Assad has moved to secure all natural access points leading to this Alawite redoubt. In a move somewhat reminiscent of the Lebanese precedent, he also began to clear hostile Sunni pockets within the enclave and to create a buffer zone in the plain that separates the coastal mountains from the interior. This was the calculus behind the string of mass killings in villages like al-Houla, Taldou, al-Haffeh, and Tremseh -- all Sunni population centers either inside or on the eastern frontier of the Alawite enclave in the central plain.
The common denominator to all these places is their relevance to Syria's strategic and sectarian geography. The areas near Homs and al-Haffeh, for instance, are historical access routes into the coastal mountains. In addition, villages like Taldou and Tremseh mark the eastern faultline where outlying Alawite villages are sprinkled uncomfortably near Sunni ones. They also lie strategically on the north-south axis linking Damascus to Aleppo, and the rebellious governorates of Homs and Hama to Idlib.
Damascus, however, lies well outside this prospective enclave. In the capital, the regime does not possess a demographic reservoir of loyal Alawite communities with which to balance the power relationship with its rivals. The Syrian regime has responded to this problem by ringing Damascus with military bases stocked with loyal Alawite troops to control the main communication routes out of the city. As a result, French political geographer Fabrice Balanche has written, the capital has become an "encircled city." Moreover, as recent news reports have noted, the influx of mostly Sunni refugees into Damascus from other rebellious districts has further complicated the demographic equation in the capital.
It is therefore not only conceivable, but also rather likely, that these geographic and demographic factors will at some point lead Assad to abandon Damascus and fortify himself in his Alawite stronghold. As occurred in Lebanon, this could lead to a prolonged static war, where the support of external patrons -- namely Iran and Russia -- becomes increasingly critical to Assad.
Some will argue that an Alawite enclave is unviable in the long-term, but Assad has an insurance policy to protect his retreat. As the Assad regime just reminded the world, it possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons. While most observers are worried about Assad passing these weapons along to third-party actors like Hezbollah, he is more likely to hold on tightly to them. These weapons are his last remaining and most formidable deterrent against his Sunni foes, and precious leverage to guarantee the quiescence of the outside world.
With this insurance policy, Assad could hang on as a warlord presiding over an Iranian and Russian protectorate on the Mediterranean. The past several weeks have dealt Assad a serious blow, but this is not yet the end of the Syrian conflict. It is rather the beginning of a new phase, the endgame of which is not in Damascus, but further west.