U.S. officials say the sense of isolation within the presidential palace has been reinforced by new defections — most recently by the chief of Syria’s military police — as well as moves by Syria’s few remaining allies to distance themselves from the 47-year-old dictator. In a major psychological blow, Russian President Vladimir Putin last week said Russia was “not concerned with the fate of Assad’s regime.”
“Putin’s comments hit particularly hard,” the Middle Eastern intelligence official said. “With the Russians pulling back, there’s increasingly a feeling that the ship is sinking.”
The concerns about personal safety for Assad and his staff also have been reinforced by a string of attacks targeting top regime officials. A rebel bombing of a secret cabinet meeting in July killed three of Assad’s senior security advisers, including his brother-in-law, who was the deputy defense minister.
The regime also has suffered setbacks on the battlefield, as its forces lose ground across all but two of the country’s 14 provinces. Military analysts say Syrian troops are being killed at a rate of about 1,000 a month, and even elite units appear to have lost the ability to mount sustained offensives.
“The most likely prospects are for the regime’s position to deteriorate further, perhaps dramatically, in the weeks ahead,” said Jeffrey White, a former military analyst for the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
As the regime’s control appears to slip, Assad is relying on an ever-shrinking circle of aides — almost all of them members of his Alawite sect. U.S. and Middle Eastern analysts say the inner-sanctum is made up of hard-liners, including some who seem determined to hold on until the end.
Like Assad, the president’s advisers have shown no hint of willingness to compromise, said Andrew Tabler, author of “In the Lion’s Den,” a book about the Assad regime. Indeed, despite repeated efforts by Western governments to woo away regime officials, “there have been no major defections by senior Alawite officials,” Tabler said.
Since the start of the conflict, various experts have predicted that Alawite leaders eventually would abandon Assad or, conversely, that the president would betray his kinsmen for the promise of safe refuge in exile. Neither prediction has come to pass, even as the regime suffers losses of territory, troops, resources and — it would seem — hope.
“Assad’s levers of influence are fraying and his reach is contracting, but the regime core is a tough nut that doesn’t seem to be cracking just yet,” the senior U.S. official said. “Although pressure is mounting, it’s difficult to say when the breaking point will come because there’s little to suggest that Assad is a cut-and-run kind of guy.”