AMMAN (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad is losing support among key constituents and risks plunging Syria into sectarian strife by intensifying a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, the U.S. ambassador to Damascus said on Thursday.
Time is against Assad, but the Syrian opposition still needed to agree on the specifics of a transition and the system that could replace Assad if he is ousted, Ambassador Robert Ford told Reuters in a telephone interview from Damascus.
“The government violence is actually creating retaliation and creating even more violence in our analysis, and it is also increasing the risk of sectarian conflict,” he said.
Although Ford did not mention either by name, tensions have emerged in Syria between its mostly Sunni population and Assad’s Alawite sect, which dominates the army and the security apparatus.
The United States, seeking to convince Assad to scale back an alliance with Iran and backing for militant groups, moved to improve relations with Assad when President Barack Obama took office, sending Ford to Damascus in January to fill a diplomatic vacuum since Washington pulled out its ambassador in 2005.
But ties deteriorated after the uprising broke out and Assad ignored international calls to respond to protester demands that he dismantle the police state and end five decades of autocratic rule.
Washington, which has weighed its strategic interests in the region against a public commitment to support democracy, has responded in different ways to the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
It shows no appetite to repeat the kind of military intervention that was crucial in the ouster of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Assad’s opponents say they, too, do not want foreign military intervention but would welcome “international protection” to prevent the killing of civilians.
Assad has promised reform and has changed some laws, but the opposition said they made no difference, with killings, torture, mass arrests and military raids intensifying in recent weeks.
The 46-year-old president repeatedly has said that outside powers were trying to divide Syria under the guise of wanting democracy because of Damascus’s backing for Arab resistance forces. He said the authorities were justified in using force against what they described as a terrorist threat.
Ford said most of the violence “is coming from the government and its security forces.
“That can either be shooting at peaceful protests or funeral processions or when government forces go into homes. We have had recently a number of deaths in custody, or extra-judicial killings,” he said.
The veteran diplomat has infuriated Syria’s rulers by cultivating links with the grassroots protest movement. It has been expanding since the uprising demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule erupted in March, when a group of activists, mostly women, demonstrated in the main Marjeh Square in Damascus to demand the release of political prisoners. Security police arrested and beat dozens of them.
Ford was cheered by protesters when he went in July to the city of Hama, which was later stormed by tanks. He also visited a town that has witnessed regular protests in the southern province of Deraa, ignoring a new ban on Western diplomats traveling outside Damascus and its outskirts.
Along with a group of mostly Western ambassadors, Ford paid condolences this month to the family of Ghayath Matar, a 25-year-old protest leader who used to distribute flowers to give to soldiers but was arrested and died of apparent torture.
“We wanted to show Syrians what the international community from Japan to Europe to North America thinks of the example that Ghayath Matar set about peaceful protest,” Ford said.
Citing the resilience of more than six months of what he described as overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations, Ford said the street activists could receive a boost from a more effective political opposition.
“The other part of the protest movement is to have a genuine frame for a democratic transition. I think that this is something which different elements of the Syrian opposition are trying to organize.
“It probably has two elements. One element is to have some agreed principles about how a reformed Syrian state would look and how it would operate, and another element would be how would a Syrian transition be arranged,” he said.
The Obama administration toughened its position in August, saying Assad should step down and imposing sanctions on the petroleum industry, which is linked to the ruling elite.
Ford said there was economic malaise in Syria, signs of dissent within Assad’s Alawite sect and more defections from the army since mid-September, but the military is “still very powerful and very cohesive.”
“I don’t think that the Syrian government today, September 22, is close to collapse. I think time is against the regime because the economy is going into a more difficult situation, the protest movement is continuing and little by little groups that used to support the government are beginning to change.”
Ford cited a statement issued in the restive city of Homs last month by three notable members of the Alawite community which said the Alawites’ future is not tied to the Assads remaining in power.
“We did not see developments like that in April or May. I think the longer this continues the more difficult it becomes for the different communities, the different elements of Syrian society that used to support Assad, to continue to support him.”
He said Assad could still rely on the military to try and crush the protest movement but the killing of peaceful protesters was losing him support within the ranks.
“The Syrian army is still very powerful and it is still very strong,” Ford said. “Its cohesion is not at risk today but there are more reports since mid-September of desertions than we heard in April and May or June. And this is why I am saying time is not on the side of the government.”
Editing by Michael Roddy