For all of their disagreement over particulars, Western pundits share a nearly unanimous consensus that Syrian President Bashar Assad has bungled his response to the current uprising. The Syrian regime is “digging its own grave,” the International Crisis Group concluded in a report last month. One prominent analyst went so far as to assert that the president "is losing his marbles." The Obama administration’s recent call for Assad to resign, while long overdue, is largely premised on such boat-without-a-paddle views of the Syrian leader.
In fact, Assad's strategy and tactics have proven astonishingly effective. By any objective measure of political vulnerability, Assad should have been among the first casualties of the Arab Spring. That he’s held on this long is no small achievement.
Unflattering portrayals of Assad’s decision making are invariably premised on the assumption that some combination of reform and restraint on his part could have defused popular mobilization after the outbreak of protests in March. However, given his Alawite-dominated regime’s unusually thin claim (even by Middle Eastern standards) to represent the will of the people and the infectious wave of popular revolt spreading across the surrounding Arab world, allowing his predominantly Sunni subjects to assemble and express themselves without consequence would have doomed the regime (or doomed Assad by precipitating a hard-liner coup).
The Syrian president recognized very early on that brute force (tempered by largely cosmetic “reforms”) would have to be the mainstay of his survival strategy, and he has employed it with great acumen. Contrary to formulaic Western media characterizations, government violence against protestors has hardly been “indiscriminate.” Most of the deaths have been the result not of panicked security personnel firing blindly into crowds of people, but of what the UN recently called an “apparent shoot-to-kill” policy. Regime snipers carefully selected their targets on the basis of specific criteria (filming demonstrations with cell phones, using megaphones, carrying banners, etc) designed to incapacitate mid-level organizers. It took nearly three months for the death toll in Syria to surpass the number of people murdered by Egypt’s government in just 18 days—an extraordinarily large bang for the bullet.
To be sure, security forces have opened fire on crowds—particularly in predominantly Sunni areas close to Syria’s porous borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon—but these have mostly been targeted massacres. Lacking the ability to suppress all protests at all times, the regime has been selective as to when and where it strikes. In June, for example, Assad allowed the city of Hama to slip from his control, only to storm it with tanks last month. The fact the protests have not yet snowballed into a nationwide mass uprising (Syria’s two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus have experienced comparatively little unrest) testifies to the effectiveness of these tactics.
This doesn’t mean Assad can “win” in the sense implicit in most outside commentary. Bloodletting cannot restore the status quo ante in Syria. It only takes a small minority of highly committed people to ensure that protests and killings continue as Assad remains in power. This can only spell the end of his regime in the long-term, pariah status a few notches above North Korea in the medium term, and the looming threat of civil war in the short term.
Assad likely recognizes this (the assumption that he is somehow ignorant of political realities apparent to outside observers is another glaring absurdity of conventional wisdom in the West), but that doesn’t mean the game is over. At this stage, maintaining Alawite solidarity is his primary goal, not subduing the masses. So long as the security apparatus remains loyal, he can be overthrown only through a long and bloody civil war that may prove unpalatable to regional and international governments. Even if the regime collapses, it’s quite possible that Assad and his security barons will regroup in the coastal mountain enclaves of their ancestors (offering physical protection and access to Iranian resupply by sea) and set up a de facto Alawite micro-state. Although the Syrian president’s predicament is unquestionably dire, it’s a good bet he knows what he’s doing.