Bloomberg News

Syria’s Assad Retains Power as Foes Try Guerrilla Tactics

March 23, 2012

(Corrects to show Sunnis are minority in Iraq in seventh paragraph.)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s days may not be as numbered as world leaders thought they were when anti-regime protests started to escalate around the nation a year ago.

Today, U.S. and other intelligence agencies and private experts in Europe and the Mideast are predicting that Assad will cling to power while battling what is evolving into guerrilla warfare. The Syrian leader has won the first round of the fight by forcing rebels from their urban strongholds, intelligence officials said.

Though he may be unable to crush the opposition, Assad may last at least until 2013, according to regional experts such as Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

“It was a mistake to bet against the regime, which has got its act together, and chances are it will gain the upper hand,” Ken Pollack, director for the Persian Gulf at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, said in a telephone interview. “The opposition, waiting in vain for outside help that isn’t coming, has had to switch tactics.”

Suicide bombings last weekend at Syrian secret police headquarters in Damascus marked the opening of a new chapter in a conflict that, by UN estimates, has claimed more than 8,000 lives. Short on ammunition, the outnumbered rebel army seeking the end of four decades of Assad family rule is now adopting the kind of hit-and-run attacks used by insurgents in Iraq.

Regional Impact

An open-ended conflict would threaten the stability of the region. The fighting already has sent thousands of refugees across the border into Turkey, which also is a staging area for the Syrian opposition; may engulf neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, two countries that have already endured civil wars, and could threaten Jordan’s minority Hashemite rulers.

Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims support Syria’s Sunnis, who make up about three-fourths of the population and much of the opposition. In Lebanon, the power of the Hezbollah Shiite group rests to some degree on support and weapons delivered from Iran through Syria.

The growing political isolation of Assad, spurned by the Arab League and hit with economic sanctions, have brought his options -- kill or be killed -- into starker relief. His family and collaborators are Alawites who, as members of a minority sect governing a Sunni majority, have everything to lose. Alawites and other Shiites account for about 13 percent of the population, according to the U.S. State Department.

‘No Return’

“He’s reached a point of no return,” said George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator now at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. “There are few incentives for him to reverse course given the existential crisis he’s mired in.”

In a March 19 letter obtained by Bloomberg News, Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s UN envoy, wrote to United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon and the president of the Security Council, British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, to say, “There shall no forgiveness for those who support terrorism.”

Hope is dwindling that Assad will stop killing the ill- equipped armed opposition that is too small and too disorganized to pose a serious threat, according to UN diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity.

They said that, while most leaders agree that doing nothing in Syria would be catastrophic, diplomacy had led to a series of dead-ends, and there is no appetite for military intervention during an election year in the U.S. and France, two of the main drivers along with the U.K. for the no-fly zone over Libya last year.

New Realities

The new realities on the ground are starting to sink in with Western countries and their Arab allies as they take stock of the fact that Assad is unlikely to crumble like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and other leaders swept aside by the Arab Spring.

Ban, who dispatched his predecessor Kofi Annan to try to extract concessions from Assad, said in Malaysia yesterday that the “country faces the specter of sectarian strife.”

An earlier push for the Security Council to back an Arab League plan with a resolution asking Assad to step down has given way to a non-binding statement supporting an Annan peace mission that few expect will succeed. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice described the move as “modest.”

The council “has finally chosen to take a pragmatic look at the situation in Syria,” said Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who twice vetoed Western-drafted resolutions seeking to hold Assad accountable. Russia, which sells weapons to Assad, is one of Syria’s few remaining allies.

‘Window of Opportunity’

Russia is “trying to give as much time to Assad while trying not to appear impervious,” Landis said in a telephone interview. “Assad saw the window of opportunity, and is seizing it.”

Assad held back initially, relying on intimidation with snipers and bands of plainclothes police to break up rallies and frighten people into staying indoors, said Landis.

The Syrian opposition, he said, also has made a “bad and costly mistake” in trying to hold territory and take on the Syrian Army that dwarfs the rebel force, built on military defectors and civilians who have abandoned peaceful protest.

Few senior military leaders have defected, and the violence has spooked minorities, such as the Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, to rally around the regime, said Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Fractured Opposition

There also is a growing detachment between the Syrian National Council, a political group largely composed of educated émigrés claiming to be the main opposition alliance, and the people on the ground losing their lives.

To bridge this divide, Turkey next week will host a meeting of all opposition groups to address the criticism that they are fractured, one of the key reasons why outside countries have held back from providing financial and military support, said Mustafa Hamitoglu, an SNC member, in a telephone interview.

There are different models for the Syrian insurgency to draw on, such as the mujahedeen guerrillas who, with covert U.S. help, drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Still, more recent history offers examples of when the international community either took too long before stepping in, as in Bosnia, or where military forays go wrong, such as the decade-long U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Jeff Laurenti of the Century Foundation.

Iraq, like Syria, has a large, very mixed Muslim population, said Landis, adding that “we’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at

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