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No easy route for Assad

world Updated: Dec 26, 2012 02:19 IST
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The United Nations' top envoy for the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with President Bashar al-Assad in the presidential palace on Monday in an urgent effort to resolve the nearly two-year-old conflict.

How Assad might respond to 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 Assad's assessment, known only to himself, about what awaits him if he stays - victory, or death at the hands of his people.

East of the palace lies the airport and a possible dash to exile, a route that some say 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 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 marginalised minority concerned mainly with its own survival.

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.

A Damascus-based diplomat said Monday that 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 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."

In a government that has become even more secretive, it is impossible to know exactly how Assad makes his decisions. Some people say he wanted to reform but his father's generals and intelligence officials, along with his mother, convinced him that reforms would bring their downfall.

"There are two Bashar al-Assads," said Jurgen Todenhofer, a German journalist who interviewed him in July. One is a quiet man "who doesn't like his job" and wants a way out, he said; the other wants to show his family and the world, "I'm not a softy."