The magnificent views across Damascus from the presidential palace on Mount Qassioun are unlikely to provide much comfort these days for Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s beleaguered head of state.
For several weeks, the skyline to the north, east, and south has been stained by black columns of smoke from artillery explosions and air strikes as Syrian government forces struggle to prevent the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels from inching ever closer to their goal of unseating Mr. Assad’s regime.
After 20 months of confrontation, Assad’s hold on power is looking increasingly frail, leaving him and his regime with few remaining options.
“There is no doubt that the regime’s capacity is declining and that the FSA continues to become ever stronger and better armed,” says a European diplomat closely following developments in Syria.
The current status of the regime is uncertain and it is not even clear if Assad is still in charge. The diplomat says that Assad appears to have become a “prisoner of his own system,” no longer playing an active leadership role and confined to his palace. Instead, there are indications that an informal "security council” has emerged consisting of between 50 to 100 top regime and military figures drawn from the minority Alawite community which is handling the daily confrontation against the armed opposition.
Either way, the regime is steadily losing ground as the rebels attempt to encircle Damascus for an apparent final push into the city center, leaving Assad with three possible choices. The first – although least likely – option is to remain in the presidential palace to the bitter – and probably bloody – end, fulfilling a promise he made last month in an interview with Russian television to “live and die in Syria”.
A second possibility is to escape Damascus with his family and seek asylum in a third country, perhaps Iran or Venezuela, the governments of which openly support the Syrian regime. Faisal Miqdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, was reported to have visited Venezuela, Cuba, and Ecuador recently. Ecuador subsequently announced that it was not entertaining the idea of granting asylum to Assad.
The most likely option, however, and one that appears already to be under way, is for the regime and the core of the army and security forces to retreat to the Alawite-populated mountains on the Mediterranean coast. Diplomatic sources say that there are unconfirmed reports that the regime is planning to register all Sunnis who live in the coastal cities of Tartous, Banias, and Latakia which could potentially form part of an Alawite-dominated enclave. The coastal cities are predominantly Sunni-populated while the mountain hinterland is mainly Alawite.
Exodus to the mountains
Furthermore, there appears to be a steady and discreet trickle of families of pro-regime Alawite army officers leaving the upmarket Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus for the coastal mountains.
“More and more regime supporters and, or their families are moving up the coast, and there are persistent rumors that at least part of the government now sits in Tartous,” the European diplomat says. “All indications are that the regime's fallback position is to retreat to the coastal area of Tartous and Latakia.”
Significantly, units of the rebel Free Syrian Army operating north of Damascus appear to be limiting ambushes to south-bound military traffic heading to the capital along the main highway, the sources say. Vehicles heading north are left unmolested, raising the possibility that the highway, which leads to Tartous, is being offered as an escape route for the regime to prevent a protracted and bloody last stand in Damascus.
Still, there might not be a mad dash for the mountains as Damascus falls but more of an incremental retreat.
“I think that the Assad regime will go in stages,” says Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You have the north and east go and then after that there will be a real effort to hold on to Damascus as long as possible. But in the end I don't see that as viable.”
Mr. Tabler says he envisages a staged pullback from Damascus first to the area west of Homs, Syria’s third largest city which lies two-thirds of the way along the Damascus-Tartous highway, and then to the mountains.
“Those areas are viable, I think, in the short- to medium-term,” he says.
A fallback to Homs would explain the fierce fighting that erupted in September and October in a string of villages between Homs and the border with Lebanon, 20 miles to the south. Syrian troops assisted by pro-regime Shabiha militiamen and combatants from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant Shia group, fought rebel forces to maintain control of the villages which flank the vital Damascus-Tartous highway.
While there appears to be consensus among analysts that the regime will eventually decamp to the coastal region, what remains unclear is the nature of the enclave – if any – that would be established there. The prospect of creating a mini Alawite state along the lines of the French-engineered statelet between 1920 and 1937 appears improbable under current circumstances. It would require the suppression of hostile Sunnis in the coastal cities and would be internationally ostracized and subject to attack by the FSA.
The chief motivation for retreating to the mountains in the first place is self-preservation rather than state-building (Alawites represent about 12 percent of Syria’s 23 million, while Sunnis comprise about 70 percent).
“The Alawite community … is counting on [Assad’s] army to protect them from possible retribution from the rebel militias,” writes Joshua Landis, professor of Middle East history at the University of Oklahoma and author of the influential Syria Comment blog. “Sectarian hatred has been driven to a fever pitch by the brutality of the regime. Syrians have been putting hate into their hearts over the past two years, making the likelihood of some sort of retribution ever more likely and the ethnic cleansing a possibility, even if a small one at the time.”
A rump regime well-entrenched into the mountain villages defended by the Alawite core of the army and security services equipped with armor, artillery, air power and possibly even chemical and biological weapons could buy the Assads some breathing space during a likely period of chaos caused by a sudden leadership vacuum in Damascus. But it is questionable whether it would provide a long-term solution for the Assad clan’s survival.
Also working against a more formally established enclave is the fact that not all Alawites support the Assad regime. Some may prefer to cut a deal with the opposition rather than link the fate of the community to that of the Assads. Even Assad’s home town of Qordaha, 15 miles south east of Latakia, has reportedly seen some intra-Alawite unrest between supporters and opponents of the Assad clan.
The Assad family, under Bashar’s 12-year rule, has “all but seceded socially and economically” from its roots and has done “precious little” for the Alawites which remains one of the poorest communities in Syria, says Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department.
“On top of that, they have placed this community in grave jeopardy by recklessly pursuing a sectarian strategy to save their skins and preserve their ability to acquire material wealth,” he says. “In sum, I think it would be inadvisable for the [Assads] and their chief enablers to try and set up shop in Latakia and vicinity. If they have to escape in that direction because of a closed Damascus airport, they’d do well to keep moving. Where to? I don’t know who would have them at this point.”