Some experts say Assad's recent military victories may prove hollow if, as has happened in the past, his overstretched forces have to abandon parts of Idlib and Homs to put out fires elsewhere. Some liken his military predicament to that of U.S. forces during the height of the Iraqi insurgency: American troops were able to take and occupy Fallouja, Samarra and other rebel strongholds, but holding on after the forces pulled out proved problematic.
"This is not the first time the regime claims to have won a victory," noted Peter Harling of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "The regime is making a statement.... It has the firepower, the military capacity to retake any part of the country. But then what does it do? Here is where the regime has no answer."
Assad has proved that his government will not hesitate to take harsh steps to retain power. More than 8,000 civilians and opposition fighters have died since the revolt began, according to the U.N.
"This regime will continue to kill if nobody stops it," said Anwar Bunni, a prominent human rights lawyer and regime opponent in Damascus, the capital.
Opposition leaders say repeatedly they have no plans to back down. Insurgent families in Idlib province have talked about spending all their savings to buy rifles. Many Syrians have lost loved ones. Talk of a fight to the death is regularly heard in opposition circles. Assad's proposed "reforms," such as a new constitution and parliamentary elections, have done little to end demands for his ouster.
"The problem the regime faces is its relationship with a large cross section of its people," Harling said. "The regime seems to be making no progress whatsoever in mending that broken relationship."
McDonnell reported from Beirut and Richter from Washington. Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels and a Times staff writer in Beirut contributed to this report.