The Obama administration along with its Arab and European allies are trying to push Syria’s leader from power, but U.S. officials acknowledge they see no good candidates to replace him, either inside the government or from the nation's fractured opposition.
That is due in no small part, the officials and experts on Syria said, to President Bashar al-Assad’s determination to “coup proof” his rule to ensure no challenge emerged from within.
With the Assad family facing the greatest challenge to its 41-year rule, Syrian security forces killing thousands of protesters and bystanders, and U.S. officials predicting the government will eventually fall, the question of who rules Syria has taken on added urgency.
But there is, in short, no heir apparent. And it is unclear if one will emerge anytime soon.
“The ruling establishment there is so entrenched and it is so self-interested, even if, and this is purely speculative, even if they overthrew Assad, it’s not clear that we would like his successor much more,” said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is no heir apparent.”
Similarly, among the rebels, “there is no opposition figure who has come out and become the face of Syrian resistance,” the official said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday tried to exacerbate any divisions within Syria’s elite, especially its security forces. “Their refusal to continue this slaughter will make them heroes in the eyes of not only Syrians but people of conscience everywhere,” Clinton said.
Yet privately, officials say Assad, his close family and their inner circle will try to hang on to power as long as possible.
The Assads and many other power-brokers in Damascus are from the minority Alawite sect that makes up just 12 percent of the Syrian population. Their fortunes are tied to the president's.
There is also family history. The Syrian leader’s late father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power as a result of a bloodless coup in 1970 and became the unquestioned ruler the following year.
“The Assads have been planning for this for 40 years, for a Sunni uprising against them. And that’s why they’ve poured family members and sectarian members into the top upper ranks. It’s all about loyalty to coup-proof this regime,” said Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who writes a newsletter on Syrian politics.
When the younger Assad took office, he kept the grip of power within the family, with his brother Maher commanding the Republican Guard and his brother-in-law a leader of the armed forces.
“The place is one exercise in nepotism,” Landis said.
Individuals involved in bloodshed against noncombatants also have a strong incentive to fortify Assad because they will be in trouble if the government falls, experts say.
“Almost anyone in the security services as of today would have good reason to fear for their future in a Syria in which the regime has fallen,” said Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor and former top CIA analyst.
For decades, the Assads worried about an uprising led by Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims, who make up about 74 percent of the population -- like that now underway.
They built a security apparatus that included a “Mukhabarat culture” of secret police and public fear to control the population. “Mukhabarat” is the Arabic word for an intelligence agency.
It would be difficult to mount a coup because the Assads engineered a system in which intelligence agencies have overlapping functions, said Murhaf Jouejati, a National Defense University professor and member of the opposition Syrian National Council. “So if there is the movement of any units of the Army they would all become aware of it.”
The top tier is not immune from scrutiny by their peers. “Even these people are watched over by different intelligence agencies. So it really is difficult to mount a coup, although one can never say it is impossible,” Jouejati said.
“Syria is a police state with a very strong military and intelligence capability inside Syria,” the U.S. official said.
“They are pervasive throughout Syria, they have sophisticated means of obtaining information and that is something the opposition has to battle,” the official said.
“They are heavily networked, literally and figuratively, inside the country. They use a variety of collection means at their disposal to obtain information. It is your classic police state,” he said.
Clinton said on Thursday she would bet against Assad staying in power and that “there will be a breaking point.”
“That breaking point may come when there is a convergence of international, diplomatic and economic pressure and enough of a boil inside Syria to create the writing on the wall for Assad. But it is not going to be easy, and it may take more time,” the U.S. official said.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a recent congressional hearing that one factor to watch is the “cohesion of the elites.”
“And while we’ve seen signs of some of the seniors in the Assad regime making contingency plans to evacuate, move families, move financial resources, to this point they've held together,” he said.
“Assad himself probably because of his psychological need to emulate his father, sees no other option, but to continue to try to crush the opposition,” Clapper said. “Short of a coup or something like that, Assad will hang in there and continue to do as he's done.”
But the popular uprising is evidence that some of the public is shaking off its fear, Jouejati said. “What is happening now in Syria is that this barrier of fear is breaking and people are discovering that they can trust one another and this is the greatest threat really to the Assad regime,” he said.
So how does Assad leave power, as many are predicting?
“The hope is he would either step down or be forced to step down by his own people,” the U.S. official said. But how it will actually happen “is really impossible to tell.”
“He is doomed because he’s the last minoritarian regime in the Middle East,” Landis said. “One presumes that they will eventually fall in this age of democratic revolution and popular revolt.”