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.