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Syria's Assad, On The Ropes, Finds Friends In Strange Places

  • Robert Tait

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faces his sternest challenges in 11 years in power.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faces his sternest challenges in 11 years in power.

Even in an age of Arab rage, few thought it would come to this. However heady the air was elsewhere with revolution, surely Syria with its powerful armed forces and entrenched security apparatus would be immune.

Instead, the notoriously ruthless Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad is facing its biggest crisis in years after days of violent clashes between opposition demonstrators and security forces that human rights campaigners say have left up to150 dead.

Apparently shaken by the wave of revolt, Assad -- Syria's president since 2000 after inheriting the post on the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had run the country with an iron fist for the previous 30 years -- is now expected to announce liberalizing reforms.

Amid expectations of concessions, it was announced on March 29 that Assad had accepted the resignation of his current cabinet ahead of the unveiling of a new government.

End To The Emergency Law?

Most significantly, a draconian emergency law in place for almost 50 years, allowing for detention without charge, is expected to be lifted.

Suddenly, a regime that had prided itself for decades on implacable hostility to the United States and Israel seems vulnerable. Yet Washington shows few signs of relishing the possibility of Assad being toppled.

On the contrary, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on March 27 on the CBS talk show "Face The Nation," appeared to give the Syrian leader a fillip by ruling out the type of Western military intervention seen in Libya and describing him as a "reformer."

"What's been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning," Clinton said. "But there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities, [and] police actions that frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."

Analysts say they believe Clinton's remarks reflect an official U.S. ambivalence toward Assad that is shared by Washington's two closest regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

According to Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, the Obama administration -- already with its hands full over its response to the Libyan crisis -- fears the collapse of Assad's regime could lead to the toppling of governments friendly to the United States.

"On the one hand, I think they would like to see change in Syria," Landis says. "Syria is an ally of Iran and Hizballah, which are enemies of Israel and the United States. At the same time, they know Bashar al-Assad. They are anxious lest there be civil war and more turmoil in the region."

Keeper Of The Peace With Israel?

Maha Azzam, an associate director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, says Syria is seen as a regime that "has been able to maintain a degree of peace with Israel, despite the fact that it has allied itself to some extent with Iran and with certain parties in Lebanon."

In Syria itself, the regime has deployed the army in the country's main port, Latakia, which has been among several cities that have seen antigovernment demonstrations in recent days. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Syrians were said to have gathered in the capital, Damascus, on March 29 for a demonstration in support of Assad.

The atmosphere of ferment has given rise to competing assessments of the regime's survival chances.

According to Landis, Assad is probably secure because he has the staunch support of minority groups like the Allawites (a Shi'a-related sect to which he belongs) and the Christians, and because opponents among the majority Sunni population are unwilling to risk civil war to depose him.

Syria's armed forces are unlikely to abandon the president in the fashion that led to speedy and relatively peaceful regime collapses in Egypt and Tunisia. "I think the winds of change that have been sweeping the Middle East are going to stall in Syria and that there will not be a successful revolution in Syria," Landis says.

"There isn't a galvanizing force in the opposition and also the Sunni elite, the economic elite, and the cultural elite, the imams, they've come out in fact in the last few days in support of the regime and they've not joined the revolution," he adds.

But Azzam says she believes that long-term change is inevitable and will, at best, merely be delayed by the regime's dual approach of brutal repression and limited concessions. "It may take longer in Syria than elsewhere, but ultimately I think change is on the way in Syria as it is in other parts of the region," she says.

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