As Syria's rebels close in, Assad has three options
The most likely is a retreat into the mountains controlled by his minority Alawite community.
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The most likely option, however, and one that appears already to be under way, is for the regime and the core of the Army and security forces to retreat to the Alawite-populated mountains on the Mediterranean coast. Diplomatic sources say that there are unconfirmed reports that the regime is planning to register all Sunnis who live in the coastal cities of Tartous, Banias, and Latakia, which could potentially form part of an Alawite-dominated enclave. The coastal cities are predominantly Sunni-populated while the mountain hinterland is mainly Alawite.Skip to next paragraph
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Exodus to the mountains
Furthermore, there appears to be a steady and discreet trickle of families of pro-regime Alawite Army officers leaving the upmarket Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus for the coastal mountains.
“More and more regime supporters and/or their families are moving up the coast, and there are persistent rumors that at least part of the government now sits in Tartous,” the European diplomat says. “All indications are that the regime's fallback position is to retreat to the coastal area of Tartous and Latakia.”
Significantly, units of the FSA operating north of Damascus appear to be limiting ambushes to southbound military traffic heading to the capital along the main highway, the sources say. Vehicles heading north are left unmolested, raising the possibility that the highway, which leads to Tartous, is being offered as an escape route for the regime to prevent a protracted and bloody last stand in Damascus.
Still, there might not be a mad dash for the mountains as Damascus falls but more of an incremental retreat.
“I think that the Assad regime will go in stages,” says Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You have the north and east go, and then after that there will be a real effort to hold on to Damascus as long as possible. But in the end I don't see that as viable.”
Mr. Tabler says he envisages a staged pullback from Damascus first to the area west of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, which lies two-thirds of the way along the Damascus-Tartous highway, and then to the mountains.
“Those areas are viable, I think, in the short to medium term,” he says.
A fallback to Homs would explain the fierce fighting that erupted in September and October in a string of villages between Homs and the border with Lebanon, 20 miles to the south. Syrian troops assisted by pro-regime Shabiha militiamen and combatants from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant Shiite group, fought rebel forces to maintain control of the villages that flank the vital Damascus-Tartous highway.