Why Syria's Assad Regime Will Fall

This has been beyond the wildest of dreams, but the regime of Syria's Bashar Assad will probably fall.

Compared to other Arab autocrats, the Assad regime has been arguably the most repressive. Because of its exceptionally inflexible nature, the Assad regime has no room to entertain any compromise with opponents or allow reform. And because of its inflexibility too, the Assad regime employs an all-or-none strategy. It either wins all, or gets broken.

Assad's inflexible nature is rooted in its design, based on a small network of military officers and business tycoons brought together by kinship and common interests.

The regime is based on Assad's esoteric sect of Islam, the Alawites that form 10 percent of Syria's 23 million people. Originally impoverished residents of the rural northwest, young Alawite men joined the army, and used it as their vehicle for upward social and political mobility.

Bashar Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, was an army officer who ruled Syria until 2000. Since his 1971 coup, Assad and the Alawite minority ruled over a population with 75 percent of Sunni Muslims. Unlike the Alawites, the Sunnis have mostly been city dwellers with several notable families.

For the Alawite minority to be able to rule over a much bigger Sunni majority, Assad had first to maintain a compact ruling elite -- mainly through state corruption at the expense of greater Syrian economic health -- and, second, to use exceptionally brutal force to quickly end any challenge to his regime.

The Assad regime depends on a few elite combat battalions commanded by Alawite officers and usually stationed around Damascus. These forces can smash revolts, like in 1982 when Assad used these forces to kill thousands of rebels in Hama.

After smashing enemies, whether organized militant groups like Hama's 1982 Muslim Brotherhood, or individual human rights activists who are thrown in prison for minor offenses, the Assads have made sure to show no room for mercy whatsoever. The reason behind Assad's usage of excessive force is its awareness that a minority cannot handle long wars of attrition, especially if these take place in several cities simultaneously and therefore stretch the elite forces thin.

Add to Assad's short fuse the fact that, in this age and time, repeating the Hama massacre is nearly impossible. Less than 20 people have died so far since March 15 in clashes in a few Syrian cities, and Syria has become headline news forcing Assad to show remorse by offering condolences to the families of the victims and deploying his senior officials to the angry areas in an apparently unsuccessful bid to diffuse tension.

So despite his powerful elite force, Assad cannot handle more than one city erupting at the same time.

Also, if popular rallies snowball, Assad's hands will be tied. When 30 people demonstrate in some square in Damascus, the Assad regime usually outnumbers them by sending close to 100 operatives who physically assault them and drag them to prison. This tactic is rendered ineffective when thousands of Syrians take to the streets, like in the case of the town of Daraa since Tuesday.

While many observers have so far discounted the possibility of a collapse of the Assad regime, one can argue that 2011 has so far gone against pundit predictions. Only in December, all these Arab uprisings were beyond the wildest of dreams of any and all analysts and experts on the Middle East.

Another indicator of Assad's weakness is his nervousness. Since the outbreak of the uprisings in Tunisia in January, Assad has reverted to his classic act of reaching out to the United States, promising peace with Israel and good regional behavior.

In the past, flirting with Israel served Assad well. In the words of Washington's veterans Eliot Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, Israel opened the door for Syria to get out of the international isolation it faced after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in February 2005, and the consequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April.

Over the past week, some Israeli writers have been cheering for Assad to stay and commending his role in keeping the Syria-Israel border calm.

Even though Assad's American friends, such as Senator John Kerry (D-MA), have rushed to Damascus promising to broker peace with Israel, it seems that neither the United States nor Israel can come to Assad's rescue this time if the Syrians decide to take to the streets en masse.

Finally, Assad will certainly not go down without a fight. He will use his elite forces and probably fall back, with his clique, to their ancestral villages in northwestern Syria. Any Assad retreat will be the first step toward the eventual demise of his regime.

Crossposted from News from Washington.