Although Assad’s control of Damascus is clearly under stress, the Syrian government continues to hold the line against efforts by protesters to overwhelm regime forces in the capital. With pro-Assad crowds demonstrating that some remain supportive of the regime, and the security forces holding firm, the Assad dictatorship’s regime remains resilient and strong.
On the international level, the greatest challenge the regime now faces is from possible oil sanctions by the EU. That would be a serious financial blow, but it is not clear that the sanctions would change facts on the ground in Syria. The Arab League also appears to be gathering itself for some sort of remonstrance against Assad. Assad, his Lebanese clients and his Iranian patrons will have little trouble resisting any suggestions proceeding from the League.
The chances of a Libya style UN resolution and western intervention appear slim. Russia and China are about as likely to apply to become the 51st and 52nd states of the American union as they are to give NATO the chance to overthrow another Arab government anytime soon. (This calculus could be changed, but it is unclear that anybody in the west is willing to pay the very high price that would be demanded in return.) Turkey, despite some tough words, also appears unwilling to move beyond tough talk. Iran is not walking away from its most important ally.
The appetite for intervention in the west is also small. Syria is almost infinitely more important to Midde East politics than Libya, and the appalling Syrian bloodbath is reaching levels that even Qaddafi would have struggled to match. But neither the US nor the European allies are anxious to repeat the Libyan experiment, so the chances are high that Assad will be able to shoot as many of his people as he feels necessary without facing more than remonstrances and complaints from the “international community”.
Paradoxically, the intervention in Libya meant more deaths in Syria. The western intervention and the Qaddafi defeat encouraged Syrian protesters to risk their lives, provided an unmistakable message to Assad and his cronies that their alternatives are victory or jail if not death, and exhausted the west and the Arab League’s political will to intervene. The net result is that more demonstrators were eager to risk their lives, and the government was more willing to kill them.
Many things can still happen in Syria, but one scenario of many is beginning to look a little more probable: in the face of savage repression and continuing bloodshed the demonstrations slowly fade and an isolated, pariah regime in Syria clings precariously to power, more dependent than ever on Iran.
We are left with two questions. Does the Syrian opposition have the strength and the staying power to topple the regime? If not, will the US and its allies pivot from Libya to Syria and help put the opposition over the top whether through economic, political or, worst case, military measures?
Assad and Iran seem to think that the answer to both questions is “No.” I wish I felt more confident that they are wrong.