One year on, Syria's Assad won't bow to uprising

BEIRUT Wed Mar 14, 2012 8:48pm IST

A Syrian living in Lebanon gestures with a bloodied hand above a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration in support of Assad, in downtown Beirut March 4, 2012.REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

A Syrian living in Lebanon gestures with a bloodied hand above a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration in support of Assad, in downtown Beirut March 4, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jamal Saidi

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Bashar al-Assad always said Syria would be different.

When the Arab uprisings first erupted more than a year ago, the Syrian president confidently said his government was in tune with its people, ready to reform on its own terms, and immune from the turmoil starting to sweep the region.

Within weeks he was proved wrong, when a few dozen protesters took to the streets of Damascus on March 15 to call for greater freedoms, setting off one of the most protracted and bloodiest of all the Arab revolts.

But while those uprisings toppled four Arab leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the 46-year-old Assad has withstood the year-long turmoil, deploying tanks, elite troops and artillery to crush rebellion across the country.

Bombarding the city of Homs into submission last month and taking control of much of another rebel hotbed in Idlib, Assad has challenged the assumptions of many who just a few weeks ago were talking of his imminent departure.

As the anniversary of the uprising approached there were even comparisons with the nearly four-year war in Bosnia between Serb, Muslim and Croat forces that tore apart the Balkan nation.

The severity of Assad's crackdown, in which the United Nations says 8,000 people have been killed, triggered Western condemnation and sanctions. Arab countries have called on Assad to step aside, while the economy has ground to a halt and the Syrian pound has halved in value.

In January, rebel fighters briefly seized control of the eastern suburbs of Damascus, barely five km from the centre of the president's power, while rebels controlled much of Homs, Syria's third biggest city and a major industrial centre.

But Assad's forces swept back into the suburbs, dismantled rebel checkpoints and regained control of Homs after a month-long rocket and artillery assault.

And one year on from the first protest - which soon spread south to Deraa where people rallied in support of dozens of children tortured for writing anti-Assad graffiti - Assad is still at the helm, challenging the "Arab Spring" narrative of people power and defying predictions that his days are numbered.

"Victory is very close if we remain steadfast," he said in a speech two months ago, dismissing what he said were frequent rumours spread by his opponents that he was leaving the country or might relinquish power.

"Shame on you. I am not a person who surrenders his responsibilities," said the president, who took over on the death of his father nearly 12 years ago, extending Assad family rule which stretches back more than four decades.

WESTERN "IMPOTENCE"

For months now Assad's opponents have said it is a question of when, not if, the president will be forced from office.

But world powers are deeply divided over how to respond to the crackdown in Syria, and the chorus of international condemnation of the army assault on Baba Amr in Homs failed to mask the lack of practical response to the killings.

One Western diplomat described the closure of several embassies in Damascus over recent weeks as "a manifestation of impotence" by countries that were running out of options to deal with Syrian authorities.

Contradicting the public line from his own capital - one of several which has called on Assad to quit - he said any solution to the crisis in Syria would have to involve the president somehow, even if it meant a transition period leading to him "leaving eventually".

"The opposition cannot win militarily because of the authorities' military strength and the willingness to use it intensely and without discrimination," he said.

"Bashar is delegitimised and cannot stay in the long run. But he can hold on for a long time."

Assad's sense of purpose in confronting the uprising contrasts with persistent divisions among his opponents.

The main opposition Syrian National Council has won only qualified international support and shows little sign that it has any influence inside Syria with anti-Assad protesters or the armed insurgents who have launched attacks on security forces.

It suffered a further setback on Tuesday when prominent dissident and former judge Haitham al-Maleh resigned from the SNC, complaining of a lack of transparency, and said many resignations would follow.

The insurgents are also fractured. Fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, they are in fact led by local commanders who operate largely independently of their nominal leadership based across the northern border in Turkey.

After the month-long army assault on Homs, rebels there were forced to retreat, allowing the military to press its crackdown further north in the province of Idlib, neighbouring Turkey.

"The recent army operations have reinforced the regime's confidence in its capabilities," said a Lebanese official with close ties to Syria.

"They coincide with a change in the international stance (on Syria) which first emerged with the doubts over whether the opposition could form a single front which could be an alternative to the regime."

CAN ASSAD SURVIVE?

Despite appeals from people caught up in the military siege and bombardment of Homs in February, Western powers have ruled out military intervention in Syria along the lines of the NATO operations which helped to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

In the absence of foreign intervention, opponents who say Assad's days are numbered point to three possible triggers for his downfall: a complete economic meltdown triggered by the turmoil and sanctions on Syrian oil sales; a coup, or wave of top-level defections from the army or business elite; or loss of state control in Aleppo or Damascus.

The president has suffered setbacks on all three fronts in recent months, but no fatal blow to his authority.

"It is possible that Assad could prevent all three of those things from happening, as he has done so far," said Chris Phillips, a Middle East specialist at the University of London.

"In which case this time next year I wouldn't be surprised to see Assad still in power - a much weaker Syrian regime that is fighting a low level civil war, but still theoretically in charge in Damascus."

For the time being, Assad has been bolstered internationally by Russian and Chinese vetoes of United Nations resolutions which would have condemned his repression of the protests. He also has regional support from Iran and the Shi'ite Hezbollah militant group.

Domestically Assad draws support from many of his Alawite community. Other minorities including Christian and Druze have been wary of joining the mainly Sunni Muslim protest movement.

Assad may take comfort from successful campaigns by Arab leaders to crush rebellious populations - Saddam Hussein lost control of 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces after the 1991 Gulf War but fought back to survive another 12 years, while Assad's own father put down an Islamist uprising in the 1980s.

But the Shi'ite rebellion against Saddam was shortlived and Hafez al-Assad was confronting a limited insurgency by Islamist militants. Bashar in contrast faces opposition across the country which has grown, not subsided, in the last year.

If the Free Syrian Army rebels win military support - as proposed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar - they will be even tougher to defeat completely.

"My sense is that his regime will crumble in one way or another," said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "The regime is already at the end, it's just that the end can take a very long time."

Perthes said that if Syria slipped further into civil war Assad might choose to cede control of less critical territory and deploy his most loyal forces around vital centres -- Damascus, the eastern oilfields, the Alawite mountains near the Mediterranean and the two main ports of Tartus and Latakia.

Phillips, at the University of London, expected a "very, very slow erosion of both the state and the military" and a gradual slide to wider conflict.

But he said events in Syria over the last year had defied most early predictions, making forecasts for the coming months hazardous.

"A year ago people thought this would go one of several ways. Either Assad would collapse very quickly, or he would be forced to open up the system, or he would crush (the protests) successfully. None of that has happened.

"People didn't really think there was a possibility for a slow burning civil war. But that's what we've got."

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam, editing by Peter Millership)

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