His critics offer another analogy: the fable of the scorpion that persuades a frog to carry it across the river, then stings it, drowning both. Russia, having rescued Mr. Assad with its air force, is the frog. Now it is swimming for a political settlement to the Syrian war, hoping to cement its renewed status as a global power — but given Mr. Assad’s history, he may very well sink the negotiations and explain, as several diplomats put it, that making deals is not in his nature.

Ever since President Vladimir V. Putin’s surprise announcement last week that Russia was scaling back its aerial bombing campaign in Syria, speculation has swirled about whether Mr. Putin’s next move is to force Mr. Assad to make a substantive political compromise to end the war.

But while Mr. Assad’s dependence on Russia’s military, money and political influence has only grown during Mr. Putin’s six-month aerial assault in Syria, the campaign has also bolstered Mr. Assad’s confidence and ambitions as it has shored up Syrian government forces on the ground.

“Putin apparently thinks Syria needs Russia more than the other way around,” said David W. Lesch, an Assad biographer and professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. “But Assad and his inner circle probably arrogantly think it is quite the reverse.”

Mr. Assad inherited the presidency in 2000 from his father, who governed for 30 years. He relies on a small, cohesive ruling coterie, mostly family members and security officials. While Mr. Putin’s withdrawal appeared to take Syrian officials briefly by surprise, they quickly told diplomats that Russian support was undiminished and dismissed any notion that they were under pressure.

Bushra Khalil, a Lebanese lawyer who has longstanding contacts with Syrian government insiders and has met several times in recent weeks with senior officials, including the interior minister and a powerful intelligence chief, Ali Mamlouk, described their mood as buoyant.

Mr. Assad’s advisers believe not only that he has passed “the risky period” and will remain the president of Syria, she said in a recent interview, but also that his ability to “stand up to the whole world” will make him more prominent than ever as “a leader in the region.”

They insist that Russia is steadfast, she added, but they also hold an insurance card: their even closer relationship with Iran and their ability to juggle two very different allies.

“They are like a man with two wives,” said Ms. Khalil, best known for defending Saddam Hussein in his war crimes trial in Iraq. “There is something you like in each one.”

Ms. Khalil, who compared Mr. Assad to de Gaulle, is a longtime supporter of his, with a flair for flamboyant statements, and her meetings with officials were not about the war but about a court case involving a son of the deposed Libyan dictator.

But her description of the inner circle’s mood and modus operandi was echoed by many others, both supporters and detractors, who have met with Mr. Assad or his advisers and allies in recent months. They include scholars, humanitarian officials, Syrian associates, diplomats and officials with the pro-government alliance that includes Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Most of them spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to preserve their access to government officials or to avoid reprisals.

Over and over again in separate interviews, these people described a leadership that is expert in playing allies off one another; often refuses compromise, even when the chips appear to be down; and, if forced to make deals, delays and complicates them, playing for time until Mr. Assad’s situation improves.

Mr. Putin seems bent on capping a triumphant return to the world stage by presiding over a political solution for Syria, hand in hand with the United States. Several diplomats said that Russia defined victory as a negotiated solution that would leave Mr. Assad in power — showing that Western aspirations for regime change had failed — but that Mr. Putin might back a deal that would ease the Syrian leader out later or diminish his power.

While Iran appears more attached to keeping Mr. Assad in power, it is becoming clear that without Russian air power, Iranian support is not enough to help Syrian government forces advance, despite thousands of ground troops from Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias.

So Mr. Assad most likely realizes that he has to engage in some kind of political process, at least to satisfy Mr. Putin, said Mr. Lesch, the biographer, who regularly visited Mr. Assad from 2004 to 2009 and has met with high-level Syrian government officials and opposition members since the civil war started in 2011.

But the Syrian government could drag out and complicate the process, Mr. Lesch said, and “say ‘no’ 49 times until saying ‘yes’ on the 50,” he added, suggesting that Mr. Assad “probably figures he can game the system in a way that preserves the existing core in power.”

Another problem, analysts say, is that Mr. Assad and his father before him deliberately created a system dependent on a single leader, without strong institutions or deputies. Some believe it is so brittle that even the slightest compromise is likely to bring it down — the assessment that led Mr. Assad to crack down on protesters rather than accede to political changes in the first place.

Mr. Assad has proved to be the ultimate survivor. He has held on through five years of upheaval, beginning with political protests that seemed to have the momentum of a widespread Arab revolt and American support, and devolving into a proxy war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half of Syria’s population.

His opponents, domestic and international, have time and again underestimated not just Mr. Assad’s readiness to use violence to preserve his authority, but also the staying power of his inner circle and core loyalist forces.

Mohammad al-Shaar, the interior minister, sleeps in a paper-stacked office, still working long hours despite three attempts on his life — a poisoning and two bombs, one of which damaged his right hand — said Ms. Khalil, a longtime friend.

Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, died in a bombing in 2012 along with three other top security officials; Mr. Assad’s brother Maher was maimed but remained a powerful general. Yet Mr. Assad still holds meetings in his ceremonial palace overlooking Damascus with only minimal visible security, leading several recent visitors to joke that they could have walked in with a gun.

Opponents also miscalculated the willingness of a critical mass of ordinary Syrians, including many who dislike Mr. Assad, to remain quiescent for fear of uncertain alternatives.

Mr. Assad excels at running the clock. His officials show up at peace talks but essentially refuse to negotiate. They broadly promise humanitarian aid access while denying the vast majority of specific requests. Mr. Assad agreed in 2013, under threat of United States military action, to destroySyria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, yet conventional attacks on civilian areas, and accusations of chlorine gas use, remain routine.

As time passes, the rise of the Islamic State and the refugee crisis spilling into Europe have shifted Western priorities away from Mr. Assad’s ouster. Washington no longer insists he step down at the beginning of a transition.

Mr. Assad and his allies believe that the West has concluded it needs him to control Syria’s borders to fight the Islamic State and stem the flow of refugees, said an official with the pro-government alliance.

Those who support Mr. Assad are counting, in part, on the fractured nature of the conflict, saying they do not believe Russia will be able to find a set of opposition figures who are both willing to share power with Mr. Assad and are acceptable to all parties.

At the same time, Mr. Assad and his circle often test the patience of badly needed allies, according to a Syrian who, while deeply critical of the president, supports the government over the opposition. This Syrian, who speaks often with officials, said that the government had tangled with Iran over bills, with Hezbollah over turf and with Russia over military performance.

That is nothing new. A diplomat with long experience in the region recounted that in the 1980s, a British diplomat asked the Soviet ambassador about the superpower’s relationship with Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez.

“They take everything from us,” the Soviet said, “except advice.”

Many Syrian officials, steeped in Arab nationalism and often educated in Moscow, feel comfortable with a secular Russia and its emphasis on preserving state institutions. But many also value a theocratic Iran for its commitment to a long fight in Syria and its confrontational policy toward Israel.

Several prominent pro-Assad insiders have also sought to woo the United States. But a Western scholar and former official who met Mr. Assad and his advisers last spring, said the Syrians demonstrated unrealistic hopes and had failed to grasp how brutal they appeared to Washington.

But Western officials who hoped for a split inside the regime were also unrealistic, this scholar said. Russia’s aid has now most likely squelched any fears for their personal fate that could have tempted Mr. Assad’s closest confidants to leave.

Mr. Lesch, the biographer, said that some advisers believed some decentralization of authority was needed, but that it remained to be seen “if they can form a critical mass to convince Assad to negotiate seriously.”


See the original