Syria's Assad in firm control after a bloody year

By Elizabeth A. Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

A vendor displays pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria. Assad has been fighting a rebellion for a year now.

Associated Press

BEIRUT — As world leaders close ranks against Syrian leader Bashar Assad, the U.S. president summed up the popular wisdom during a recent White House press conference: "Ultimately, this dictator will fall."

That prediction may be premature.

Regime forces have retaken the major opposition strongholds, the rebels are low on money and guns, and the U.N. has ruled out any military intervention of the type that tipped the scales against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Relying on the scorched-earth tactics that have kept his family in power for more than 40 years, Assad is in no immediate danger of falling.

That does not mean the bloodshed is nearing an end. Syria's rebels are turning to guerrilla tactics, such as roadside bombs and ambushes, and terrorist groups like al-Qaida appear to be entering the fray and exploiting the chaos. Assad could hang on indefinitely while an already violent conflict metastasizes into an insurgency that lays waste to the country.

"The international community and the West have been standing by and watching Syria be torn apart," Syrian activist Fadi al-Yassin told The Associated Press on Thursday, speaking by satellite phone from the northern province of Idlib.

"In the end, we worry that there will be no state left for us to build on," he said.

The U.N. estimates that more than 8,000 people have been killed since the uprising began a year ago in a grim cycle of attack and reprisal.

In many ways, the successful ouster of four other leaders in the wave of Arab Spring uprisings contributed to an air of inevitability to Syria's conflict — that the uprising must end, one way or another, with the leader's fall.

Some of the previous revolts were quick, like Egypt and Tunisia; others were long and bloody like Yemen and Libya.

But in every case, a despised dictator fell.

In most of those conflicts, however, there was an international willingness to get involved: President Barack Obama eventually withdrew support from his ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak; the U.S. became deeply involved in negotiations to extract Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh; and a U.N. Security Council vote led to NATO airstrikes that were key to Gadhafi's downfall.

And uprisings that seem unstoppable can turn out otherwise. With the help of troops from Saudi Arabia, the tiny Gulf nation of Bahrain successfully crushed last year's protests by its Shiite majority against its Sunni monarchy. In Iran, massive protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 appeared certain to force radical change. Instead, the Islamic leadership's crackdown all but wiped the opposition from the political radar.

While those two revolts were not nearly as violent as the one in Syria, they demonstrated that leaders can survive even as discontent continues.

There are no prospects for international action in Syria. NATO and the U.N. have all but ruled out foreign military intervention, in part out of fears that it would only make the country's problems worse, and the U.S. and its allies have shown little appetite for getting involved in another Arab nation in turmoil.

"Nobody is discussing military operations," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday in Malaysia.

Assad's regime has built up unmistakable momentum in recent weeks, driving the rebel Free Syrian Army out of strongholds in the central city of Homs, Idlib province in the north, and most recently Deir el-Zour, in the east.

On Tuesday, Syrian soldiers backed by tanks rolled from four sides into Deir el-Zour, which is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Iraqi border, forcing the rebels to flee and take shelter in homes and apartments after a short gunbattle.

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