Assad grip on power has become tenuous

BEIRUT — The Assad family’s grip on Syria has never looked so tenuous.

By (AP)

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Published: Sun 22 Jul 2012, 9:54 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 2:39 PM

After 17 months of violence and an estimated 17,000 people killed, a lightning-quick turnaround in the momentum of the civil war has put President Bashar Assad’s forces on the defensive, a sign that his once-impenetrable family dynasty is wobbling.

For the first time, the rebels have brought a sustained fight to Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power, in a powerful signal that the government cannot protect its own capital. On Friday, reports of intense fighting in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, suggest the rebels are making a run on another major government stronghold.

And now there are signs that the inner circle is unraveling. A stunning rebel bombing that killed four of Assad’s top lieutenants on Wednesday was a strike that almost certainly involved the hand of a trusted insider.

The coming days will be crucial to determining whether the government can recover from blow after devastating blow.

Trying to retain their grip on power, government forces are stretched to the limit. The government is pulling its most powerful troops from around the country to reinforce Damascus, which allows rebels to swoop in and take over key areas after the soldiers abandon their positions or leave them only lightly guarded.

In the past two days, rebels seized border crossings in Iraq and Turkey, ushering in scenes of bloody chaos. Truck driver Ahmet Celik said on Friday he was nearly killed near the Bab Al Hawa crossing in Turkey when rebels fought for control.

“The gunfire lasted till the morning,” Celik said. “We barely survived.”

A stream of high-level defections points to growing unease among the most privileged classes. Brig-Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defence minister, defected to France earlier this month.

Although the government still has the firepower to hang on — possibly for months or more — the future is bleak.

The opposition, which is fractious and lacks any real central command, has no hope of pacifying the country. There is no clear candidate to step in and lead should Assad go. And the violence has become far more unstable than many had ever imagined, with Al Qaeda and other extremists joining the ranks of those fighting to topple the government.

Thousands of Syrians are not waiting around to find out what comes next.

Despite the rebel gains, the battle for Syria is not over yet. Although the rebels appear more powerful than at any stage of the uprising, their small-caliber weapons and rampant disorganisation will make it all but impossible to defeat the regime in direct battle.

The rebels also have failed to hold territory for any significant amount of time, which prevents them from carving out a zone akin to Libya’s Benghazi, where opponents of Muammar Gaddafi launched their successful uprising last year.

Already, Syrian forces are starting to drive the rebels out of pockets of Damascus. On Friday, government forces showed off a battle-scarred neighbourhood of the capital that they say has been cleansed of fighters, but rebels say it was a tactical retreat that will allow them to expand their guerrilla war in the coming days and weeks.

The government has tried to portray a sense of calm control — but the country is in a state of profound unease. Assad has not spoken to the public and he was a no-show on Friday at the funerals for the security officials killed by the Wednesday bombing.

The only sign of Assad since the attack was a brief, soundless video clip on state TV.

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