In other words, how do you give up power and hold on to it at the same time? This is the perennial question of the powerful. It was said that Castro was also a keen student of Francisco Franco’s rule in Spain. It ended peacefully and Franco died in his bed. It helped that he had an important agent of transition in King Juan Carlos.
Syria is probably too far gone now for a similar fate. There is no king and the army has cast its lot firmly with the regime. Barring some major outside intervention, it is unlikely that the Syrian army will play a transitory role as, for example, the Egyptian army has done, albeit with difficulty.
Assad’s ultimate fate therefore may no longer matter as much as other factors in Syria. But surely it still matters to him. It is difficult to picture so buttoned down a man hiding in a hole in the desert or as a bed-ridden invalid. At the same time, if he meant to flee to a luxurious exile, he probably would have done so by now. The problem has been that his reputation and that of his fellow Alawites militates against the latter choice. Not only is their power, and possibly their survival, at stake; so too is their honor. According to many of them, at least.
There may be a third option for Assad besides fighting it out to the death or fleeing out the back door. He could throw himself on the mercy of the international community and ask to be given a fair trial outside Syria. As far-fetched as this may sound, it may be the best of a dwindling menu of options for him. He would almost certainly lose his case but he would save his life and some tiny residue of his reputation in court. But this now seems like the least likely of outcomes.
There is no perfect calculus for compelling rulers to step down. Each case is different. We can never predict whether or when one will choose exile over resistance, and nearly every one faces that choice. The task for the rest of us is to work to attach greater prestige to the act of ceding power so that it appeals to even the most hardened rulers. They should be judged as much for what they do as for what they don’t do, namely holding on until the bitter end. Otherwise giving up may be just too difficult, even for someone like Assad who probably never sought the job in the first place.