BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, self-styled champion of Arab unity, faces deepening isolation after fellow Arab states announced sanctions on Syria for his eight-month crackdown on protests calling for his overthrow.
For the leader of a country which, under 40 years of Assad family rule, has portrayed itself as the principal defender of Arab rights, the Arab League’s move on Saturday was a wounding blow.
His military crackdown on the uprising, in which the United Nations estimates 3,500 people have been killed, had already alienated former ally Turkey and led Western nations to impose sanctions and call for him to step down.
But the surprise decision by the Arab League to suspend Syria and announce political and economic sanctions marked a dramatic new low in Assad’s international standing, leaving him ever more dependent on a close alliance with non-Arab Iran.
Assad’s determination to crush an uprising which he blames on Islamist militants backed by foreign powers, coupled with the resilience of street protests and the emergence of an armed insurgency, has made Syria’s uprising one of the most intractable conflicts of this year’s Arab revolts.
His use of tanks to seize back control of the city of Hama in August revived memories of his father’s crushing of an uprising nearly 30 years ago, and led U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to accuse him of “losing all sense of humanity.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned Assad last month that the “barbaric repression” in Syria would “end with the fall of the regime,” and even ally Russia said he risked a “sad fate” unless he ended the violence and implemented reforms.
“If he just defiantly continues to defy signals from the Arab world and international community it’s increasingly grim for him,” said Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based Middle East analyst.
Just weeks before the uprising erupted in March, the 46-year-old leader said Syria was immune from the rebellions which have overthrown the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya because its foreign policy was closely aligned with popular Arab sentiment.
In a speech at Damascus University in June, one of just a handful of addresses he has made since the unrest began, Assad justified the crackdown and said he was overwhelmed with support from Syrians he had met to discuss the crisis.
“The love I felt from those people who represent most of the Syrian people is something I have never felt at any stage of my life,” he said.
In fact the unrest has polarized Syria. Many demonstrators now openly chant for Assad’s execution — a scene unimaginable eight months ago — but he is still able to rally huge crowds for state-organized demonstrations and retains a core of support particularly among minority Christians and his own Alawite sect.
Alongside the military campaign against protests, Assad has lifted a state of emergency in place for nearly 50 years, approved laws to allow parties other than his ruling Baath Party to be established, and promised dialogue with the opposition.
The characteristically ambiguous stance, mixing iron-fisted security while holding out the promise of change, helped to mute international criticism in the early stages of the uprising.
But critics said his decision to send troops into several cities in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan four months ago showed he had chosen the “security option” to crush the protests rather than address their grievances.
Tall and softly spoken Assad was thrust into the spotlight after the death of his elder brother Basel in a car crash in 1994. Called back from medical studies in London, he gradually assumed a higher profile and six years later inherited the presidency when his father died after ruling Syria for 30 years.
To allow the 34-year-old to assume power, Syria’s parliament met hastily to amend a constitutional clause requiring the president to be at least 40 years old.
In office, he held out the prospect of reforming one of the Arab world’s most tightly controlled states and oversaw a short-lived move toward political freedoms before his “Damascus Spring” faded amid a wave of repression and arrests.
Assad also strengthened his father’s strategic alliance with Iran and supported militant Islamist groups including the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
He ended nearly three decades of Syrian military presence in neighboring Lebanon under international pressure following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.
But the collapse in January of Beirut’s pro-Western government, led by Hariri’s son, was the latest sign that Assad had clawed back influence in Lebanon, one of only two countries to oppose Saturday’s Arab League move.
Although he backs anti-Israel militants, he also pursued indirect peace talks with Israel and, despite continued Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, ensured the front line usually remained quiet.
At home he started liberalizing the economy, easing decades of central control and allowing limited foreign investment. But while those around him, including his cousin Rami Makhlouf, acquired great wealth, ordinary Syrians saw few benefits.
He also maintained the grip on power held by his family and Alawite sect in the mainly Sunni Muslim state. His brother Maher commands the Republican Guard and is the second most powerful man in the country while brother-in-law Assef Shawkat is deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces.
Assad’s wife Asma, who grew up in London and worked at an investment bank, helped him try to project a softer, liberal and modern image to the outside world, countering Syria’s reputation as a repressive police state.
He insists that he remains in touch with his people even after a decade in power and eight months of trying to crush a determined uprising.
“I live a normal life. I drive my own car, we have neighbors, I take my kids to school,” he told the British Sunday Telegraph newspaper last month. “That’s why I am popular.”
Editing by Jon Hemming