Syrian offensive risks backfiring on Assad - analysts

LONDON/AMMAN Tue Aug 16, 2011 9:02pm IST

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus in this still image taken from video June 20, 2011. REUTERS/Syrian TV via Reuters TV/Files

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus in this still image taken from video June 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Syrian TV via Reuters TV/Files

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LONDON/AMMAN (Reuters) - A surprisingly agile and fast-moving Ramadan offensive by the Syrian army has curbed the size of some street protests, but at the cost of stoking popular outrage and further testing President Bashar al-Assad's strained authority.

Under a broadening assault, civilian demonstrations in several cities calling for Assad to quit have tended to grow smaller, but at the same time more numerous, scattering from main squares into alleyways and suburbs, as well as nearby towns hitherto unaffected by unrest, activists and analysts say.

Doubts persist about the capacity of the army constantly to deploy enough troops to several centres simultaneously, after attacks in quick succession this month in the central city of Hama, the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, the southern city of Deraa and the ancient port city of Latakia.

And there are questions about Assad's ability to persuade key players like Turkey that his attacks on majority Sunni Muslim areas in Syria can persist without unacceptable levels of unrest in the strategically sensitive region.

An unprecedented broadside of criticism fired at Damascus by Arab heavyweight Saudi Arabia was echoed by disapproving comments from Jordan and Gulf states Kuwait and Bahrain.

"The government still hopes that through continuous intimidation it can in the end stop the demonstrations. But these loyal troops cannot move indefinitely all over the country," Nikolaos van Dam, a Dutch scholar of Syrian politics and a former senior foreign ministry official, told Reuters.

"The danger is that at a certain moment, if not already, within the armed forces there will be an increasingly large number of people who will start asking themselves whether they really want to accept this," the ex-diplomat said, adding:

"People are getting more and more and more angry. These YouTube videos (of killings) are fuelling further demonstrations."

Shashank Joshi, an Associate Fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, said loyalist units of the army that had been used to spearhead the repression had been extremely efficient at staging attacks on Hama and parts of the east.

"But they would not be able to succeed in containing anything significant, on the level of a Hama or a Deraa, if it occurred in Aleppo or central Damascus. They just don't seem to have the numbers for that."

An analyst at U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis said the armed forces' onslaught had proved to be extremely well organised, given the limited number of troops available to Assad, but exhaustion would be a factor.

"Eventually they'll burn out and won't be able to contain the uprising," said the analyst, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.

ASSAD POSITION "GETTING WORSE"

"Assad's position is getting steadily worse. The bottom line is that when the tanks leave a given location, protests resume. All this force is being reduced to a game of 'whack the mole'," he said, referring to a game where targets reappear after being hit.

There are no reliable reports about the exact deployments of Syria's armed forces in the crackdown, which was stepped up on Aug. 1 at the start of the Muslim Ramadan fast, when nightly prayers became the occasion for more protests against Baathist party rule. Most foreign media are barred.

Most assaults appear to be led by the mainly Alawite divisions commanded by Assad's brother Maher, including the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armoured Division. Each of these units has about 10,000 men and often acts in liaison with secret police and pro-Assad Alawite militia called Shabbiha.

The Assads are from the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and have ruled over this country of 23 million with a 75 percent Sunni majority for four decades.

The vast majority of the largely conscript army, mostly Sunni, is not directly involved in the repression.

Diplomatic pressure is mounting on Assad to end his onslaught or endure more painful isolation. A big attack on the second city of Aleppo near the Turkish border could provoke a potentially decisive reaction from Syria's powerful neighbour.

"It's not just a question of how much can they simultaneously repress," said RUSI's Joshi. "It's a question of how much can they get away with, without inducing Turkish support for some form of diplomatic action."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Assad on Monday to halt operations now or face unspecified consequences. Joshi said Turkey's concerns included a worry that an attack on Aleppo could swell a flow of refugees north across the border.

Yasser Saad, a dissident Syrian political commentator, said Turkey was also concerned about the fate of Sunni co-religionists in Latakia.

Tighter international isolation might raise questions about the degree of loyalty Assad can count on in the army command, made up principally of minority Alawites.

Samir Aita, Editor in Chief of the Arab Edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, told Reuters that the army was central to the calculations of all players.

"Everyone is waiting for the moment when the army wakes up and says 'we cannot go on with this nonsensical oppression' and will oppose the regime and gather the different political forces to go towards a political solution," said Aita, a Syrian.

Eventually first-hand accounts of the killings carried out by government security forces would trickle through to the military rank and file, he said.

In a now-familiar pattern, tanks and armoured vehicles deploy around dissident neighbourhoods of cities and vital services are cut before security forces began raids, arrests and bombardment, residents say.

Human rights campaigners say schools are used to house detainees, after the arrest of thousands since the revolt began in March. Others are in prisons run by the secret police and by army units. Washington has put the death toll at 2,000.

SOLDIERS "WILL FIND OUT" TRUTH OF PROTESTS

"The army soldiers and officers have (had) no contact with their family for almost four months. So they are kept without knowledge of the situation," Aita said. "This is not sustainable for ever. At some point they will have to go and see their families they will know the truth about what has happened."

What the protesters have not done, analysts say, is to take up arms in any organised way, thereby depriving the government of the scope to make credible claims about rebel assaults.

The latest assault on Deir al-Zor did not trigger a big armed response. Tribes in the area had been determined to confront it, according to a video of what was described as a meeting of tribal leaders on YouTube.

But it appeared there was a decision in the end not to resist in any organised sense.

The government blames what it calls armed terrorist groups for most killings in the five-month-old revolt, saying more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have died.

On Aug. 8, Assad replaced defence minister Ali Habib with his chief of staff, General Daoud Rajha, triggering speculation about possible rifts in the military high command.

But Andrew Terrill, Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College, said there was little hard evidence as yet of a split in the military or a possible mutiny.

"People in the opposition are hoping that either the army will stand aside or that the Sunni elements of the army will change sides. But as much as we all want that to happen, I haven't seen a lot of indications that that is occurring."

The position of defence minister is mostly ceremonial in Syria. The military is effectively under the command of Assad's feared brother Maher.

(Reporting by William Maclean, editing by Peter Millership)

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