Analysis: Assad still standing after six months of bloodshed

Sep 14, 2011, 6:47 a.m.
Syria's President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Syrian state television in Damascus August 21,2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/Sana/Handout

By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has watched Arab uprisings bring down the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia in a few short weeks and topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, but shows no sign of yielding to protests challenging his own iron rule.

As street demonstrations against Assad reach the six-month mark this week, Syria has plunged deeper into bloodshed, economic stagnation and international isolation than most countries swept up in the turmoil of the "Arab Spring."

Any one of those crises could threaten the survival of the 46-year-old president, a member of Syria's minority Alawite sect who has ruled the mainly Sunni Muslim country since succeeding his late father Hafez al-Assad 11 years ago.

But Assad enjoys two crucial advantages over the deposed North African leaders, who were either cut adrift by their own security forces when the tide turned against them or forced to retreat by NATO bombs.

Syria's army has remained mostly loyal to the president, spearheading a relentless crackdown on protesters in which the United Nations says 2,600 people have been killed.

And while the repression has triggered Western sanctions and regional criticism, Assad knows there is little appetite for military intervention in a country with more regional allies than Libya and a potentially volatile ethnic and religious mix.

"There is clearly no incentive for the international community to step in as in Libya," said Alan Fraser, Middle East analyst at the London-based consultancy AKE.

"The sad truth is that at present the chaos has minimally affected anywhere outside its borders. There are no major economic resource issues affected, while the politics of the country is so complicated that no one wants to meddle."


Protests in Syria, one of the most tightly controlled Arab states, first broke out on March 16 when police broke up a silent demonstration of 150 people, mainly women, in the capital Damascus, seeking the release of political prisoners.

Two days later security forces shot dead three protesters in the southern city of Deraa. Demonstrations spread across the country and in April Assad sent the army into Deraa, the first of many military assaults aimed at crushing dissent by force.

Although the crackdown has failed to end the protests -- activists say there are sometimes more than 100 demonstrations in a single day -- they are smaller than the peak in July when at least 100,000 people gathered on Fridays in the city of Hama.

Activists have reported a steady but modest flow of army desertions, mainly low-level Sunni Muslim conscripts.

Some have clashed with security forces and others have formally announced their defection, but as yet they have no territory of their own from which they could challenge the army.

Apart from Assad's replacement of his defense minister last month -- a move attributed to ill health -- there has been no sign of upheaval in senior military ranks, dominated by members of his Alawite minority.

"If the army can maintain its cohesion, there's very little you can see that would change the balance of power," said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East analyst at Control Risks.

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