WASHINGTON – His official portrait still refers to Bashar al-Assad as The Hope of the Syrian nation, but signs are increasing that the man who presides over Syrias embattled government has little of it left for himself.
Accounts of conditions inside the Syrian regime in recent days have shed new light on the psychological toll of the nearly two-year-old civil war on Assad, depicting the Syrian leader as isolated and fearful as his regime appears to be on the verge of crumbling around him.
After months of nearly continuous setbacks for his government, Assad all but vanished from public view in recent weeks, giving no interviews or speeches and making no live appearances on state-run television. U.S. and Middle Eastern officials now say Assad is nearly as invisible within the shrinking world of his presidency, restricting contacts to a small circle of family members and trusted advisers.
Forgoing any public effort to rally his beleaguered forces, Assad has focused on his personal safety, according to analysts and news accounts.
Even Syrian media recorded the shift, describing the president increasing his security detail, moving to a different bedroom each night and tightening controls over food preparation to thwart would-be assassins. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
Moreover, Middle Eastern intelligence officials, citing accounts from defectors that could not be verified, say Assad has ceased going outdoors during daylight hours, apparently out of fear that he will be hit by a snipers bullet or other fire.
His movements suggest a constant state of fear, a Middle Eastern official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
Assads words, however, continue to convey a resolve to remain in power. In his last televised interview in early November, the Syrian president vowed to live in Syria and die in Syria.
He showed no change of heart and little willingness to compromise during private meetings with U.N. officials who traveled to Damascus this week to discuss a plan for a transitional government. Officials briefed on the meetings said Assad appeared poised and confident.
Even as the U.N. sessions were under way, Syrian diplomats were being dispatched to Moscow – one of Assads few allies – to discuss prospects for a cease-fire amid increasing signs that Syrias armed forces are nearing collapse in many parts of the country in the face of increasingly effective rebel assaults.
Previous efforts to negotiate a settlement have foundered, but some Russian and U.N. Security Council officials expressed cautious optimism about the latest round of talks even as the rebel advances raise questions about whether they would accept anything short of outright victory.
Things appear to be moving very quickly, said a U.N.-based official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. Events on the ground might sort things out before things are sorted out in the council or in capitals.
U.S. officials declined to discuss the mood within Assads inner circle, but one senior official with access to intelligence reports said the rebels steady advance on Damascus was having an inevitable impact.
Assad may still believe Syria is his, but the psychological strain of struggling against a determined and resourceful foe has to be taking its toll, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in discussing intelligence.
U.S. officials say the sense of isolation within the presidential palace has been reinforced by new defections – most recently by the chief of Syrias military police – as well as moves by Syrias few remaining allies to distance themselves from the 47-year-old dictator. In a major psychological blow, Russian President Vladimir Putin last week said Russia was not concerned with the fate of Assads regime.
Putins comments hit particularly hard, the Middle Eastern intelligence official said. With the Russians pulling back, theres increasingly a feeling that the ship is sinking.