Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sits in his mountaintop palace as the tide of war licks at the cliffs below.
Explosions bloom over the Damascus suburbs. His country is plunging deeper into chaos. The UN’s top envoy for the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with al-Assad in the palace on Monday in an urgent effort to resolve the nearly two-year-old conflict.
How al-Assad might respond to Brahimi’s entreaty depends on his psychology, shaped by a strong sense of mission inherited from his iron-fisted father; his closest advisers, whom supporters describe as a hardline politburo of his father’s gray-haired security men; and al-Assad’s assessment — known only to himself — about what awaits him if he stays: victory, or death at the hands of his people.
From his hilltop, al-Assad can gaze toward several possible futures.
East of the palace lies the airport and a possible dash to exile, a route that some say al-Assad’s mother and wife may have already taken. However, the way is blocked, not just by bands of rebels, but by a belief that supporters say he shares with his advisers that if he flees, he will betray both his country and his father’s legacy.
He can stay in Damascus and cling to — even die for — his father’s aspirations, to impose a secular Syrian order and act as a pan-Arab leader on a regional and global stage. Or he can head north to the coastal mountain heartland of his minority Alawite sect, ceding the rest of the country to the uprising led by the Sunni Muslim majority.
That would mean a dramatic comedown: reverting to the smaller stature of his grandfather, a tribal leader of a marginalized minority concerned mainly with its own survival.
Brahimi was close-mouthed about the details of his meeting, but has warned in recent weeks that without a political solution, Syria faces the collapse of the state and years of civil war that could dwarf the destruction already caused by the conflict that has taken more than 40,000 lives.
A Damascus-based diplomat on Monday said that al-Assad, despite official denials, is “totally aware” that he must leave and was “looking for a way out,” though the timetable is unclear.
“More importantly, powerful people in the upper circle of the ruling elite in Damascus are feeling that an exit must be found,” said the diplomat, who is outside Syria, but whose responsibilities include the country.
Yet others close to al-Assad and his circle say any retreat would clash with his deep-seated sense of himself and with the wishes of increasingly empowered security officials, whom one friend of the Syrian president’s has come to see as “hotheads.”
Al-Assad believes he is “defending his country, his people, and his regime and himself” against Islamic extremism and Western interference, said Joseph Abu Fadel, a Lebanese political analyst who supports al-Assad and met with Syrian government officials last week in Damascus.
Analysts in Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, say that as rebels try to encircle Damascus and cut off escape routes through Hama Province to the coast, the mood in the palace is one of panic, evinced by erratic use of weapons: Scud missiles better used against an army than an insurgency, naval mines dropped from the air instead of laid at sea.
However, even if al-Assad wanted to flee, it is unclear if the top generals would let him out alive, since they believe that if they lay down arms they — and their disproportionately Alawite families — will die in vengeance killings, and need him to rally troops, Russian analysts say.