x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Syria stalemate heads into the unknown

As the bloody deadlock enters its fourth month, the divide between government loyalists and anti-regime groups is growing.

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian eastern town of Deir al-Zour, near the border with Iraq June 17, 2011. Syrian forces shot dead 16 people on Friday when they fired on protesters demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, activists said, and European powers said Damascus should face tougher sanctions for the violence.
Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian eastern town of Deir al-Zour, near the border with Iraq June 17, 2011. Syrian forces shot dead 16 people on Friday when they fired on protesters demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, activists said, and European powers said Damascus should face tougher sanctions for the violence.

Damascus // Syria is stuck in a bloody limbo with neither the autocratic regime nor anti-government protesters able to bring decisive pressure on their opponents.

As the stalemate enters its fourth month, the divide between government loyalists and anti-regime groups is growing. Both sides apparently believe they will be the eventual victors.

Syrian officials are certain that President Bashar al Assad has the support of a majority of the country's 23-million people. They believe he retained their loyalty with recent offers of moderate political reforms and stability.

State media refer to the now frequent anti-regime protests as "small gatherings". Officials claim that demonstrators have put no more than 100,000 people on the streets across the country, a fraction of the population and too few to weaken the government's grip on power.

"The people are still with the president, no matter what the protesters or the outside world likes to say," said one regime loyalist, a company owner in his late 40s who described himself as secular. "The situation is nothing like the lies pushed by the international media. We are facing armed extremist groups and there is no choice but to fight them."

He brushed aside mention of civilian casualties - human-rights groups say more than 1,400 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March - saying reports of shootings and abuse by the security services has been exaggerated as part of a foreign plot to weaken Syria.

"Don't worry, the Syrian army will deal with this, it will take them a few more months but they will put a stop to it," he added.

"The authorities have made some mistakes, which is why it hasn't already been finished, but they will get it done. Anyone who thinks the regime is weak is very wrong."

Syrian analysts say that many regime insiders share that sense of confidence. They claim senior officials are adamant the situation is under control, and that a security crackdown will work over time.

"There are some in the regime who believe that major political reforms are urgently needed but they are a largely ignored minority at this point," said one well-connected analyst.

He said officials believed their offers of policy change - new media and election laws and a revamped economic strategy - had satisfied the silent majority, while the remaining hard-core of dissidents would be dealt with through security measures.

"The authorities basically think this is under control, that they hold the important cards and that they will get through it," he added.

"They don't feel they are in a hurry."

Opposition activists, on the other hand, believe that with each passing week their movement grows in strength as government credibility and power fades.

Dissidents, who in the first weeks of the uprising were fearful the authorities would be able to snuff out the rebellion, are increasingly confident. Many believe it has gained unstoppable momentum.

"The genie is out of the bottle now, and there is no way to put it back," said one leading activist. "In itself that's a victory for the opposition. There is no way for the regime to go back to business as usual, that won't work anymore."

Activists also insist that every protester willing to brave violence and the threat of arrest in a demonstration also represents their families and a vast number of people too afraid to take to the streets.

"There is a silent majority that has not really joined either side yet. They are not regime loyalists and they are not hard-core protesters," said one independent analyst in Damascus.

"My sense is this bloc is automatically with the status quo, but as time passes that is changing. The regime's harsh tactics are working against it and its promises are looking empty."

The belief that the current stalemate favours the protesters was shared by another leading anti-government activist, who said growing economic pressure, international isolation and revulsion at killings were steadily undermining the regime.

He said government officials were "over confident" and had failed to realise how serious a challenge they face.

Another independent political analyst said it was difficult to measure which of the various completing claims was correct.

"Nobody can actually say with real accuracy what is happening in Syria at the moment," he said. "We don't know what's happening and we certainly cannot know what is going to happen. Nothing is inevitable, we are walking into the unknown."

 

psands@thenational.ae