Bashar al-Assad is the man most likely to bring down his own regime. Why? Because if we trace back both the president's reaction to the protests in addition to his previous ten years in charge, we can see that his attempts at reforms have unwittingly creating the environment in which challenges to the regime continue to flourish.
Assad has undermined the bedrock of his father's coup-proof state by marginalizing the old guard, introducing communications technology and the internet to the country, reducing funding to the military, removing the local power of Baath party committees and the unions, and, in the pursuing his version of the 'Chinese model' of economic reform, exacerbating class differences and forcing large sections of Syrian society to rely on more traditional tribal and sectarian networks.
Then, unshakable in the belief that his rule was buttressed by a legitimacy not enjoyed by other authoritarian leaders (journalists regularly come away from meeting him saying he is like no other regional leader), Bashar was initially unwilling to order the same level of force to be deployed against protestors as his father was, instead sending mixed messages of restraint to Syrian security forces whose cack-handed efforts only served to accelerate events.
When the president told ABC News that "there was no command to kill or be brutal," it only served to reflect a return of hard-line old guard and his marginalization from decision making. Ayman Abdel Nour, a media and public policy consultant who first met Assad as a college student in 1984, described Assad as living "in a cocoon," opting not to see the reports of torture and killings alleged to have occurred since mid- March. When asked "do you think that your forces cracked down too hard?" he replied, "They are not my forces; they are military forces belong to the government.... I don't own them. I am president. I don't own the country, so they are not my forces."
A former regime supporter admitted to me that this ABC interview has led to a crisis of confidence in their leader. The Syrian president has become an unwitting prisoner to his own regime and the hardliners who are directing the crackdown. He is disconnected from events and in a reality of his own, something that will only be further confirmed in each public interview he gives.
In the United Kingdom this month the British Syrian Society issued a statement saying that they are "saddened and appalled at the violence and loss of life in Syria." What is particularly interesting is that this largely culturally focused organization is co-chaired by Fawaz Akhras, a decent man who is also the father-in-law of the president. When figures this close to the president start signaling their public despair with events, you can see why the Americans describe the regime as a 'dead man walking.'
Meanwhile back in Syria the death toll is spiking at new levels with this week seeing hundreds being killed each day with reports that the regime is using sustained airpower for the first time. Syria expert Joshua Landis observed that "law and order are slowly collapsing in Syria, along with reliable supplies of basic goods and services. The opposition is becoming more capable, more numerous, and better armed; more Syrians are despairing of the Assad regime."
The unity of the military remains the most important indicator of how quickly the regime will collapse. In an August article Bashar described the army as a "model of commitment to the nation's causes and a defender of its rights, proving to be an impregnable fortress foiling the dreams and suspect plans of enemies, allowing Syria to remain a role model of national unity, amity, fraternity and coexistence". Yet despair is infecting the ranks and sources have reported that more than 10,000 soldiers have deserted the Syrian army with as many as half the conscripts not reporting in the last three call-ups. Al Jazeera reported that 72 deserters were machined gunned down in Edleb on Monday while the military continues to hold exercises to prepare "to confront any possible aggression that might target Syria's land and airspace".
This failure of Bashar's leadership represents the single biggest challenge to those in the military who hope naively that Syrian can somehow revert to the situation pre-March of this year. The opposition are very much focused on exploiting this weakness and have reportedly proposed to senior Alawites to offer Bashar immunity and safe passage out of the country in exchange for surrendering whatever power he still holds. Despite his disconnection from events, Bashar may still be aware that he is trapped in a gilded cage of his own making and choose to make the single biggest decision of his life and extract himself and his young family from the bloody mess that is Syria today.