Defiant Assad seeks to show he's still in charge

BEIRUT Thu Jan 12, 2012 2:28am IST

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses his supporters during a surprise appearance at a rally in Umayyad Square in Damascus January 11, 2012. REUTERS/Wael Hmedan-Presidential Palace

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses his supporters during a surprise appearance at a rally in Umayyad Square in Damascus January 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Wael Hmedan-Presidential Palace

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Two defiant appearances by President Bashar al-Assad in as many days show the Syrian leader's confidence that he can lead his country out of bloodshed and turmoil, but will do nothing to sway opponents seeking, and expecting, his downfall.

The carefully projected image of a relaxed, popular and powerful leader failed to deflect opponents demanding his overthrow and foreign powers who say his bloody crackdown on 10 months of protest has robbed him of any right to rule Syria.

"His speech implied a complete denial of reality in terms of what is unfolding around him," said Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"There is a sense of ongoing delusion which is perhaps common to autocratic leaders in the Arab Awakening moment," he said, referring to the wave of uprisings which have overthrown three Arab leaders and inspired Syrian protesters.

After 10 months of unrest in which thousands have died, Syria's economy is shrinking rapidly, crippled by a Western embargo on its oil exports and huge disruption to trade and business. The Arab League has suspended Damascus and announced its own sanctions on Syria, leaving Assad ever more isolated.

But the 46-year-old, who inherited power when his father died in 2000, can take comfort from divisions among his domestic and international opponents which make the task of loosening the Assad dynasty's grip on power a tough challenge.

"There is confidence...that comes from the fact that the opposition, for all their strengths, do not have the momentum or the kind of domestic or international might behind them to change that balance of power," Barnes-Dacey said.

Opposition groups have failed to close the rifts between them, and NATO powers which intervened to help topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi are loath to embark on military action in Syria, located at the volatile epicentre of the Middle East.

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