Any concession now would run counter to the Assad family’s ruling ethos, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“It would show weakness, and the nature of his regime is that you never show weakness,” Landis said.
The dictator’s choice to use heavy artillery and helicopter gunships in civilian neighborhoods echoes similar decisions by Assad’s father, who authorized the killing of tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims in putting down a revolt in 1982. Landis said the massive display of state power is the Assad family’s default option, reflecting a calculation that even a fight to the death is preferable to the uncertainty of bargaining for some kind of amnesty.
“It strikes me as foolish, this idea that he’s going to make a deal and leave,” Landis said.
Landis suggested that even if the capital falls to rebels, Assad could be tempted to retreat to an Alawite stronghold within Syria and attempt to hold out as a Lebanon-style militia commander.
Assad’s Western habits and seemingly moderate views had initially inspired optimism among Western acquaintances and Syria watchers about his leadership of the strategically vital country of 20 million. Assad’s pledges to implement political and economic reform once won him prominent admirers in the United States, including Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist who is married to a British citizen, was an unexpected choice to succeed his notoriously brutal father, Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000. The younger Assad, 34 at the time, jokingly referred to himself as the “accidental president” of Syria, according one of his biographers, David Lesch, a Middle East historian.
“He was self-deprecating, humble and very much a family man,” Lesch, who writes about Assad’s transformation in a new book, “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad,” due for release in August, said in an interview. “Gradually he became a bit more imperious in his demeanor. But unlike Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi, you never got the sense that he was eccentric.”
Lesch said he met with Assad numerous times over several years after he became president, and saw his personality begin to reflect the insular and paranoid world around him.
In the early years, Lesch said, the young president would joke about the tactics of Syria’s feared Mukhabarat intelligence service. But over time, Lesch said, Assad began to parrot the views of security officials who saw conspiracies and plots everywhere.
“An alternative reality was being constructed around him, and ultimately it sucked him in,” Lesch said. As a result, he added, Assad misread the message of the Arab Spring movement and perceived the Syrian uprising as an incitement by foreign conspirators, with only Assad standing as the guarantor of the country’s salvation.
“In his mind he is fighting against the imperialists and their pernicious allies for the people of Syria,” Lesch said. “He believes that’s his legacy. Perhaps that is the way he will want to go down.”
Against such a hardened and insular perspective, there may be little that outsiders can do, analysts say. The United States severed most trade ties with Syria years ago and has historically had little leverage there.
In most cases, Assad has turned to Arab allies and Russia as interlocutors with the West.
Russia has refused to demand Assad’s ouster. Even as the Aleppo assault swelled over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the Syrian government.