Hezbollah confident in Assad, West resigned to Syria stalemate

BEIRUT Wed Apr 9, 2014 3:11pm EDT

1 of 3. A rebel fighter fires during clashes with Syrian forces in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus April 8, 2014. Picture taken April 8, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Ammar Al-Bushy

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Bashar al-Assad's Lebanese ally Hezbollah said his Western foes must now accept he will go on ruling Syria after fighting rebels to a standstill - a "reality" to which his foreign enemies seem increasingly resigned.

Echoing recent bullish talk coming out of Damascus, Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia which is supporting Assad in combat, told Reuters that the president retained popular support among many of Syria's diverse religious communities and would shortly be re-elected.

"There is a practical Syrian reality that the West should deal with - not with its wishes and dreams, which proved to be false," Qassem said during a meeting with Reuters journalists at a Hezbollah office in the group's southern Beirut stronghold.

He said the United States and its Western allies were in disarray and lacked a coherent policy on Syria - reflecting the quandary that Western officials acknowledge they face since the pro-democracy protests they supported in 2011 became a war that has drawn al Qaeda and other militants to the rebel cause.

Syria's fractious opposition - made up of guerrillas inside the country and a largely impotent political coalition in exile - had, he said, proved incapable of providing an alternative to four decades of rule by Assad and his late father before him.

"This is why the option is clear. Either to have an understanding with Assad, to reach a result, or to keep the crisis open with President Assad having the upper hand in running the country," said the bearded and turbaned cleric.

Qassem's comments follow an account from another Assad ally, Russian former prime minister Sergei Stepashin, who said after meeting him last week that the Syrian leader felt secure and expected heavy fighting to end this year.

Officials said this week that preparations would begin this month for the presidential election - a move that seems to reflect a degree of optimism in the capital and which may well end with Assad claiming a popular mandate that he would use to resist U.N.-backed efforts to negotiate a transition of power.

Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also said this week that Assad is no longer at risk and that military gains mean the danger of Syria fragmenting was also receding.

WESTERN RESIGNATION

It is a view of Assad that - quietly - seems to be gaining ground in Western capitals. Calling it bad news for Syrians, the French foreign ministry said this week: "Maybe he will be the sole survivor of this policy of mass crimes".

France, which last year was preparing to join U.S. military action that was eventually aborted, now rules out force and called the stalled talks on "transition" the "only plan" - a view U.S. officials say is shared in Washington, notably among military chiefs who see Assad as preferable to sectarian chaos.

While rebels do not admit defeat, leaders like Badr Jamous of the Syrian National Coalition accept that without foreign intervention "this stalemate will go on". A U.S. official, asked about a deadlock that would leave Assad in control of much of Syria, conceded: "This has become a drawn-out conflict."

Assad, 48, has weathered an armed insurgency which started with protests in 2011 and descended into a civil war that has sucked in regional powers, including Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah who back the Alawite president and Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar behind the rebels.

With Russia blocking a U.N. mandate, and voters showing no appetite for war after losses in Afghanistan and Iraq, Western governments have held back from the kind of military engagement that could have toppled the well-armed Syrian leader.

More than 150,000 people have been killed in three years, as Assad has lost the oil-producing and agricultural east and much of the north, including parts of Syria's largest city, Aleppo.

But he did not suffer the fate of other autocrats in the Arab Spring, whether the presidents of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen or Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader toppled and killed by rebels who rode into Tripoli under cover of Western air power.

Instead, he has clawed back control near Damascus, where a year ago rebels hoped for a decisive assault, and the center of the country which links the capital to the coastal stronghold of Assad's Alawite minority. His troops, backed by Hezbollah fighters, took another key town on Wednesday.

Though as much as half the country is being fought over, Assad could hope to hold at least a roughly southwestern half, including most of the built-up heartlands near the coast, and more than half of the prewar population of 23 million.

This leaves Western powers reflecting on a perceived loss of influence in the Middle East. Many now see a new strategy of "containing" Assad - and the fallout from a bitter war that has created millions of refugees and legions of hardened guerrillas.

"The U.S. has a stated policy of regime change, but it has never devoted the resources to effect that change," said Andrew Exum, a former U.S. official who worked on Middle East issues at the Pentagon. "The de facto U.S. strategy of containment is very well suited for what is likely to be a very long war."

"STALEMATE WILL CONTINUE"

Qassem said the United States, which backed away from military action in September after blaming Assad for gassing civilians, was hamstrung by fears over the dominance in rebel ranks of al Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, and another group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

"America is in a state of confusion. On the one hand it does not want the regime to stay and on the other it cannot control the opposition which is represented by ISIL and Nusra," he said.

"This is why the latest American position was to leave the situation in Syria in a state of attrition."

President Barack Obama said last month that the United States had reached "limits" after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and questioned whether years of military engagement in Syria would produce a better outcome there.

Qassem said: "I expect that the stalemate will continue in the Syrian crisis because of the lack of an international and regional decision to facilitate a political solution."

U.N.-mediated talks at Geneva failed in February to bridge a gulf between Assad's government and opponents who insist that Assad must make way for a government of national unity.

Western and regional powers who support the Syrian opposition say it would be a "parody of democracy" to hold an election in the midst of a conflict which has displaced more than 9 million people and divided the country across frontlines.

Syria's electoral law effectively rules out participation by opponents who have fled the country in fear of Assad's police -candidates must have lived in Syria continuously for 10 years.

"My conviction is that Assad will run and will win because he has popular support in Syria from all the sects - Sunnis and secularists," Qassem said. "I believe the election will take place on its due date and Assad will run and win decisively."

Fear of hardline Islamists has undermined support for some rebels even among the 75 percent Sunni majority, and bolstered support for Assad among his fellow Alawites, and Christians.

Qassem said it was too soon to speak of Hezbollah pulling out of Syria, despite an increase in Sunni-Shi'ite tensions within Lebanon caused by the intervention across the border of a movement that is Lebanon's most accomplished military force and also holds cabinet seats in the government in Beirut.

"Until now we consider our presence in Syria necessary and fundamental," Qassem said.

"But when circumstances change, this will be a military and political matter that requires a new assessment.

"But if the situation stays as is and the circumstances are similar, we will remain where we should be".

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul and Missy Ryan in Washington; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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