Insight - Syria's Assad set for long conflict
Fri Feb 3, 2012 4:38pm GMT
By Mariam Karouny
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - With the enemy at the gates, Bashar al-Assad was dining
The sound of gunfire and explosions carried to central Damascus as his
troops clashed in the suburbs last Saturday with rebels who had seized towns
near the capital. Masked gunmen erected checkpoints on the city outskirts.
But Syria's 46-year-old president, outwardly unfazed, put on a show of
business as usual for fellow patrons of the smart downtown restaurant where
he spent the weekend evening.
"He hasn't changed his lifestyle," said a politician from neighbouring
Lebanon, a regular visitor to Syria, who has met Assad several times since
the Syrian uprising began last March.
"He spent the evening at a Damascus restaurant," he added, speaking
privately to Reuters about the president's movements on January 28, when the
appearance of forces flying flags of the Free Syrian Army at the very edge
of the capital had some, excitable, observers reckoning Assad's life
expectancy in just weeks.
Memories of the late Muammar Gaddafi were quick to surface.
Yet there was more to his projection of insouciance than the bravado of
madness or despair. Others, too, have described to Reuters a Syrian head of
state fully abreast of events on the ground - not the mere puppet of
hardliners that some have portrayed - "relaxed and phlegmatic," and
determined to see off the challenge, offering some reforms, strictly on his
While few rate his long-term prospects highly, all is not lost, at least for
now. Assad's troops swiftly drove back the more lightly armed rebels from
the outskirts of Damascus and many foresee a long struggle yet for a
country, at the heart of the Middle East, that is trapped in a "balance of
Pockets of territory are in open revolt, the economy is choked by sanctions
and fellow Arab leaders have joined the West in demanding he quit. Yet Assad
retains considerable strengths: he has military reserves; allies that
include Iran and Russia; grudging consent from millions afraid of Iraq- or
Lebanon-style chaos; and he can count on die-hard support within his Alawite
religious minority, who fear a sectarian bloodbath if he falls.
Since people in the city of Deraa first took to the streets nearly a year
ago, inspired by Arab Spring risings elsewhere to demand freedoms, and were
met with the ferocity that is the mark of four decades of rule by Assad and
his father, Syria has been virtually closed to reporters from the outside
With the Arab League pressing for openness, Syrian officials have now given
journalists limited access. Reporting last week, under surveillance, from
Damascus, Deraa and the rebellious city of Homs, Reuters nonetheless found
Syrians willing to evade, or defy, secret police minders and to condemn the
There was a climate of fear and despair, as businesses suffer and people
talk of mysterious disappearances, blamed on shadowy forces fighting both
for and against the status quo.
An outwardly diffident ophthalmologist with a London-born wife, who was
thrust to the fore only by the car crash that killed his elder brother,
Assad has promised reforms to the Baathist one-party state developed over 30
years by his father Hafez. But he has insisted strictly on his own terms and
rejects the demand last month of the Arab League that he step aside.
"No, no, no. Never," his Lebanese acquaintance said. "He will not resign
even if the war lasts 20 years." Assad, he added, was fully engaged with
"events on the ground."
A Western diplomat quoted another recent visitor to the presidential palace
as finding him "relaxed and phlegmatic," busy on his iPad, asking about the
prospects for an Israeli strike against Iran and apparently confident he
could outlast his foreign critics, just as his father did for 30 years.
But unlike the elder Assad, who crushed an armed Islamist uprising in the
city of Hama 30 years ago this week, killing many thousands, Bashar faces
opponents who are entrenched across the country and hardened by a military
crackdown on protests.
A visit by a group of foreign journalists to the eastern suburbs of Damascus
last week highlighted how much Assad's authority has eroded since the
protests started, despite the shooting of thousands of demonstrators, mass
arrests, torture and killings in custody and open warfare on mutinous army
A year ago, it was unthinkable for Syrians to criticise their leader in
public. But here now, just 15 minutes' drive from central Damascus, masked
gunmen fighting to overthrow Assad were manning a checkpoint across the road
and stopping cars.
The scene evoked another country - Iraq during the sectarian conflict which
followed the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, or Lebanon during
its ruinous 1975-90 civil war.
The day after the journalists' visit, Assad sent more than 2,000 soldiers to
seize back control from the rebels. The fighters were pushed back, but their
defiance was infectious.
"There is no force on earth that will make me accept him as a president,"
said Hend, a housewife in her late 40s who spoke to Reuters in Barzeh, a
district on the outskirts of the capital. Like most of the people Reuters
interviewed in Syria, she did not want to be identified for fear of
"He's not my president and never was," Hend added. "I just couldn't say so
Assad, appointed in a quasi-monarchical dynastic succession when his father
died in 2000, rules a country which has been controlled by a network of at
least 13 official security bodies.
