Bashar al-Assad has outlived so many predictions of his imminent demise at this point that it would seem unwise to bet against him. Nonetheless, a series of military and diplomatic setbacks combined with a wave of defections in recent weeks have raised expectations that the Syrian president may finally be on his last legs. While Assad will likely exit the scene eventually, observers may be looking at the wrong signals when assessing his regime's vulnerability.
In a Dec. 20 article last year for Foreign Policy, we wrote of Assad: If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime. ... Captive to the needs of his coalition, he ignores the welfare of the 23 million average Syrians and shuns world opinion." We calculated at the time that Assad could count on 3,600 elite supporters. Should they stop working to neutralize the rebellion, Assad would be gone immediately.
What keeps those supporters on Assad's side? In a word, money. As long as he has enough to keep his cronies loyal, he will live to fight another day. Eventually he might lose the battle against the rebels, but that is down the road. If he runs out of cash, he will be gone today.
Assad must worry day and night whether enough money will come in to prevent big fractures in his backing among the ruling elite. So far, he seems to be managing this threat well. Al Jazeera reports that the total cumulative defections within his regime amount to just 73 individuals, almost none of whom are from the ruling Alawite clan and perhaps none of whom are from the inner circle of key backers. The press has made much, for example, of defections by Syrian diplomats, yet only one or two of 13 diplomatic defections have been by senior officials -- the former ambassadors to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the diplomatic defections have been by consuls and other lower-level functionaries.
Likewise, much was made of the three (out of 39) cabinet members who have defected since the uprising began, including Prime Minister Riad Hijab last August. But Hijab had been in office for just two months and was Sunni, not Alawite. Indeed, the defectors are almost never Alawites and are, therefore, almost certainly not members of Assad's winning coalition -- the people whose backing is essential to keep him in power. Assad's official inner circle, which comes from a diverse set of backgrounds, is mostly for show, while the true inner circle -- like the General Staff of the military -- is all Alawite. Their defection would be a risk to his survival; it is they who must be kept loyal and that means they must be paid better by Assad than by any credible alternative.
That then raises the question: Where does the money come from? The question is easy to answer: Iran, Iraq, Russia, and a bit from Venezuela. Assad is estimated to need about $500 million a month to keep his regime afloat. The Times of London reports that Iran alone has given Syria about $10 billion -- enough to sustain the regime for almost two years. The Iraqi regime is pledged to political neutrality on the Syrian rebellion, which turns out to mean that they are unwilling to interrupt their economic dealings with Assad's regime and they oppose sanctions -- ostensibly to protect the well-being of the average Syrian. They seem to have given billions to Assad as well.