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As Syria's rebels close in, Assad has three options

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“More and more regime supporters and/or their families are moving up the coast, and there are persistent rumors that at least part of the government now sits in Tartous,” the European diplomat says. “All indications are that the regime's fallback position is to retreat to the coastal area of ​​Tartous and Latakia.”

Significantly, units of the FSA operating north of Damascus appear to be limiting ambushes to southbound military traffic heading to the capital along the main highway, the sources say. Vehicles heading north are left unmolested, raising the possibility that the highway, which leads to Tartous, is being offered as an escape route for the regime to prevent a protracted and bloody last stand in Damascus.

Incremental retreat

Still, there might not be a mad dash for the mountains as Damascus falls but more of an incremental retreat.

“I think that the Assad regime will go in stages,” says Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You have the north and east go, and then after that there will be a real effort to hold on to Damascus as long as possible. But in the end I don't see that as viable.”

Mr. Tabler says he envisages a staged pullback from Damascus first to the area west of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, which lies two-thirds of the way along the Damascus-Tartous highway, and then to the mountains.

“Those areas are viable, I think, in the short to medium term,” he says.

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