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Is Assad’s Regime Really Falling?

The events of  recent weeks in Syria have finally made some of the optimistic predictions about the fall of the Assad regime coming out of the Obama administration a bit more believable. The terrorist attack that decapitated the defense establishment as well as the defections of prominent supporters of President Bashar al-Assad has contributed to the idea that his government must soon collapse. The conventional wisdom of the day is that it is only a matter of time until he will be forced out, ase his bloody efforts to eradicate domestic opponents has failed to destroy a movement that began as peaceful protests in the spring of 2011 and has now evolved into an armed and potent insurgency.

But the problem with this faith in his imminent departure is that we’ve been hearing this talk for more than a year and yet the murderous ophthalmologist is still on his throne, albeit with a far shakier hold on it. Even though things look bad for Assad, Americans who assume that he can’t go on killing people in this manner and retain legitimacy don’t understand him or the political culture that created his regime. The variables in Syria are many, but the iron rule of history about despotism remains that tyrants lose power when they lose their taste for shedding blood. Assad’s willingness to commit atrocities seems intact. Just as important, the descent of the country into chaos with fighting in the streets of the capital and thousands of refugees fleeing the country is also putting President Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy into question. Those who assume Assad is doomed believe that by staying out of the maelstrom, the United States will succeed in avoiding responsibility for the Syrian mess. But if Assad has far more staying power than Washington thinks, the result will be even messier than President Obama imagines, and he will bear much of the blame.

The Obama administration’s assumption is that sooner or later Assad will get the message from the international community and his disgruntled people and head for the exits. But Assad and the rest of the Alawite sect that rules the roost in Damascus understand all too well that the only real alternatives for them is to win or to die. There is little future in Syria for Alawites once Assad is gone. What’s more, the Syrian leader knows there will be no safe haven for him anywhere even if he agrees to step down. The precedent for prosecutions of deposed despots has already been established. He knows that he will either end his days in his palace or eventually wind up in a courtroom in The Hague. That has concentrated his mind wonderfully on the task of slaughtering as many of his compatriots as needed to ensure the latter is not the case.

He must be shaken by the ability of his foes to snuff out members of his inner circle. But even more than the support of Iran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries, the willingness of the Russians to both fend off Western diplomatic initiatives and to keep his forces well-armed is giving Assad the confidence to go on resisting. The presence of armed Russian forces in their armed enclave in the port of Tartus also provides the regime with a fall back point from which it could go on fending off the rebels even if Damascus was lost. Tony Karon of TIME speculates this could lead to a Yugoslavia-style breakup of Syria into Sunni, Alawite and Kurdish sections. That is far from certain, but what all this does mean is the fighting could go on indefinitely rather than coming to a swift conclusion, as was the case when Muammar Qaddafi was toppled.

The one scenario that could bring the fighting to an end would be a Western intervention, but given President Obama’s reluctance to get the country involved in another conflict during his re-election campaign, that is highly unlikely. But absent such a move, the chances are increasing that not only will the fighting get worse and casualties increase, but that the region will be destabilized as the Syrian army comes apart and their chemical weapons become a spoil of war in which Islamist rebels will compete for them with Assad loyalists.

The point is, as the fighting in the streets of Damascus this week showed, Assad’s demise may not only not be imminent, but the entire country and the region could wind up bathed in blood long before his final chapter is written. In this case, the president’s “leading from behind” is being proven again to be no leadership at all.