The New York Times reports: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria 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 United Nations’ top envoy for the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with Mr. Assad in the palace on Monday in an urgent effort to resolve the nearly two-year-old conflict.
How Mr. Assad might respond to Mr. Brahimi’s entreaty depends on his psychology, shaped by a strong sense of mission inherited from his iron-fisted father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad; his closest advisers, whom supporters describe as a hard-line politburo of his father’s gray-haired security men; and Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Assad’s mother and wife may have already taken. But the way is blocked, not just by bands of rebels, but by a belief that supporters say Mr. Assad shares with his advisers that fleeing would 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.
Mr. Brahimi was closemouthed 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 said Monday that Mr. 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,” said the diplomat, who is currently outside of Syria but whose responsibilities include the country, “powerful people in the upper circle of the ruling elite in Damascus are feeling that an exit must be found.”
Yet others close to Mr. 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 president’s has come to see as “hotheads.” [Continue reading…]