Assad is stronger than ever

A constant in Syrian behaviour when the regime feels insecure is to export instability, in such a way as to create problems that only the Al Assad regime itself can resolve, or to show the prohibitive costs if the Al Assads are pushed out.

For instance, after the United States invaded Iraq, Syria funnelled jihadists into the country to compel the Americans to deal with the regime to stabilise the situation. This had a double objective: to heighten the contradictions and violence in Iraq, making it less likely that the US would turn on Syria; and to make Syria essential to any resolution in Iraq, thereby maintaining its political relevance there.

Indeed, when the Iraq Study Group appointed by the Bush administration to address the Iraqi conflict published a report in December 2006, it recommended that Washington engage with Syria and Iran to end the Iraqi fighting. This was important to Mr Al Assad, coming at a time when Syria sought to re-establish diplomatic ties with the US after it was accused of involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

A closely-related strategy pursued by the Assad regime has been to allow religious or political extremism to proliferate, in such a way as to portray itself as a foe of the extremists. This it has done in the Syrian conflict, releasing jihadists from prison, putting much less military pressure on them than on the more moderate opposition, and allowing them to control oil-rich areas to finance themselves.