As world leaders close ranks against Syrian leader Bashar Assad, the US president summed up the popular wisdom during a recent White House press conference: “Ultimately, this dictator will fall.”
That prediction may be premature.
Regime forces have retaken the major opposition strongholds, the rebels are low on money and guns, and the UN has ruled out any military intervention of the type that tipped the scales against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
Relying on the scorched-earth tactics that have kept his family in power for more than 40 years, Mr Assad is in no immediate danger of falling.
That does not mean the bloodshed is nearing an end. Syria’s rebels are turning to guerrilla tactics, such as roadside bombs and ambushes, and terrorist groups like al Qaida appear to be entering the fray and exploiting the chaos.
Mr Assad could hang on indefinitely while an already violent conflict changes into an insurgency that lays waste to the country.
“The international community and the West have been standing by and watching Syria be torn apart,” Syrian activist Fadi al-Yassin said, speaking by satellite phone from the northern province of Idlib.
“In the end, we worry that there will be no state left for us to build on,” he said.
The UN estimates that more than 8,000 people have been killed since the uprising began a year ago in a grim cycle of attack and reprisal.
In many ways, the successful ousting of four other leaders in the wave of Arab Spring uprisings contributed to an air of inevitability to Syria’s conflict - that the uprising must end, one way or another, with the leader’s fall.
Some of the previous revolts were quick, like Egypt and Tunisia; others were long and bloody like Yemen and Libya.
But in every case, a despised dictator fell.
In most of those conflicts, however, there was an international willingness to get involved: President Barack Obama eventually withdrew support from his ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak; the US became deeply involved in negotiations to extract Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh; and a UN Security Council vote led to Nato airstrikes that were key to Gaddafi’s downfall.
And uprisings that seem unstoppable can turn out otherwise. With the help of troops from Saudi Arabia, the tiny Gulf nation of Bahrain successfully crushed last year’s protests by its Shiite majority against its Sunni monarchy.
In Iran, massive protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 appeared certain to force radical change. Instead, the Islamic leadership’s crackdown all but wiped the opposition from the political radar.