Assad still confident that he can control Syria

January 12, 2013

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains confident that he can ride out the maelstrom engulfing his country, casting into doubt prospects that intensified efforts to negotiate an end to the bloodshed can succeed, according to Syrians familiar with the thinking of the regime.

Although Assad isn’t winning the fight against the rebels, he isn’t losing, either — at least not yet, or by enough of a margin to make him feel he needs to abandon his efforts to crush the rebellion by force and embark on negotiations that would end his hold on power and expose his loyalists to the threat of revenge, the Syrians and analysts say.

It is hard to imagine Assad ever being in a position to restore his authority over the many parts of Syria that have slipped beyond his control. The rebels seeking to topple him have steadily been gaining ground, most recently seizing control of a strategically important airbase in the north of the country, and if the current trajectory continues, the eventual demise of the four-decade-old Assad family regime seems all but inevitable, analysts say.

But concerns are growing about how long that might take, and at what cost, prompting many Syrians to question whether Assad’s confidence might not be merited, given the realities of a conflict so brutally complex, so finely balanced and so entangled in global geopolitical rivalries that there is still no clearly identifiable endgame in sight nearly two years after the uprising began.

“From Day One, Bashar al-Assad was underestimated by the opposition and by the international community,” said Malik al Abdeh, a Syrian journalist based in London who is one of a number of opposition activists growing increasingly gloomy about the prospects that an end to the bloody conflict could be near. “He is playing a high-stakes game, he’s playing it pretty smart and he seems to be winning because of the simple fact that he is still in power.”

Interactive: Recent events in Syria

When Assad delivered a defiantly uncompromising speech to supporters last week, the State Department condemned him for being “out of touch with reality.” But many Syrians wonder whether it isn’t the United States and its allies who are out of touch for continuing to press for a negotiated settlement to a conflict Assad still has reason to believe he can win, Abdeh said.

Though the Syrian army has been degraded by thousands of rank-and-file defections and heavy casualties, it is still fighting. Key units comprising members of Assad’s own Alawite sect, an obscure and little-understood offshoot of Shiite Islam, remain fiercely loyal.

Defections from his government have been few and far between. The rebels have been systematically overrunning government positions in many locations, but they have not demonstrated the capacity to make headway against the tough defenses ringing Damascus, the capital, and the key prize for whoever claims to control the country.

His allies Russia and Iran have shown no sign that their support is wavering, and they have their own reasons not to cede ground in the struggle for influence over a country whose strategic location puts it at the crossroads of multiple regional conflicts. On Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated its view that Assad’s departure should not be part of any negotiated settlement.

“As before, we firmly uphold the thesis that questions about Syria’s future must be decided by the Syrians themselves without interference from outside or the imposition of prepared recipes for development,” the ministry said in a statement.

Above all, Syrians say, Assad remains convinced that neither the United States nor its allies will intervene militarily to help the rebels overrun his forces entirely. That conviction has been buoyed by indications of growing U.S. concern at the expanding role of Islamist extremists in the already-fragmented rebel army.

According to one Damascus resident who speaks regularly to members of the regime, Assad frequently boasts that Western countries won’t dare intervene in Syria, as they did in Libya. That confidence has only grown as the Syrian army has escalated its use of force to include airstrikes and ballistic missiles without drawing any significant international response, said the Syrian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety.

Timeline: Major events in the country’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.

“The regime is supremely confident there will be no foreign intervention,” he said.

‘Backs to the wall’

Assad may also have little choice but to continue trying to crush the revolt. The 2 million or so members of the Alawite community on which he has come to depend for his survival fear annihilation should the overwhelmingly Sunni rebel force win, said Joshua Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma who is married to an Alawite and remains in regular touch with the community.

“Assad isn’t in a negotiating mood because he knows that any tinkering with his regime means collapse, and the Alawites fear revenge,” he said. “This is an existential moment for them, and they have their backs to the wall.”

Events such as an assassination or a coup could yet hasten Assad’s end in unexpected ways, he said. Some military experts who closely observe events on the battleground, such as Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, think that the toll exacted on the security forces by more than two years of almost continual fighting is greater than has been recognized and that the army soon could give way.

“I think they’re under pressure,” he said. “I think it’s weeks or months away. . . . He’ll hang on tight and then suddenly things will collapse.”

But the rebels’ slower progress in recent weeks after a surge of gains late last year appears to lend further validity to Assad’s confidence. The rebel conquest of the Taftanaz airbase in northern Idlib province Friday came only after five months of fierce fighting.

Eroding support for rebels

Elsewhere in the country, the picture is more mixed. In Homs, the rebels are surrounded and pinned down in a few scattered neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly difficult to supply. An offensive launched with much fanfare last month in the province of Hama has fizzled. Battles for control of the suburbs ringing Damascus have swung back and forth for months, claiming thousands of lives without giving either side a clear advantage, offering a glimpse of the prolonged and bloody stalemate that could be in store if the current balance of power prevails indefinitely.

Meanwhile, conditions are deteriorating dramatically in rebel-held areas. Airstrikes and shelling by government forces along with acute shortages of fuel, food and medicine are eroding much of the support the rebels initially enjoyed from local residents, said Musab al-Hamawi, an opposition activist in the province of Hama.

“Assad is confident because he knows we are losing ground in terms of popularity among the people,” he said. “The Free Syrian Army has proved that they are unable to protect civilians and liberate the country without causing death and destruction”

That appears to be Assad’s strategy — to wreak enough havoc that the rebels can’t win, even if he can’t win, either, a scenario that threatens even greater bloodshed than has gone before, said Fred Hof, a former State Department official who was deeply involved in formulating Syria policy before he joined the Atlantic Council last year.

“Basically what he’s saying is that the cost of removing me is the destruction of Syria,” Hof said — an outcome many Syrians increasingly fear is the most likely one of all.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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