Despite everyone telling him that he's got to go, Syria's President Bashar Assad has been steadfast in his refusal to do so, claiming that the only ones who can tell him it's time to leave are the Syrian people. They will get their chance in the presidential elections slated for mid-2014, which he has indicated he is likely to contest.

Of course, Assad would well understand that his continued presence at the head of the government is something most Western governments have indicated they could not tolerate.

Assad's presence or otherwise has become a bargaining chip in the three-way game between Russia, Iran and the West plus the Gulf states. Moscow has many reasons for supporting the regime, although whether that extends to Assad personally is another matter. Tehran appears more wedded to Assad’s continued role, and has apparently resisted calls from the West (via UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi) that Assad can't be part of the solution.

Tehran has made a strategic decision that, at the moment, Assad represents its best hope for continued influence. Backing Assad also sends a strong message to other Iranian allies (actual or putative) that Iran sticks by its friends. In addition, the longer there is hope of progress in its nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, the less Tehran feels inclined to cede any ground on Assad, likely on the basis that the nuclear issue is the main game and who rules Syria is a secondary issue.

For his part, Assad is pushing one line in particular which he believes is his trump card: that he is the only thing standing in the way of the radical Islamists in the opposition. In the rather perverse way the Syrian conflict has unfolded, the stronger the Islamists become, the better it is for Assad.

Assad has also sought to position himself as the responsible player juxtaposed with the unreasonable opposition. His decision to sign the CWC, allow UN weapons inspectors into the country and to attend the Geneva II talks are all designed to present him as a leader heading a unified government, regardless of the events that forced him to take these actions. The sacking of Vice-President Qadri Jamil this week is further evidence. By contrast, the various shades of the Syrian opposition have been engaged in both political infighting and internecine warfare at precisely the time they should be unified against a common enemy.

Assad is banking on the fact that as the opposition splinters into increasingly ugly and increasingly religious factions, the secular stability he claims to offer may eventually look acceptable to an exhausted international community. The 2014 ‘election’ should be revealing.

Photo by Flickr user james_gordon_losangeles.