Despite dramatic setbacks during the past two weeks, the Assad family remains cohesive and determined to fight to the end. The closest members of the president's inner circle are his brother Maher, his sister Bushra, and his uncles and cousins on his maternal side (the Makhlouf family). The president is believed to take decisions with Maher, who leads the elite Republican Guard, and, until his assassination last week, his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, married to Bushra.
The July 18 attack on a meeting of top security officials in the capital was an important victory for the opposition and a severe blow to the regime. It resulted in the killing of Shawkat and a number of other top figures directing government efforts to crush the uprising -- Defence Minister Daoud Rajha, Head of Intelligence Hisham Ikhtiyar and Hassan Turkmani, the head of the security 'crisis cell'.
Shawkat's killing is of particular significance: as Assad's close relative and the long-time feared head of the security services, he was considered one of the regime's top military chiefs and a key member of the security apparatus.
Most of the family's considerable assets appear to have been moved to Russia and off-shore havens
Militarily, the battle of Damascus has demonstrated the effectiveness of guerrilla tactics against the better equipped and more organised regime forces. Psychologically, it will encourage further defections by soldiers and high-ranking officers, with the probability of an increase in the flow of seized weapons from the army to the insurgency.
In addition to the extended family and clan, the army and the security and intelligence services (the 'mukhabarat') remain the cornerstones of the regime. The regime relies mainly on the Alawi-dominated units within the security services and the army, together with Alawite-dominated shadow militias (the 'shabiha'). Counter-insurgency operations are also executed by the Military Security and Air Force Intelligence forces, under the leadership of General Qudsiya, Major-General Hassan and General Ghazali (all of whom are Alawis). They have shown unswerving loyalty to the regime (see SYRIA: Military power gives regime vital advantage - May 1, 2012).
The military's function is to defend the clan's hold on power, rather than protect the state or its citizens
As rebels intensify their operations in the coming months, key military and security figures might seek an exit by escaping the country, or by taking refuge in their home province of Lattakia and starting negotiations with the opposition.
Shrinking support base
The regime's support networks are gradually shrinking. The shift of the battle to the major cities has changed the equation for many of the Sunni and Christian merchant class and business community, located mainly in Aleppo and Damascus. Until recently, they had remained largely on the sidelines of the protests. While large parts of the Sunni populations in the periphery have sided with the opposition, together with activists from the Christian community, the Sunni and Christian merchant classes had continued to benefit from the regime's clientelist networks.
The collapse of institutions and public authority has triggered a transfer of business activities to Lebanon and the Gulf. Many have also chosen to move abroad. This trend is expected to intensify in the next months. Recent events have also strengthened communal links within the wider Alawi community, in fear of possible retribution in the post-Assad phase. Alawis who were heavily involved in business networks with associates from other communities (Sunnis and Christians included) are transferring their clientelist and patrimonial networks to their own community.
As the regime clings to power, and rebel groups launch simultaneous attacks throughout the country, Syria will slowly descend into full-fledged civil war. Areas close to the Iraqi, Turkish borders, and Idlib, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo are already out of government control. According to intelligence sources, about a hundred rebel groups are currently in operation. Many of the groups are still unknown -- the attack on the National Security Headquarters was claimed by both the FSA and a new Islamist group, 'Liwa al-Islam'.
Jihadists from Iraq are believed to have infiltrated the borders
The battle for Damascus will likely be long and fierce. The army and security forces can be expected to intensify their operations to regain control of the areas of the capital under rebel control. The regime will make the most of its heavy equipment to fight the insurgency. As the balance of power tilts in the opposition's favour, Moscow might initiate back-channel negotiations to broker an exit for the ruling family, while preserving its regional strategic interests (see SYRIA: Conflict is close to tipping point - July 16, 2012).
The insurgents' control of border crossings and other frontier areas increases their military advantage. Arms and funds will flow more freely from the Turkish border. A safe haven for refugees and defectors will be available without external enforcement. The current number of refugees (120,000 according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is expected to increase dramatically (see SYRIA: Refugees create humanitarian, security crisis - June 29, 2012).
Loss of control of the Iraqi border will also damage the country's already deteriorating economic situation. Since international sanctions were introduced last year, 70% of imports have come from Iraq (see SYRIA: Sanctions will weaken, not undermine regime - March 30, 2012).
Chemical weapons -- the last resort?
Regime forces are unlikely to resort to chemical weapons. High-ranking US military sources have disclosed US and Israeli government plans to seize Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons in case of an imminent threat. The Assad regime will be careful to avoid any course of action that would trigger foreign military operations and lose it Russia's support.