“It’s no mistake he’s feeling more confident than ever,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center.
“Any previous talk of regime change on the part of the international community has been pushed to the side and now Assad is a partner foPresident Bashar al-Assadr the international community,” he added.
Hamid was speaking before a meeting in London of Arab and Western governments that support the opposition which issued a joint statement renewing their insistence that the Syrian leader could have no future political role.
But that statement was seen as part of a wider effort to persuade at least some of the opposition to take part in the planned Geneva peace conference.
While much of the West supported the rebels’ demand that Assad must go, “you don’t hear people talking about regime change any more,” Hamid said.
Fearing the growing influence of extremist groups within the opposition, some of them loyal to Al-Qaeda, the United States has opted to push for a political settlement, rather than giving all-out support to the revolt.
At the same time, Assad “continues to enjoy the full support of (key backers) Russia and Iran”, Hamid said.
In the West, “I think there’s a real concern that the strongest and most dominant factions are people the international community does not want to win”, he said.
“Assad feels that that kind of development helps his narrative.”
Meantime, the opposition is deeply divided, not only militarily but politically.
Hamid said “the political opposition is totally irrelevant, so the people who are going to Geneva do not represent the fighters on the ground,” who are now mostly extremists.
Talking about the US-Russia deal on Syria chemical weapons disarmament, Hamid said it was another factor strengthening Assad’s hand.
“Things have definitely gone in (Assad’s) favor in the past two months,” Hamid said.
“You might have expected that that would be his downfall but actually it turned out to be a major boost.”
When the deal was first proposed, Assad quickly volunteered to cooperate, and Hamid said there was a “real shift” when US Secretary of State John Kerry commended the Syrian leader’s commitment to a swift implementation of the deal.
The arms deal “was a victory for Assad, plain and simple. Ever since then, he’s in some sense been rehabilitated,” he added.
For his part, Hilal Khashan, who heads the political science department at the American University of Beirut, said “the overall balance is still tilted in (the regime’s) favor, even though it cannot win… The Syrian regime’s backers are faithful to their stance, and they know what they’re doing.”
Syria expert and former Dutch ambassador to several Arab countries Nikolaos Van Dam said Assad’s refusal to deal with any opposition groups with links to the outside “is not new.”
But “whether it is realistic for President Assad to want to exclude the main Syrian opposition groups with substantial military forces inside considerable parts of Syria is another thing.”
For Khashan, Assad’s refusal to negotiate with the main opposition National Coalition shows he is pressing to increase his bargaining power.
“His gains on the ground allow him to do this,” he said.
Author of the “Struggle for Power in Syria,” Van Dam said Assad is unlikely “to make serious concessions as long as his regime is the main dominant force on the ground.”
“He wants presidential elections to be held in 2014, but might in the end be willing to accept an alternative candidate, preferably from within the regime,” he said.