Analysis: Assad still standing after six months of bloodshed
Sep 14, 2011, 6:47 a.m.
But exploiting that overwhelming military superiority over a mostly peaceful protest movement has come at a cost.
Assad's repression of the unrest has led to Western sanctions and calls for him to step down, as well as growing criticism from Arab and regional countries.
"The Syrian people do not believe in Assad. Nor do I," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally of the Syrian leader, told Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Tuesday.
At the same meeting, Arab ministers called for "immediate change...to halt the bloodshed" in Syria.
The United States and European Union have agreed a range of sanctions including an embargo on Syrian oil exports which, coming on top of a collapse in tourism revenues and sharp fall in trade, mean Syria faces gradual economic meltdown.
However Assad has weathered international crises and isolation before, particularly after the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri when an initial U.N. investigation pointed to Syrian involvement.
"The nature of Syria's isolation over the last decade is that they are well accustomed to being out on their own. They don't have these political and economic ties which make them dependent on outside players," Barnes-Dacey said.
By imposing sanctions and calling for Assad to go, Western powers have already pulled the few levers of influence they have over Syria, and have yet to convince China and Russia to back a tough United Nations resolution against Damascus.
Equally divided are Syria's opposition figures, who have failed to unite around an agreed platform, bridge gaps between those inside and outside the country, or coordinate fully with grassroots protesters who continue their defiant demonstrations.
Assad has promised reform including a multi-party election next year, but has not said whether he will allow a presidential challenger when his term expires in 2014. Opposition figures say the continued violence undermines any pledges of change.
Syria's Baath Party leadership needs only look next door to neighbouring Iraq to see another Baathist ruler, Saddam Hussein, who survived more than a decade of war and sanctions.
Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, also survived popular unrest, killing many thousands of people when he crushed an armed Islamist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982.
One Damascus-based diplomat said Bashar still retains solid support among the bulk of his minority Alawite community, some Christians who fear post-Assad Sunni Muslim majority rule, and sections of business class of Aleppo and Damascus.
But if the protests and repression continue, his position and support would steadily weaken in the long term, eroded by economic woes and ever-growing resentment.
He could also face an increasingly armed uprising.
Rights groups say street protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful so far, but there have been reports of attacks on security forces. Syrian authorities say 700 soldiers and police have been killed.
In the absence of a strong, unified opposition, the diplomat said the biggest potential threats to Assad would come from an internal coup, a big wave of military defections, economic collapse or one of the two main cities -- Damascus or Aleppo -- siding with the protesters.
None of those appeared imminent, he said.
"Assad will never exert the control over Syria that he once did. The unrest is too widespread for a Hama-style crackdown" said Fraser. "However it is going to take a lot to topple him.."
(Additional reporting by Peter Apps in London; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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