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.