Patrick Cockburn: Neither side is winning, no end is in sight

The prospects for Assad are grimmer as the Syrian economy buckles under the strain of sanctions

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Four months ago many international leaders were hoping that the Syrian government was going to fall in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps they were over-influenced by the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, but it has since become clear that President Bashar al-Assad is not going to be overthrown soon.

Many countries are prepared for somebody to take action to promote a political transition in Syria – just so long as that somebody is somebody else. One suggestion, seeking to emulate what happened in Benghazi, was for safe havens or no-fly zones to be established close to the Jordanian or Turkish borders. But Jordan and Turkey understandably balked at being sucked into a messy ground war with the Syrian army. For now there is a stalemate and no immediate reason why it should be broken. The regime's forces have largely held together without the defection of whole units. They can crush the uprising in single cities like Homs and exact revenge on their people, but they cannot stamp out the rebellion everywhere at the same time.

What could break the present uneasy balance of power? If the Syrian regime staged a massacre on the scale of Hama in 1982 when at least 10,000 died, this might provoke the mass defection of Sunni soldiers or a greater likelihood of foreign intervention. Mr Assad may depend on the Alawites as the core of his regime, but he needs the support of at least part of the Sunni community if he is to continue in power.

In the longer term, the prospects for Mr Assad are grimmer as the Syrian economy buckles under the strain of economic sanctions and worsening disorder. But, as Saddam Hussein once showed, an authoritarian regime can always commandeer what it needs.

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