Year of revolt in Syria fails to loosen Assad’s grip / Blood could spill for the long term (WASHINGTON TIMES) By Louise Osborne BERLIN, GERMANY 03/20/12)
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BERLIN — Middle East analysts acknowledge that they underestimated
Syrian President Bashar Assad, who remains in power and on the
offensive a year after protests against his regime erupted.
They say that with continued backing from Russia and China, Mr. Assad
could cling to power for years.
“In contrast to the crisis in Libya, regional and international
variables have complicated and exacerbated the situation in Syria,
and that is why one year later, Assad is still there,” said Fawaz A.
Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of
“We underestimated the staying power and strength of Assad’s regime.”
Neighborhoods that had become strongholds for opposition groups have
been decimated swiftly. The United Nations reported that more than
8,000 people have been killed in the brutal crackdown over the past
But thousands of Syrians across the country still take to the streets
in protest, and further violence in the region has led analysts to
fear that the conflict could turn into an all-out sectarian civil war
or even a drawn-out guerrilla war.
On Monday, deadly clashes rocked a neighborhood in the capital,
Damascus, as international efforts picked up pace to initiate a daily
humanitarian truce and for monitors to be deployed across the country.
Russia, a Syrian ally, added its voice to calls for a daily truce so
that aid can be delivered to affected cities. In Moscow, Foreign
Minister Sergey Lavrov joined Jakob Kellenberger, chief of the
International Committee of the Red Cross, to demand that Mr. Assad
allow in humanitarian aid.
Syrian security forces, meanwhile, launched attacks in several
regions, opposition activists said. Pre-dawn fighting in a heavily
guarded area of Damascus erupted as residents reeled from deadly
weekend bombings. A car-bomb explosion was reported in Syria’s second-
largest city, Aleppo, on Sunday, one day after three bombings at
security buildings killed dozens in Damascus.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia and China have twice
blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian
“It is not so much that Syria remains their strongest ally in the
region,” Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at
London’s City University, said about Moscow and Beijing.
“It’s very clear that they don’t like the idea that on the grounds of
responsibility to protect [the population] or humanitarian
atrocities, Western governments can go in and change regimes or can
interfere and help the locals overthrow their governments. This is
something they can’t tolerate on principle because it could come and
get them at some point.”
Russia has experienced its own protests after the presidential
election this month in which Vladimir Putin won by a landslide, but
Moscow remains one of the Syrian regime’s closest allies and has
called for Mr. Assad to agree to a number of reforms even while
Russia supports keeping him in power.
Islamists worry Russia, China
Analysts say Moscow is concerned that power gained by Islamists in
the Middle East could resonate with Russia’s Muslim communities.
“I think [Russia] will stick to their position for the near term,
especially if the Syrian regime relatively succeeds and scores a
couple of victories,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie
Middle East Center in Beirut.
“However, if the situation in Syria takes a dive for the worse and
the massacres become dramatically more extended, and if the regime
seems to be declining and failing, Russia is not going to stick with
them to the end,” he said.
In China, the government has sought to play down dissent in towns and
villages. In December, censors blocked Internet searches relating to
Wukan, where protesters were involved in clashes with security forces
over the death of a villager in police custody.
“They fear most that the essence of the Arab Spring will reach their
populations,” Mr. Salem said. “From the very beginning, China was
very panicked about the Arab Spring, so it’s not surprising that they
continue to oppose it.”
Although many analysts have said Mr. Assad’s days are numbered with
the country’s economy in shambles and continuing sanctions by Western
governments, others say the regime has done well in comparison with
governments toppled by the Arab Spring uprisings such as those in
Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. They note that Mr. Assad is not looking for
an exit strategy.
“There are many places he could go — Doha, Iran, Russia, and other
countries might offer as well — but that’s not where we are,” Mr.
“The regime is fighting for victory, and they haven’t been defeated.
They’ve lost control of many areas, but compared to other regimes in
the region, they’ve done remarkably quite well, and they feel they
could ride this out and come out more or less victorious at the end.”
Other analysts said there have been some top defections to the
opposition, which is beginning to arm itself.
“So far, Assad’s regime has stayed relatively cohesive, although we
have started to see a few high-level defections,” said Jane
Kinninmont of the London-based think tank Chatham House.
Many analysts say Mr. Assad will have to resign eventually.
“The regime is very strong and cannot be defeated, but their time has
passed,” Mr. Salem said. “Their legitimacy is largely gone, and they
don’t represent a solution for the future.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports. (© 2012 The
Washington Times, LLC. 03/20/12)
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