In shifting Syria conflict, Assad assumes command of forces
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The picture is deceptively normal. Posted on the Facebook page of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, it shows the first lady Asma, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, accompanying her daughter and three sons on their first day back at school.
Two of the boys wear camouflage shorts with khaki t-shirts and caps, in keeping with the spirit of a ruler under siege. Yet when she dropped off Hafez, the eldest, named after his strongman grandfather, only one other child had arrived in class because of rebel attacks in Damascus that morning.
More than 18 months into the battle for Syria, an estimated 30,000 people are dead and the country is disintegrating.
The rebels are outgunned by the government but can still strike at will, and Assad has assumed personal command of his forces, still convinced he can prevail militarily.
U.N. mediation efforts headed by Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi are adrift and there is no indication Western pressure on Assad will translate into real military support for Syria's rebel forces. Russia and Iran continue to back Damascus.
Supporters of Assad say the government has steadied its nerve after a wave of defections and rebel attacks on strategic government targets since the summer.
A Facebook picture of Assad dressed in military uniform sums up his transformation since a bomb attack in July killed his inner circle security leadership, including his brother-in-law and defense minister.
Recent visitors say the 47-year-old president has taken over day-to-day leadership. They speak of a self-confident, combative president convinced he will ultimately win the conflict through military means.
"He is no longer a president who depends on his team and directs through his aides. This is a fundamental change in Assad's thinking," said a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician with close ties to Assad. "Now he is involved in directing the battle."
The endgame may have changed too. "Nobody is now talking about the control of the regime over all of Syria, they talk about the ability of the regime to continue."
Until recently, the Lebanese politician said, people asked daily who would defect next. But for some time now there had been no significant military defections.
"The fighting nerve is steady. The Iranians and the Russians may have helped them. Their ability to manage daily and control the situation has improved."
The government has decided to focus its effort on essential areas - the capital Damascus, the second largest city of Aleppo, and the main highways and roads.
Other close observers of the conflict say Assad is deluded if he believes he can prevail.
"The problem is the regime lives in its own world. It is clear the people are rejecting this idea - the regime's narrative - that it is a secular regime set upon by extremists, a battle between good and evil and Bashar will one day be vindicated. Bashar is not the victim. He is the cause of the violence," said a Western diplomat.
The conflict has spiraled into a civil war with almost daily massacres and sectarian killings which some observers say make Assad's fate almost irrelevant.
"Everybody is kind of hypnotized by the issue of whether Bashar is president or not, whether he is leaving or not," said one Arab official. "I fear the problem is much bigger than that. The problem is to see how Syria is going to survive, how the new Syria is going to be born."
The feuding among the opposition and its failure to unite under one command is one factor that has helped Assad to hold on. There is still no serious effort to unify the opposition.
Some rebel groups, made up of moderate liberals and Islamist zealots, have clashed with each other militarily, activists say. Their religious and ideological disagreement is displayed in the open on Islamist web sites with individuals trading insults.
"The opposition has got to grow up and get its act together and stop just reciting this mantra, Bashar must go, Bashar must go," the Arab official said. "There are other things they can do starting with some unity among them."
"One has got to gather all sorts of building blocks that are lying around and make of them a viable construction. It is terribly important to see how violence can be stopped. It is creating walls of hatred between neighbors. It is becoming more and more sectarian," he said.
The rebels have so far failed to sustain gains in the face of superior government firepower. They have lost many bases that they had won in the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere. Frustrated, they seem to have switched tactics to suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks.
"Militarily the regime is more relaxed but from a security position the country is falling apart," said the pro-Syrian politician."An explosion might happen anywhere, an assassination might happen, the situation is chaotic and out of control."
Having seen the country of 23 million become an arena in which foreign players are fighting proxy wars, mediators have come to the same conclusion - that the longer the conflict lasts the more Syria will become beyond rescue.
Talk of political reform - as demanded originally by peaceful protesters wanting greater freedom, democracy and an end to vested interests by an Alawite minority ruling a Sunni Muslim majority - have long ceased to be realistic.
Only an orderly transition can save Syria, they say.
"The solution will have to involve regime change not only the change of one man. The problem is how to engineer this momentous change in a country that is complicated and where fighting has further complicated things. This certainly cannot all happen overnight," the Arab official said.
A Western envoy familiar with Syria said U.N. envoy Brahimi was trying to find a formula.
"By virtue of what has happened, the destruction and the fighting - if you don't have a transitional government with a strong army, Syria will be lost for a long time," he said
Hopes for the Brahimi mission are dim given that arms and funds are still flowing to rebel groups, while Assad's forces are still getting Russian and Iranian support.
"The Russians and the Iranians are even more robust. They support them with funds and political support and technical expertise," said the Lebanese politician.
Despite a collapse in revenues, a halt in oil sales and tourism income, and a fall in the value of the national currency, the economy has so far avoided meltdown. But this may only be a temporary respite for a government spending heavily on its military campaign. Support from Iran, its own currency collapsing, cannot be relied on indefinitely and the Syrian government's capacity to withstand economic headwinds is diminishing.
"The following five or six months will be essential in the battle and not like the past four or five months that have passed. The Americans would have completed their election, the Russians will have evolved their position and the situation in Iran will have crystallized," the Lebanese politician said.
"Until now, the Arabs have not changed their position, the Americans don't want to be decisive and the Russians haven't seen one factor that makes them back track one iota from their position. For the Russians, the matter is bigger than a naval base in Tartous, they can secure it through negotiations, it is about their role in the region."
VIOLENCE AND CHAOS
For the average Syrian citizen, the primary preoccupation remains violence, insecurity and chaos.
In Damascus, shops open during the day but life grinds to a halt by late afternoon, residents say. The government and army have set up roadblocks. They carry out searches of neighborhoods, they storm houses and arrest activists.
There is a sense of despair among residents. Kidnapping on sectarian grounds and also for ransom is rife. In rebel-controlled areas devastated by government firepower, resentment simmers among people who believe the rebels have brought havoc.
Most analysts predict a long battle. The stakes are high for Assad and his two million Alawite community - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam linked religiously and politically to Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. Bashar cannot leave easily.
There are people tied to him, there are people who fought a battle with him, he cannot abandon them and wash his hands of them," the pro-Syrian politician said.
Observers say, Russia is unlikely to give up its ties to Syria and get out of the Mediterranean.
And Iran looks unlikely to abandon its strategic ally.
"It is not easy for the nerve centre, the leadership in Iran to abandon or leave Syria because when we say Iran is giving up Syria it means it is getting out of the regional power play which means it will lose a lot of its external influence," said the Lebanese politician.
Yet officials from countries aligned against Assad remain hopeful that there will be a trigger to bring him down.
Until then, regional and Western powers are working on measures that need to be in place for a time when Assad is gone to avoid a post-Saddam-style, anarchic power vacuum.
"There will be some event which causes the regime to fall. The fall of Damascus, a regime coup, or something else. I can't predict what the trigger will be but the regime will fall," said the Western diplomat.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Dominic Evans and Mariam Karouny; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Janet McBride)
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