Beating the odds: How Assad is holding his military together

As bad as things may be, President Bashar al-Assad and his entourage — and those who are willing to fight and die to keep in power — know that for them, things could be a whole lot worse. Sure, the regime has lost control of vast swathes of territory that appear to be intractably under the control of insurgents. But if the rebels are able to control much of the countryside, they remain hopelessly outgunned in the head-to-head fight for the major cities, with no sign of any heavy weapons deliveries from their allies abroad, much less a NATO cavalry riding to the rescue as it had done in Libya. The rebels continue to be plagued by divisions, and Western powers are increasingly anxious over the influence of salafist extremists within the armed insurgency.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

The expected collapse of Assad’s armed forces has failed to materialize, and defections to the rebel side have slowed to a trickle. Instead of signaling an imminent denouement, the incremental gains and losses of each side along the shifting front-lines suggests a strategic stalemate, in which neither side is capable of delivering the other a knockout blow. Against that backdrop, the latest developments on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan in recent days and weeks appear to be symptoms of that stalemate, rather than signs of imminent outside intervention…

Assad’s opponents, of course, had hoped that he would, by now, have been removed from the scene, either by exile, imprisonment or death. But the regime itself appears to have either chosen, or stumbled onto, the terrain of sectarian civil war — the “Milosevic Option” we dubbed it last January – stirring fears of an extremist-led Sunni rebellion to rally his own Alawite sect and other minorities, and even the urban Sunni bourgeoisie, and then making that a self-fulfilling prophecy by violently suppressing peaceful protests. Assad also coolly assessed the regional and international strategic balance and concluded that he could count on strong backing from Iran and Russia against any attempt to dispatch him a la Gaddafi.