Bashar al-Assad has neither been seen nor heard in public since the bomb attack that killed four of his top security advisers, despite appearing a day later on TV appointing a new defence minister. The Syrian president's state of mind and plans are not known. But his inner circle is shrinking – along with his options.
Diplomats reported on Friday that Assad was still in Damascus, scotching rumours he had fled to organize a last stand in the coastal heartland of his Alawite sect.
On Wednesday he telephoned the United Nations observer chief, General Robert Mood, and took a condolence call from Lebanese supporters at the discreetly guarded Malki residence he shares with his wife, Asma, and their children in the heart of the capital.
The death of Asef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law and deputy defence minister, was the most damaging, according to observers struggling to make assessments out of scraps of information and a chorus of propaganda – a task some compare to the Kremlinology of the cold war days.
The elimination of the four generals leaves significant gaps in the uppermost ranks of Syria's defence establishment. "Bashar has suffered a great loss in Shawkat," said a former government official. "It's a deadly blow."
The president's younger brother, Maher, the commander of the fourth armoured division and an unreconstructed hardliner, is now his closest adviser. But veteran security chiefs Ali Mamluk and Hafez Makhlouf are influential too.
"These three are the hardcore of the regime," says Fabrice Balanche, a French expert on the Alawites.
Senior military commanders also matter at a time when the regime is lavishing praise on "heroic" armed forces fighting foreign-backed "terrorists".
Outsiders admit that they struggle to characterise the relationships within the secretive inner circle. "The Assad regime itself is not so cohesive," argued Nadim Shehadi of the Chatham House thinktank in London. "What binds them together is negative tension. They will only trust someone because they know they have some kind of hold over them."
Assad, say presidential observers, is now likely to be drawn closer to his family — his mother, Anisa, the powerful matriarch of the clan (and widow of former president Hafez) and his sister Bushra, Shawkat's widow. Both women were seen at the funeral of Shawkat and two other bomb victims at the martyrs cemetery on Jebel Qassioun overlooking Damascus. Assad was not there but was represented by the vice-president, Farouk al-Sharaa.
Officially, the tone is brashly defiant. On Friday the foreign ministry furiously denied the suggestion by the Russian ambassador to France that Assad was ready to step down "in a civilised manner".
"Syrian TV does not tell the truth but it does display a lot of energy and determination," observed Assad's biograher, the Israeli academic Eyal Zisser. "You see a regime that is determined to fight. You don't see any panic. They carry on as if nothing has happened."
Opinions are divided as to the significance of two recent high-profile defections — the Republican Guard commander Manaf Tlas and Syria's ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares. Tlas's uncle, for example, remains the deputy minister of defence and thus, like many Sunnis, still loyal to the regime.
Speculation is rife about what Assad will do next. One scenario has him holding on for now but fleeing in the end with Asma and the children. "He saw what happened to Gaddafi," said Zisser. "I would argue that he will try to escape."
Whether the so-called "Dacha option" is still viable depends on whether the ever-loyal Russians will continue to help him if he is forced to step down.
Another possibility is more dramatic. "I think Bashar might fight to the end," said the former government official. "He seems to be more defiant and that makes it less likely he will be able to find an escape route. I don't think he will. Earlier on in the crisis he could have gone to the UAE. But now I doubt whether any Arab country will take him in. He's too toxic."
Joseph Bahout, a Lebanese-French political analyst, said: "It's dangerous to over-psychologise but having said that, Bashar's character is important. If Maher had been killed too he probably would have collapsed. My guess is that he is much shaken but that as long as Maher is still there he may go for a suicidal solution involving massacres and ethnic cleansing. I just don't see these guys negotiating."≠
(This article first appeared in the Guardian on July 20. Ian Black can be reached on Twitter on @ian_black.)