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Syria’s Assad Retains Power as Foes Try Guerrilla Tactics

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photographer: Mohammad Berno/Document IRAN via Bloomberg

March 23 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s days may not be as numbered as world leaders thought they were when anti-regime protests started to escalate a year ago.

Today, U.S. and other intelligence agencies and private experts in Europe and the Middle East are predicting that Assad will cling to power while battling what’s evolving into guerrilla warfare. The Syrian leader has won the first round of the fight by forcing rebels from their urban strongholds, intelligence officials said.

Though he may be unable to crush the opposition, Assad may last at least until 2013, according to regional experts such as Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

“It was a mistake to bet against the regime, which has got its act together, and chances are it will gain the upper hand,” Ken Pollack, director for the Persian Gulf at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, said in a telephone interview. “The opposition, waiting in vain for outside help that isn’t coming, has had to switch tactics.”

Suicide bombings last weekend at Syrian secret police headquarters in Damascus marked the opening of a fresh chapter in a conflict that, by UN estimates, has claimed more than 8,000 lives. Short on ammunition, the outnumbered rebel army seeking the end of four decades of Assad family rule is adopting the hit-and-run attacks used by insurgents in Iraq.

Regional Effects

The army, which regained control of parts of the central city of Homs from rebels at the start of this month, continued pounding the city with artillery today, Al Jazeera television said, citing activists. Ten people were killed in Syria today, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview.

While there have been some high-level defections, including four brigadier generals, “the chain of command, particularly in the highest level, is almost intact, for several reasons, for loyalty, for fear concerning their families,” Paulo Pinheiro, the head of the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry, told reporters in New York today, citing the latest findings by investigators documenting abuses in Syria.

Regional Spillover

An open-ended conflict would threaten the stability of the region. The fighting has sent thousands of refugees across the border into Turkey, which also is a staging area for the Syrian opposition. It may engulf neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, two countries that have endured civil wars, and pose risks for Jordan’s minority Hashemite rulers.

Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims support Syria’s Sunnis, who make up about three-fourths of the population and much of the opposition. In Lebanon, the power of the Hezbollah Shiite group rests to some degree on support and weapons delivered from Iran through Syria.

The growing political isolation of Assad, spurned by the Arab League and hit with economic sanctions, has made clear his options -- kill or be killed. His family and closest allies are Alawites who, as members of a minority sect governing a Sunni majority, have everything to lose. Alawites and other Shiites account for about 13 percent of the population, according to the U.S. State Department.

“He’s reached a point of no return,” said George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator now at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. “There are few incentives for him to reverse course given the existential crisis he’s mired in.”

Hope Dwindling

Hope is dwindling that Assad will stop killing the ill-equipped armed opposition that’s too small and too disorganized to pose a serious threat, according to UN diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity.

They said that, while most leaders agree that doing nothing in Syria would be catastrophic, diplomacy has led to a series of dead ends. In an effort to keep the pressure on the regime, the European Union today tightened sanctions on Syria, extending a travel ban and asset freeze to cover Assad’s British-born wife, Asma. In Geneva, the UN’s top human rights body extended the mandate of a panel that reports abuses in Syria.

New Realities

The realities on the ground are starting to sink in with Western countries and their Arab allies as they take stock of the fact that Assad is unlikely to crumble like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and other leaders swept aside by the Arab Spring uprisings.

Ban, who dispatched his predecessor, Kofi Annan, to try to extract concessions from Assad, said in Malaysia yesterday that the “country faces the specter of sectarian strife.”

An earlier push for the Security Council to back an Arab League plan with a resolution asking Assad to step down has given way to a non-binding statement supporting an Annan peace mission that few expect will succeed. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice described the move as “modest.”

The council “has finally chosen to take a pragmatic look at the situation in Syria,” said Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who twice vetoed Western-drafted resolutions seeking to hold Assad accountable. Russia, which sells weapons to Assad, is one of Syria’s few remaining allies.

Russia is “trying to give as much time to Assad while trying not to appear impervious,” Landis said in a telephone interview. “Assad saw the window of opportunity, and is seizing it.”

‘Costly Mistake’

Assad held back initially, relying on intimidation by snipers and bands of plainclothes police to break up rallies and frighten people into staying indoors, Landis said.

The Syrian opposition, he said, also has made a “bad and costly mistake” in trying to hold territory and take on a Syrian army that dwarfs the rebel force, built on military defectors and civilians who have abandoned peaceful protest.

The violence has spooked minorities, such as the Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, into rallying around the regime, said Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy research organization.

There is also a growing detachment between the Syrian National Council, a political group largely composed of educated emigres claiming to be the main opposition alliance, and the people on the ground losing their lives.

To bridge this divide, Turkey next week will host a meeting of opposition groups to address the criticism that they are fragmented, one of the obstacles to obtaining financial and military support, said Mustafa Hamitoglu, an SNC member, in a telephone interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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