Indeed, should he lose Damascus but physically survive, Assad and his top Alawite commanders may flee to "Alawistan" -- the presumptive statelet that many see as the Alawite community's last refuge. The geography of the fighting in the northwest suggests that such a strategy is already in the making: Sectarian cleansing and major battles are occurring on the outer edge of the mountainous region separating the Alawite heartland from the predominantly Sunni hinterland, and many Alawite families have moved back to this enclave. In the wake of such a defeat, however, Assad's leadership may well be contested from within the community, and his remaining forces could split into competing militias. Alawistan, moreover, might not be economically viable or military defensible.
For all these reasons, Assad is certain to mount a fierce defense of the capital. The very landscape of the conflict will be tilted in his favor: The French political geographer Fabrice Balanche refers to Damascus as a "controlled city," purposely surrounded by military and security garrisons and loyal neighborhoods (such as Mezze 86, a poor area populated by Alawite security personnel and families).
Assad has also amassed considerable firepower in and around Damascus. The regular army is only the first line of his defenses: The Republican Guard and the 4th Division, which has been at the forefront of the fighting in the city's vicinity, remain fiercely loyal and formidable fighting units. The number of such troops is unknown, but estimates vary between 50,000 and 80,000. Reports have also emerged that residents in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma -- and more importantly, Hezbollah-backed Shia in Sayyida Zeinab, southeast of the city -- have formed local militias supplementing the regime's forces. And much of Assad's artillery and his air force is located in and around the capital -- the regime's incessant pounding of Daraya in the southwest has much to do with the proximity of the Mezzeh military airport.
To preempt a major offensive, government forces have attempted in recent weeks to clear many of the suburban areas where rebel units are active. The insurgents, however, have held much of the eastern suburbs and make frequent appearances in the city, such as in Jobar and nearby Abbassiyyin Square. There have also been vicious -- and so far inconclusive -- clashes in and around the southern Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk.
Assad himself allegedly spends most of his time holed up in his palace on Mount Qassioun, which overlooks the city. He is believed to have left his private office, located in his father's old abode, and his private house in the neighborhood of Malki -- the fact that he lived there instead of his perched-up marbled palace once stood for some as evidence of his humility. Conscious of the need to demonstrate he still controls the capital, Assad has recently shown his face outside, though near, his palace. He delivered an uncompromising speech at the Opera House on central Umayyad Square on Jan. 8, and attended prayers on the occasion of Prophet Mohammad's birthday at the al-Afram mosque, in the northern neighborhood of al-Muhajereen, on Jan. 24.
In public, Assad has continued to present a defiant face to the world. Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper that serves a mouthpiece for Assad and his Lebanese allies, quoted the Syrian president in late January saying that pockets of resistance in the countryside around the capital were being "dealt with" by the army. Damascus itself, he assured his supporters, remained firmly under control. "Its strategic points -- despite all the attempts by the militants -- remained safe, especially the airport road."