- By Region
A comforting idea is gaining traction among Bashar al-Assad’s allies and supporters. The president of Syria, they tell you, will undoubtedly complete his term, which expires only in 2014.
“Beyond that we’re not sure. It’s possible. But he will definitely be around until 2014,” says one Lebanese politician from a party close to Damascus.
The argument goes like this: if the six-point plan by Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the UN and the Arab League, succeeds – and that is a very big if – a political transition will be a long, drawn-out process. Given that it is being negotiated with Mr Assad, he is likely to ensure that if he has to be eased out, it is done in a face-saving manner rather than coercively.
If the plan fails, which is more likely, the Assad regime has shown it can fight back, proving in recent months that the disparate forces of the Free Syrian Army – defectors and civilians who have taken up arms – are no match for its military machine and brutality. Meanwhile, regime insiders who might have turned against Mr Assad will stick with him as long as his security forces appear stronger than the opposition.
One political analyst close to the Syrian government comments that even a few months ago, who would have expected that in April 2012 people would be saying that “Bashar would survive the year and that we’ll be talking to him, not talking against him? If the world had said we’re mustering a military force, everyone would’ve left the regime. But the regime destroyed whole cities and nothing happened.”
To the chagrin of the opposition, diplomats and analysts say Syria’s allies have a point. Parallels are even being drawn between Syria and Iraq after the Gulf war, when the late Saddam Hussein lost control over the Kurdish north but crushed a Shia uprising in the south and stayed on as a pariah for more than a decade.
Under this scenario, the Syrian regime’s authority would not be restored, and its control would extend only to some parts of the country. Syria would be wracked by civil strife but Mr Assad would still be president.
Some analysts argue Syria is reaching a new equilibrium with both the opposition and the regime having proved their resilience.
Syria’s political dissidents, however, warn against rushing to conclusions about Mr Assad’s fate. They appear more confident than their international backers in the revolutionary movement’s abilities to oust him.
“What do people think Syrians will do until 2014? Stay home and tell Bashar that we love him?” asks Samir al-Taqi, a political analyst opposed to the regime. “Inside Syria the state has collapsed and the people will not give up, they will not calm down.”
He and other opposition activists say that two years is an infinitely long time in Syria, and the dynamics of the crisis could radically change long before 2014.
Mr Assad’s main backers in Russia could eventually be persuaded to turn against him. The opposition’s capabilities could be bolstered by armament from Gulf states. The violence could soar to such levels that it brings on to the table the option of outside military intervention, which no western leader is now willing to contemplate.
The Arab world of 2012, moreover, is not the same as in the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein managed to restore the state of fear to the rebellious south of Iraq. Activists in Syria expect that both the peaceful protests and the armed opposition to the regime will persist.
If a ceasefire takes hold, they will use it, they say, to regroup. And they will grab every opportunity, even if it is a short visit by the handful of UN monitors now on the ground, to take to the streets and demand the downfall of the regime.
In the months to come there will be hand-wringing over the international response. In the end, though, it is the evolution of the protest movement in Syria’s embattled cities and towns that is likely to have the greatest impact on Mr Assad’s attempts to cling to power.