HERNDON, Va., Jan. 15 (UPI) -- On the evening of March 5, 1836, the 189 Americans defending the "Alamo" -- a Spanish mission in Texas -- faced a monumental decision.
Surrounded by thousands of Mexican troops led by Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had issued an ultimatum for them to surrender or die. Col. William Travis -- in command of the defenders -- drew a line in the sand with his sword. He offered those wishing to remain behind, knowing certain death awaited them, to cross over.
History recorded the slaughter that followed the Alamo defenders' collective decision to cross that line -- one taking the lives of patriots Davy Crocket and Jim Bowie as well.
Lost among the heroic decision of the Alamo defenders that day was the cowardice of Louis "Moses" Rose -- the only one choosing not to stay and fight. Allowed to leave, he escaped through Mexican lines under cover of darkness. Rose lived another 14 years, known the rest of his life as the "Coward of the Alamo" and "the Yellow Rose of Texas."
Sometimes a fine line exists between courage and cowardice. Even in choosing to escape, Rose faced danger in penetrating enemy lines. It wasn't a journey for the weak-hearted, although he may have been encouraged by 32 American volunteers who earlier successfully penetrated Mexican lines to get to the Alamo to reinforce the defenders.
A French mercenary, Rose was undoubtedly less motivated to die for America than the others but, clearly, those who stayed were driven by love of country and a desire to meet their end, courageously fighting alongside those with a similar belief.
As Syrian rebels close in on Damascus to end the 40-plus-year rule of the Assad family, we hear a familiar cry from President Bashar Assad that he will "live in Syria and die in Syria."
He follows a long line of Middle East demagogues who made similar vows to fight to the death. Dictators such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and others, refusing to end the killing, have been content to allow their minions to fight to the death on their behalf, ultimately turning tail to escape the final tug on the noose.
Long gone are the days, centuries ago, when leaders recognized the importance of their presence on the battlefield to motivate followers. Such a presence targeted them for elimination to cause followers to lose faith in continuing the bloodshed, bringing the human carnage to an end.
Demagogues of today, however, firmly value their lives above those both of their opponents and their supporters. Following Iran's fraudulent presidential 2009 election, for example, it appeared domestic opposition threatened the mullahs' leadership. An aircraft was maintained to whisk away to another country Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other mullahs should domestic violence endanger their lives.
These same religious leaders unhesitatingly promoted violence preaching, "We must wipe away the shameful stain whereby some people imagine that violence has no place in Islam," yet turned tail when they became its target.
Having never personally experienced the ravages of battle and from a safe distance, Assad claims he will stand fast. Reality tells us such bravado will ultimately prove false.
For Assad, the all-too-graphic photos and videos of once-all-powerful leaders Saddam -- crawling out of a spider hole in Iraq, being tried and executed -- and Gadhafi -- attempting to escape, being captured and shot in Libya -- are humiliations to be avoided.
Assad's facade to fight and die in Syria was built only to encourage his last remnants of Allawite support. Recently, he has become "the great shrinking dictator," disappearing from public view and television appearances. He no longer stays in one location, constantly moving with his growing security detail, avoiding daylight trips and fearing assassination.
In his first public appearance since June, Assad on Jan. 6 delivered a speech vowing continued resistance while really offering nothing new to end the fighting. He seemed to have no appreciation for opposition advances in the interim, suggesting he is: 1) trying to hang tough; 2) his inner circle only tells him what he wants to hear; or 3) he has been "sniffing glue."
Meanwhile, Syrians continue to die at an increasingly rapid rate as Assad refuses to end the bloodshed as he selfishly tries to retain power.
Even Syrian ally Vladimir Putin of Russia senses the noose is tightening around Assad's neck, recently claiming, for the first time, that Putin is "not concerned with the fate of Assad's regime."
As Assad's movements become more constrained and the noose further tightens, his focus will shift to a safe exit. Initially, it may involve withdrawal to an ethnic safe haven along the Syrian coast but will ultimately involve safe harbor outside Syria. In choosing the latter, he will readily abandon major Allawite supporters whose loyalty to him remains steadfast.
Hoping to expedite the noose-tightening, the opposition is preparing to drive a wedge between Assad and key Allawite supporters by suggesting their survival isn't tied to Assad's. The top hundred such supporters are being identified and will be offered the chance to defect now, receiving partial amnesty, or continue supporting the dictator, suffering the consequences later.
While it is clear Assad won't be given immunity from prosecution for war crimes, this may be the last opportunity for his supporters to get a free pass.
If the offer works, and his remaining support crumbles, Assad will trip over himself in a rush to leave Damascus.
It is only a matter of time before Assad pursues the safest exit route at the optimal time. He has learned from Saddam and Gadhafi the danger of lingering too long. As his supporters circle the wagons in a final defense, it can be expected Assad will show his true colors, leaving others to fight to retain his power on his behalf.
When Damascus falls, Assad will prove to be yet another fleeing dictator -- a Syrian version of the "Coward of the Alamo."
(Retired U.S. Marine Corps officer James G. Zumwalt is author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie--North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking.")
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)