Is Bashar al-Assad nearly finished?

The Syrian president's army fights on, but his allies appear to be preparing for the end of his reign

Pictures of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad burn
(Image credit: REUTERS/Zain Karam)

Syria's United Nations ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, told U.N. leaders in letters circulated Monday that opposition fighters might use chemical weapons against civilians, and try to blame the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. American officials, on the other hand, have said that intelligence sources suggest that Assad's military is getting so desperate that it's preparing deadly sarin gas for possible use against rebels — just one of a growing number of indications that Assad's grip on power is slipping. President Obama, who last week recognized a new opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, has said that it would be "totally unacceptable" for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons, and that, if it did, world powers would reconsider whether to use force to topple Assad. Here, four other recent signs that Syria's embattled leader might be on the verge of losing power in the face of an uprising that began 20 months ago, and has cost an estimated 40,000 lives:

1. Assad's vice president is talking about a post-Assad Syria

Farouk al-Sharaa, current vice president of Syria, told the Lebanese Al Akhbar newspaper that "with every passing day, the solution [to the Syrian conflict] gets further away, militarily, and politically." He suggests that the Syrian military can't defeat the rebels on the battlefield, so the only way out is to strike a peace deal. He doesn't say a word about Assad, and what he does say sounds bad for his boss: "We are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime," he says. That is the closest official word yet that Assad "may not play a role in Syria's future," says Arthur Bright at The Christian Science Monitor, "marking the highest-level acknowledgment yet from the Syrian government that a victory for the Assad regime looks increasingly unlikely."

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2. Iran is distancing itself from Assad

Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday released a "six-point plan" it says could resolve the crisis in Syria, says Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy. The plan "resembles Kofi Annan's much-maligned plan from the spring. It also doesn't mention one key point: What happens to Bashar al-Assad?" Maybe it's just a coincidence that Iran, one of the regime's few remaining allies, let this glimpse at a post-Assad Syria slip at precisely the moment when al-Sharaa, who has been mentioned as a possible transitional leader, gave his interview (although, there's a chance the interview was a fake). "And it's important to remember that the Iranian Foreign Ministry doesn't always speak for the supreme leader. But it sure does look like Iran isn't ready to make a last stand with Bashar, eh?"

3. Russia is looking beyond him, too

"Over the last few days, Assad's Russian protectors have sent a few mixed messages, too," says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. Moscow has relentlessly protected Assad, using its veto at the U.N. Security Council to shield him from sanctions and condemnation. Then last week a Russian deputy foreign minister said Assad appeared to be losing control, and the speaker of the Duma "pointedly noted" that Assad's government was "not up to the task" of running the country any longer. That's a good indication that things are looking "pretty bleak" for Assad, and he might be "reaching the final stage of decadent dictatorships — where to run."

4. Ecuador says it might offer Assad a place to go

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, has already shown he's not afraid to offer shelter to a controversial figure, by granting political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Correa this month said he would be willing to consider extending the same protection to Assad. "Any person who requests asylum in Ecuador, we will consider as a human being whose basic rights we must respect," Correa told a Brazilian newspaper. "We would analyze such a request with all responsibility." Israel's Haaretz newspaper has reported that Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad has visited Ecuador, Venezuela, and Cuba in recent weeks, to discuss the possibility of granting refuge to Assad, his family, and members of his inner circle.

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.