Assad's Playbook Is Now Empty

The last of the three conditions keeping Syria's dictator in power finally collapsed this week.


(Khaled Al Hariri/Reuters)

The Assad dynasty, which has ruled the most strategic chunk of land in the Arab world for more than 40 years, may now face insurmountable odds. The three fundamental rules in a dictator's playbook of power have changed over the past two weeks.

Although modern autocrats rarely rally a majority, my experience is that they need at least 30 percent support at home to survive serious opposition challenges. They also need powerful foreign allies to prevent international isolation or invasion. And they also need to prevent viable, credible, or recognized alternatives to their leadership so they remain the only source of order.

President Bashar al-Assad is now closer -- much closer -- than at any point in the 20-month conflict to losing out on all three. And his use of imprecise but deadly Scud missiles against his own people this month demonstrates that he has no backup game plan.

That doesn't mean that he will be forced out quickly or easily. In many historic last-gasps, the final battle is the bloodiest. But the odds are now decisively against the Assad regime's open-ended survival.

First, every indicator suggests the despot of Damascus no longer has one-third of the population behind him. The Assad father and son had relied on an unusual collection of minorities with interconnected political and economic self-interests. The political math added up large chunks of Alawites (12 percent), Christians (10 percent), Kurds (9 percent,) plus business elites, the corrupt who were bought, and civil servants in a bloated bureaucracy who were loyal (or apolitical) in exchange for jobs.

The numbers were important as much for security as for politics in a country without any real rights. They ensured Assad could recruit security forces with motives worth putting their lives on the line for him.

But the critical quota has been dwindling since the summer, as the regime's crackdown has grown ever more bloodthirsty and rebels have seized territory. A growing number of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam to which the Assad family belongs, are alarmed enough to distance themselves from the ruling clan.

Assad's army -- on paper -- was about 300,000 strong when the first protest erupted in remote Daraa, after teenagers were arrested for scribbling anti-government graffiti on public walls in March 2011. Today, the number of reliable troops may be as low as 70,000 to 80,000 in a country of 22.5 million, according to Arab and Western officials.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh lasted 13 months because he still had significant political and military support. Libya's Moammar Qaddafi held on for eight months because he had a mix of the military, tribes or clans, and the oil-corrupted. Assad has lasted the longest, but also at the greatest cost to his base of support.

Second, autocrats also need powerful allies. Assad would not have lasted this long without Russia, China, and Iran. Tehran has aided and abetted Damascus with weaponry, intelligence capabilities, lessons from its experience in tactical repression from its own 2009 uprising, and indirect economic assistance, according to Western and Arab officials.

Russia has been even more important. With an assist from Beijing, Moscow has blocked credible international sanctions to squeeze Syria, which was vulnerable because its modest oil exports were already declining.

But on Thursday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov conceded Assad might not make it. "Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition," he said, according to Russian press reports. "We must look squarely at the facts, and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory."

Russia is also developing plans to evacuate thousands of Russians now in Syria, Bogdanov reportedly said. Moscow has longstanding military, diplomatic and commercial interests in Syria, its strongest Arab ally. The leaks are a major indication of the cracks in an alliance that blocked punitive U.N. measures against Syria.

And finally, Syria has a new(ish) opposition that claims more credibility as an alternative than the feckless group of exiles that squabbled away 20 months -- and in the process left Assad the only political game in town. Under intense U.S. pressure, the Syrian National Council was reconfigured and expanded to include insiders under an unwieldy title -- the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC).

The opposition is still fragile and fraught with infighting. It may still prove as hapless as the Iraqi National Council, which was also crafted by the United States. But the transformation was enough for President Obama this week to announce American recognition of the SOC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, with 100 other countries joining in.

The emergence of a recognized opposition changes the internal and international dynamics of the conflictand opens the way for many other forms of aid, too.

Predictions about anything in the Middle East are always dicey. Many of us who know Syria well -- and have had our own encounters with a very determined dictatorship -- have been stunned that Assad has lasted this long. I still owe lunch to a colleague who predicted a longer struggle than I did. But his target date for Assad's ouster has also long passed.

Assad's demise will require that his support ebbs further, that his allies move more decisively against him, and that the new government-in-exile prove itself. But the forces have never been so solidly arrayed against the Assad dynasty. Syria may have finally reached a long-illusive tipping point.