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Syria hits point of no return amid broad isolation

By Elizabeth A. Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 21 2011 5:25 a.m. MDT

A supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad dances and wears the Syrian flag with Assad's portrait, as he protests to show his solidarity to his president, in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday Aug. 20, 2011. When Bashar Assad inherited power in Syria in 2000, he was seen by many as a youthful new president in a region of aging dictators, a fresh face who could transform his father's stagnant dictatorship into a modern state. Now this once-popular image of Assad, as a reformer constrained by members of his late father's old guard, has vanished in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest government backlashes of the Arab Spring.

Muzaffar Salman, Associated Press

BEIRUT — When Bashar Assad inherited power in Syria in 2000, many saw him as a youthful new president in a region of aging dictators — a fresh face who could transform his father's stagnant dictatorship into a modern state ready to engage with the world.

Now, the bloody government backlash has extinguished the once-popular image of Assad as a reformer struggling against members of his late father's old guard.

With calls for his resignation last week from Washington to Tokyo, the Arab Spring has forced Assad to face the most severe isolation of his family's four-decade rule. And the events of the past five months have dashed any lingering hopes that he would change one of the most repressive states in the world.

There is little sign that the 45-year-old Assad will manage to crush the protests that are shaking his regime. But even if he does, his newfound status as a global pariah stands to devastate his country of 22 million people, undermine stability in the Middle East and affect the role of Iran, Syria's ally, on the world stage.

"Power is an aphrodisiac, and as the old saying goes, it corrupts absolutely," said David W. Lesch, an American expert on Syria who wrote a 2005 biography of Bashar Assad. "In the end, he became more of a product of his environment rather than a transformational figure who could change that environment."

The United States and several of its major allies called Thursday for Assad to give up power, a crescendo to months of mounting reproach. The messages from Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels coincided with a U.N. report recommending that Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible crimes against humanity in the crackdown, including summary executions, torturing prisoners and targeting children.

Even Japan added its voice to the chorus calling for Assad to leave.

Human rights groups said Assad's forces have killed nearly 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in mid-March, touched off by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.

There is no sign that the global calls for Assad's ouster will have any immediate effect, although analysts say they could ultimately help turn the tide. The growing isolation could compel Syrians who have supported the regime to move toward the opposition, especially if the economy continues to deteriorate.

Longtime ally Iran has offered unwavering support for Damascus, but it cannot prop up the regime indefinitely.

Still, many observers predict at least several more months of bloodshed, perhaps even more brutality to prevent further attempts to replace Assad.

Both sides of the conflict remain energized. Protesters pour into the streets every Friday, defying the near-certain barrage of shelling and sniper fire. But the regime is strong as well and in no imminent danger of collapse, setting the stage for what could be a drawn-out and bloody stalemate.

The opposition has yet to bring out the middle- and upper-middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses, although protests have been building.

Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect, ensuring loyalty by melding the fate of the army and the regime. That loyalty is the Assad regime's most potent weapon.

Economic sanctions can chip away at the regime, although the new U.S. ban on Syrian oil is not a significant blow on its own. But EU officials said Friday the bloc's 27 member states were considering an embargo on oil, which could significantly slash the Damascus government's revenues.

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