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One year on, Syria's Assad won't bow to uprising

Wednesday, March 14, 2012
(Reuters) - Bashar al-Assad always said Syria would be different.

When the Arab uprisings first erupted more than a year ago, the Syrian president confidently said his government was in tune with its people, ready to reform on its own terms, and immune from the turmoil starting to sweep the region.

Within weeks he was proved wrong, when a few dozen protesters took to the streets of Damascus on March 15 to call for greater freedoms, setting off one of the most protracted and bloodiest of all the Arab revolts.

But while those uprisings toppled four Arab leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the 46-year-old Assad has withstood the year-long turmoil, deploying tanks, elite troops and artillery to crush rebellion across the country.

Bombarding the city of Homs into submission last month and taking control of much of another rebel hotbed in Idlib, Assad has challenged the assumptions of many who just a few weeks ago were talking of his imminent departure.

As the anniversary of the uprising approached there were even comparisons with the nearly four-year war in Bosnia between Serb, Muslim and Croat forces that tore apart the Balkan nation.

The severity of Assad's crackdown, in which the United Nations says 8,000 people have been killed, triggered Western condemnation and sanctions. Arab countries have called on Assad to step aside, while the economy has ground to a halt and the Syrian pound has halved in value.

In January, rebel fighters briefly seized control of the eastern suburbs of Damascus, barely five km from the centre of the president's power, while rebels controlled much of Homs, Syria's third biggest city and a major industrial centre.

But Assad's forces swept back into the suburbs, dismantled rebel checkpoints and regained control of Homs after a month-long rocket and artillery assault.

And one year on from the first protest - which soon spread south to Deraa where people rallied in support of dozens of children tortured for writing anti-Assad graffiti - Assad is still at the helm, challenging the "Arab Spring" narrative of people power and defying predictions that his days are numbered.

"Victory is very close if we remain steadfast," he said in a speech two months ago, dismissing what he said were frequent rumors spread by his opponents that he was leaving the country or might relinquish power.

"Shame on you. I am not a person who surrenders his responsibilities," said the president, who took over on the death of his father nearly 12 years ago, extending Assad family rule which stretches back more than four decades.


For months now Assad's opponents have said it is a question of when, not if, the president will be forced from office.

But world powers are deeply divided over how to respond to the crackdown in Syria, and the chorus of international condemnation of the army assault on Baba Amr in Homs failed to mask the lack of practical response to the killings.

One Western diplomat described the closure of several embassies in Damascus over recent weeks as "a manifestation of impotence" by countries that were running out of options to deal with Syrian authorities.

Contradicting the public line from his own capital - one of several which has called on Assad to quit - he said any solution to the crisis in Syria would have to involve the president somehow, even if it meant a transition period leading to him "leaving eventually".

"The opposition cannot win militarily because of the authorities' military strength and the willingness to use it intensely and without discrimination," he said.

"Bashar is delegitimized and cannot stay in the long run. But he can hold on for a long time."

Assad's sense of purpose in confronting the uprising contrasts with persistent divisions among his opponents.

The main opposition Syrian National Council has won only qualified international support and shows little sign that it has any influence inside Syria with anti-Assad protesters or the armed insurgents who have launched attacks on security forces.

It suffered a further setback on Tuesday when prominent dissident and former judge Haitham al-Maleh resigned from the SNC, complaining of a lack of transparency, and said many resignations would follow.

The insurgents are also fractured. Fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, they are in fact led by local commanders who operate largely independently of their nominal leadership based across the northern border in Turkey.

After the month-long army assault on Homs, rebels there were forced to retreat, allowing the military to press its crackdown further north in the province of Idlib, neighboring Turkey.

"The recent army operations have reinforced the regime's confidence in its capabilities," said a Lebanese official with close ties to Syria.

"They coincide with a change in the international stance (on Syria) which first emerged with the doubts over whether the opposition could form a single front which could be an alternative to the regime."

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