Reuters’ Analysis: Syria’s Assad loses his grip to hardliners


Analysis: Syria’s Assad loses his grip to hardliners

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas
By Samia Nakhoul

Protesters hold defaced posters of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad during a demonstration to express solidarity with Syria’s anti-government protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Ankara June 10, 2011.
Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas
By Samia Nakhoul

LONDON | Thu Jun 16, 2011 8:55am EDT

LONDON (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad is losing control to his hardline relatives, his forces are overstretched, his government is running out of money and the revolt against his rule is gathering support and funding.

Given all this, analysts and Syrian-based diplomats say the international community is starting to plan for a Syria without the Assads.

The risks of a slide into sectarian war are significant, most Syria-watchers nonetheless say, believing Assad will fight to the end, and start to regionalize the conflict by inciting violence in Lebanon, Turkey and across the borders with Israel.

“Despite everything they have done over the past few weeks — killing, torture, mass arrests and raids — the protests are continuing,” said one Western diplomat. “This regime will fight to the death, but the only strategy they have is to kill people, and this is accelerating the crisis.”

In its attempt to stamp out protests across the country of 23 million, the government has withdrawn most security forces from the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, diplomats say.

Yet each time the authorities go in hard to deal with one center of rebellion, other towns rise up.

Reliant on two elite units commanded by his brother Maher — the 4th Armored Division and the Republican Guard — as well as secret police and militia from his minority Alawite sect, President Assad is plainly overstretched.

“Our assessment is that the regime will fall,” predicted the Damascus-based diplomat. “They have three to six months of actual military capabilities to sustain this, but they cannot keep a prolonged operation going indefinitely.”

Najib al-Ghadban, a Syrian academic and activist, said in London there was a broad consensus on overthrowing the Assad family after 40 years in power.

“We believe strongly that the regime has lost its legitimacy. It has no vision on how to get the country out of the crisis. The situation is deteriorating,” Ghadban said. “We are certain this will reach a positive end like Tunisia and Egypt,” he added.

So far more than 1,100 people have been killed, up to 10,000 detained and thousands have fled since the crackdown began, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The international community, diplomats said, see a post-Assad era ideally facilitated by a military coup and several governments are encouraging Syrian generals to mutiny.

“We are isolating him and his family. We’re addressing military leaders and cabinet members to rise up. We’re encouraging the generals to rise up,” the diplomat said.

“The key variable is the continuation of the momentum (of the revolt). We really believe there is no point of return.”

FATALLY WEAKEN

He and other analysts also believe that Syria’s economic paralysis, amid insistent reports the government is running out of money and having to call on its inner circle for emergency funding, will fatally weaken the Assads.

One diplomat said Assad’s cousin, the business tycoon Rami Makhlouf who is a hate figure for protesters, has recently deposited $1 billion at the central bank to stabilize the Syrian pound.

“When they are no longer capable of paying the salaries of bureaucrats, the army, the police and their Alawite militia this crisis will balloon and bring about the collapse of the regime,” the diplomat said. “This is a train wreck waiting to happen.”

Signs of stretched resources and fraying loyalties are already apparent.

As protests started to spread, the authorities pulled out contingents of security and elite forces from the capital, which are now firefighting from Deraa in the south to Jisr al-Sughour in the north, the scene of heavy reprisals after the government this month claimed to have lost 120 dead to “armed gangs.”

But even so residents say there are demonstrations every weekend in Damascus and surrounding suburbs.

The bloodshed in Jisr al Shugour was the result of splits in army ranks, diplomats say, an ominous sign for the Assads.

“Around 50 soldiers and mid ranking officers defected and were supported by locals and the authorities sent a force to counter them and 120 were killed,” said another Syria-based diplomat, dismissing government accounts this was the work of Salafi fundamentalists as propaganda.

He and others point to the growing sophistication of the rebellion, which draws support from across society.

“After three months this is not a poor man’s uprising. There is significant financing from the Syrian business community and upper class. They give money for satellite phones, cameras, food, water and medical supplies,” the resident diplomat said.

“This is a broad-based movement that includes not only Syrian youth, but imams from mosques, businessmen, even former Baath party members.”

Analysts are puzzled by Assad’s failure to address the nation in a speech since the revolt started in mid-March. They point out that conciliatory statements by Assad promising that protesters will not be fired on and the killings that followed show that he is not in control.

“The big unanswered question concerns the president,” said Patrick Seale, biographer of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

“The question is: Is he (Bashar) complicit with the killing or has he been pushed aside? The people running the show are the hardliners, the thugs.”

Seale added: “Assad is not in charge. He is showing no leadership. He is depasse. They have really taken over.”

STATE OF FEAR

Residents of Syria describe a state of fear and panic among the Alawite community, saying there had been revenge attacks against Alawite army officers and security men. They said Alawite officers in Sunni areas have pulled their children out of school and sent their families to Alawite villages or abroad.

Syrian activist Ausama Monajed said the international community, which has put 13 Syrian officials on its sanctions list, should add army officers involved in killing protesters as well as Syrian firms linked to the Assad family.

Syrian oil sales, worth $7-8 million a day and which Monajed says go directly to fund the military, should be boycotted. Arab states must build a consensus against Assad by lobbying China and Russia for a Security Council resolution, he said.

All scenarios that anticipate the downfall of Assad, however, depend on the Sunni-dominated army splitting, while Western military intervention such as in Libya is unlikely in Syria because of the regional risks.

Analysts say the risks are high that Syria, an ally of Iran and Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrillas and with a sectarian and ethnic mix of Sunni, Kurdish, Alawite and Christians, could slip into war.

Syria, they add, can make trouble in the region by trying to incite another war between Hezbollah and Israel. Recent demonstrations on the Israeli-Syrian frontier, which had been quiet for 38 years, were encouraged by Syrian authorities in an attempt to broaden the conflict.

“The Syrians have their fingers in many pies. They have many levers to put pressure on their neighbors and create problems between Hezbollah and Israel, between Sunni and Shi’ites in Lebanon and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and AKP (Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s party) in Turkey,” the diplomat said.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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