BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad has tried brute force and political concession, often simultaneously, to quell protests in Syria but neither has halted the uprising and his double-edged tactic may alienate a vital support base.
Since the outbreak of unrest 11 weeks ago, the Syrian president has combined violent repression with efforts to appease demonstrators, a pattern repeated again this week.
On the day he declared an amnesty for political prisoners, activists said security forces killed dozens of civilians in the central town of Rastan, which had seen protests against Assad.
Tuesday’s amnesty was followed by steps toward a “national dialogue” to address popular grievances, while a dozen more people were reported killed in the military assault on the town.
Whether the mixed messages are a deliberate strategy or a rushed reaction to Syria’s turmoil, analysts say they risk undermining the argument made by Assad supporters that the only alternative to his rule is civil strife.
“Syria’s minorities, middle classes and business establishment — all three basically fear the alternatives to Assad and were initially receptive to the regime’s message of ‘Us or Chaos’,” said a Damascus-based analyst.
“But the regime has been very inconsistent on all fronts: repression, reform, handling the economic fallout, as well as in terms of dialogue. It’s been arresting people at the very moment when it needs interlocutors on the ground.”
“So the formulation of “us or chaos” is gradually turning against it,” said the analyst, who declined to be named.
Rights groups say 1,000 civilians have been killed in the unrest, which has seen protests sweep from the southern city of Deraa to the Mediterranean coast and eastern Kurdish regions.
But protests have been most intense in poorer, rural areas while the capital Damascus and second city Aleppo, with wealthier businesses and middle classes, have seen less disturbance, partly because of heavy security.
Authorities blame the violence on armed groups, Islamists and foreign agitators and say more than 120 police and soldiers have been killed. Most international media are prevented from operating in Syria, making it impossible to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
While the demonstrations show no sign yet of reaching the scale needed to overthrow Bashar, they have continued to spread and analysts say protesters’ anger is growing.
The death of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib focused local and international fury at perceived brutality in Syria. Activists say he was tortured horrifically in captivity, a charge denied by authorities who say he died in crossfire at a protest.
People in the southern towns of Dael and Deraa held posters of the young boy on Friday, witnesses said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week his death symbolized the “total collapse” of any effort to address peoples’ grievances and that Assad’s legitimacy had “nearly run out.”
Despite Clinton’s condemnation, and the fact that the protests have lasted far longer than uprisings which toppled Arab leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, the United States appears reluctant to make a clear call for Assad to go.
That reluctance stems partly from uncertainty over who might take over in Syria, a mainly Sunni Muslim country ruled for 41 years by Assad’s minority Alawite sect. Under Assad and his father, Syria has been allied to Iran and backed militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, but also held peace talks with Israel.
A meeting of Syrian opposition figures in Turkey this week called for Assad to step down to pave the way for democracy, but gave little indication of how it might govern in his place.
“Although the regime may be losing ground with the silent majority, the opposition are not gaining anything because they are not answering any of the key questions that the crisis raises,” the Damascus-based analyst said.
“In a state which is so fragile, how do you ensure successful transition? What is these people’s agenda? They are focused on the issue of toppling the regime and they have been completely absent on key issues which people want answers on.”
As the protests and crackdown continue — a Syrian human rights group said 27 people were shot dead at a protest in the city of Hama on Friday — there have been increasing reports of protesters responding with force.
Analysts say that protest marches have been overwhelmingly peaceful but that since the start of the unrest there were isolated cases of protesters taking up arms in Deraa, Tel Kelakh on the Lebanese border and most recently in Rastan.
“For the first time there have been real clashes and people are fighting back,” said Rime Allaf, Associate Fellow in Chatham House. “It is drastic that it is coming to this ...(though) it’s not widespread yet.”
A senior Western diplomat in Beirut said Lebanese politicians, allies and foes of Damascus alike, believed “the situation in Syria is irreversible: “Nothing like this has happened in modern Syrian history. The regime is extraordinarily vulnerable.”
Resistance from Russia and China has so far obstructed U.S. and European efforts for a United Nations resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown, and Assad has emerged once before from a period of Western isolation.
But he has seen two regional allies, Turkey and Qatar, distance themselves from his government in recent weeks, and Syria’s economy will suffer as tourism revenues dry up, investments are put on hold and sanctions against senior officials deter some international firms from doing business.
“(Assad’s rule) is not disintegrating,” Allaf said. “But this notion that little bits of so-called reform can be given and things will get back to normal, this is not going to happen.”
Editing by Jon Hemming