Well, the best summary I’ve yet seen can be found in this excellent article from our friends at the Crisis Group. It’s so good that I’m going to quote it at considerable length.
One is tempted to say that the regime has been uniformly cold-blooded and indiscriminate from the start, but that is not so. The conflict experienced several phases: from the regime’s political concessions, both half-hearted (which prompted stronger popular demands) and coupled with brutal repression (which further undermined their credibility); to its so-called security solution (which, by seeking to force entire communities into submission further energised the opposition and pushed it toward armed resistance); and, finally, to its so-called military solution (a scorched earth policy of rampant destruction and looting that turned what once was viewed as a national army into a broadly reviled occupation force).
With each stage, the regime burned yet another bridge, leaving it with neither way back nor way out. Just as the political solution undermined those involved in politics and the security situation wrecked the security services’ ability to operate, so did the military solution eviscerate the army’s credibility.
This strikes me as a cogent summary of the regime’s shifting strategies over the last 18 months. It’s largely forgotten now, but the Syrian government did attempt to make some minor political concessions, including local and municipal elections in 2011 that were (by Syrian standards) remarkably free and fair. If I were to point to a moment when the political strategy stalled out and failed, it would be the parliamentary elections held earlier this year. The government seems to have dithered at first, then decided that the purpose of elections was not to allow opposing views in the legislature, nor to co-opt moderates and broaden the base of popular support, but to reaffirm the legitimacy of the Baath party and the regime. The result was, unsurprisingly, a landslide “victory” for the Baath and a further alienation of moderate opposition.
One thing that’s not discussed is the regime’s strategy towards the Kurds. Short version: they’ve basically given autonomy and near independence to the Kurds in return for Kurdish neutrality. And they’ve done this by deliberately handing over power to the Kurdish faction that’s associated with the PKK, the anti-Turkish Kurds. This is a calculated risk, because it increases the probability of Turkish intervention in Syria. But it means that the Kurdish regions will be run by people who are violently hostile to the opposition forces that are backed by, or friendly with, Turkey. From here it looks like a thoughtful strategy that is, so far, paying off — while there are a few small Kurdish groups working with the opposition, the majority of Kurds look likely to sit this thing out.
As to what may happen going forward, the article offers this bracing analysis:
Of all the ongoing changes, perhaps the most significant and least appreciated is what, over time, has become of the regime. The one that existed at the outset of the conflict almost certainly could not have survived the spectacular killing of top officials in the heart of its traditional stronghold; street combat in Damascus, Aleppo and a string of other towns; the loss of important border crossings with Turkey and Iraq; all amid near-total economic devastation and diplomatic opprobrium. That, a year and a half later, its new incarnation not only withstood those blows but vigorously counterpunched sends a message worthy of reflection.
As its political backbone disintegrates, the regime is being reduced to its repressive apparatus, while the latter itself gradually morphs into an entity more akin to a militia than an army in both make-up and ethos. The regime essentially has been stripped down to a broadly cohesive, hardcore faction fighting an increasingly bitter, fierce and naked struggle for collective survival. It is mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate. Opposition gains terrify Alawites, who stand more firmly by the regime’s side. Defections solidify the ranks of those who remain loyal. Territorial losses can be dismissed for the sake of concentrating on “useful” geographic areas. Sanctions give rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling ensure self-sufficiency and over which punitive measures have virtually no bearing.
That the regime has been weakened is incontrovertible. But it has been weakened in ways that strengthen its staying power. (emphasis ours)
The regime has been undergoing a very rapid Nietzschean “what does not kill us” evolution. It has become much less effective as a government — indeed, it may end up hardly being a government at all. But it has become much more effective at surviving. And this leads to a sobering conclusion:
There can be nothing more to expect from a regime that, by its very nature – never much of an institutionalised state, no longer genuinely a political entity – has ceased being in a position to compromise, respond to pressure or inducement or offer a viable solution. Which means that the traditional international panoply of actions, from public blandishments to condemnation, from threats to sanctions, is not about to work. And that, while one still can hold out hope for a “clean break,” that moment when the regime neatly collapses or surrenders, it hardly warrants holding one’s breath.
This leads to my own tentative prediction (which matches my co-blogger’s assessment): six months from now, Assad will still be in Syria, and still the leader of an internationally recognized (though very diplomatically isolated) government. It’s possible that he might be assassinated by then, but I don’t think it likely. I don’t see a blue-on-blue coup taking him out now, and I don’t think he’s anywhere close to cutting and running. Foreign military intervention is (for reasons I’ve discussed) unlikely, though not out of the question; watch for Turkish agitation to create a “safe haven” in northern Syria or rebel attacks on Syrian Air Force bases and other assets. (That Turkish plane that got shot down a few weeks ago? Very probably a probe of Syria’s air defenses. As long as those are still working, military intervention will be hard and expensive. So if the rebels suddenly start going after bases and air defense batteries, then that’ll be suggestive.)
Six months from now, the regime may well have lost control of large swathes of the country. Syria will probably be increasingly violent, impoverished, and immiserated. And Assad may well be — in effect — just a powerful warlord in a country that has a number of warlords. But he’ll still be there, and will still be at least nominally the head of state. More’s the pity.