not speak for many Syrians. In contrast to the Libyan rebels, the SNC operates largely in exile, because it doesn’t control a part of Syria from where it can base itself without risk. Not surprisingly, there are sharp divisions between those inside the country bearing the brunt of the regime’s brutality and those who live safely outside Syria and represent the country abroad. So far at least, the rebels enjoy some sympathy from international governments but at most limited, active support from major powers — which are also quick to emphasize that international military intervention is not on the table.
In short, the Syrian dictator is not strong enough to subdue the opposition, but they are not strong enough to oust him — a scenario for continued civil war.
So, if Assad is to go he may need a push from the international community. Particularly important is the effort to build up the Syrian opposition: uniting it and training its militias so they can be more effective in battle. At the same time, the opposition must be pushed to avoid religious sectarianism at all costs. Not only will this make the Alawites and other minorities fight all the harder, but it will also make Syria more difficult to govern should Assad fall. In Libya, one of the less dramatic but more important steps Western powers took was to build up the Libyan opposition and make it a more representative and effective institution.
But intervention must also be on the table to signal that the regime cannot put down the opposition by force — U.S. and allied rhetoric should warn that this option will grow more likely if Assad doesn’t step down. Ratcheting up the pressure today will help convince Assad loyalists that the regime cannot weather the storm and that they need to abandon ship now — rather than do so when the opposition is more bloodthirsty and less in the mood to bargain. Only this forceful effort will end the rule of the leader who has been walking his people into a nightmare. Any less will see the bloodshed continue indefinitely, possibly sucking in neighboring states like Turkey and Israel, disrupting Iraq’s fragile state-building efforts, raising tension further between Iran and the West, and giving autocrats elsewhere in the Arab world credibility when they claim that the alternative to tyranny is not freedom but chaos.