Most Syrians can relate horror stories of the powerful intelligence services
that have detained many tens of thousands of people. Memories of their
suffering endure, perpetuated through the years of repression in a
population that numbers 23 million, double what it was a generation ago in
the late 1980s.
In Deraa, where the uprising first erupted, near the southern border with
Jordan, Assad's forces have reasserted control militarily. But there is
little evidence they have won over the hearts of the people.
Teenage girls leaving school shouted "Freedom! Freedom!" as journalists
passed by. Many local people cast openly angry looks at security men who
were accompanying the reporters. Graffiti calling on Assad to go was still
visible, despite obvious attempts to paint over it.
The security detail in plain clothes appeared uncomfortable escorting
visitors up to the Omari mosque, focal point of the Deraa revolt, and most
hung back and watched from a distance.
The message from Deraa seems clear: a military offensive can silence people
but it will not dampen their anger. Rather the reverse, in a town where it
was the arrest of schoolchildren who daubed slogans inspired by Egypt's
uprising that sparked revolt.
"When the dust of battle clears, the blood spilt on the streets will make it
difficult for Assad to rule as he did before," said a Syrian opposition
figure during a secret conversation with Reuters in Damascus.
"Those who are against him now will always be against him."
Another opposition activist said Assad, who he described as wary of
triggering tougher international action against him or of giving too much
power to his army commanders, had held back so far from using the
overwhelming force at his disposal.
"The regime could finish things off militarily," he said. "But it doesn't
want to pay the political price.
"Eighty percent of the army is still in the barracks. He doesn't want to
give the army command greater powers."
Ever since the long-overlooked second son took on his late father's mantle,
there has been persistent speculation about the balance of power within the
secretive ruling family and its entourage and over whether Bashar had
liberal leanings that were held in check by the likes of his feared younger
However, diplomats, officials and other observers generally concur that the
president is today a force in his own right, committed to hanging on to
power on his own terms.
What that determination could mean in terms of continued conflict was
visible in Homs. It is ravaged by fighting between Assad's forces and
rebels, as well as clashes between majority Sunni Muslims and members of
Assad's favoured minority Alawites.
Loyalist soldiers and rebel gunmen manned sandbag barriers and checkpoints
in rival power bases. Streets were deserted and strewn with litter. Walls
were marked by bullet holes.
Just a few streets from a government checkpoint, the rebels' green, white
and black flag fluttered. A burnt-out armoured vehicle sat deserted,
sandbags were scattered, signs of a fierce battle in which the army seemed
to have taken casualties.
Graffiti told a story of stand-off:
"Down with Assad" was written on one wall;
"God, Syria and Bashar only" declared a slogan opposite.
Journalists were taken by officials to visit a military hospital and a
single street before being told to leave after just 10 minutes - authorities
could not ensure their safety. Two weeks before, a French journalist was
killed in clashes in Homs.
Despite the close attention of government minders, one young man dared to
approach a Reuters reporter in full view of them: "Come with me," he
whispered. "I'll show you what the security forces are doing to the city.
"They will come after me later," he added. "But I don't care. My life is
nothing compared to the sacrifices of others."
The defiance in Homs compares with the pervasive sense of foreboding in
Damascus, where many people are simply staying at home as much as possible,
alarmed by stories of mysterious gunmen in the streets and unexplained
One man, Nabil Haddad, spoke of one such incident he had heard of, which has
evoked fears of the kind of civil war that saw hundreds of thousands of
Iraqi refugees flee across the border to Syria over the past decade:
"My friend was stopped at a checkpoint outside Damascus," said Haddad, who
is in his 30s and works in business. Speaking at a restaurant in the
capital's walled old city that is popular with the moderately well-off
middle classes, he went on:
"Men in civilian clothes told him his wife should go with them to the police
station, and he should go and get her papers from home.
"So he did, and then went to find her at the police station - only to be
told the police had not erected any checkpoint on that street and had never
heard of his wife."
Throughout the capital, luxury and boutique hotels are almost empty, while
market traders say business has dried up.
The year of unrest, coupled with Western sanctions on Syria's crude oil
exports, has plunged the economy into deep trouble, depriving Assad of $2
billion in oil revenues and suffocating tourism, another vital source of
Trade has collapsed and businesses have closed or slowed operations as parts
of the country have been shut down by the violence and basic functions of
the state like tax collection have ground to a halt in some areas.
The Syrian currency has fallen nearly 20 percent, to 58 pounds to the
dollar. Economists say authorities are reluctant to keep spending billions
of dollars to support it.
Away from the banks, on the black market, the fall has been steeper. The
rate is now 70 per dollar. "We're worried that soon it will be 100. This
will be a disaster for all of us," said one trader in the ancient Hamidiyeh
market, which a year ago bustled with tourists but now looks forlorn and
deserted by customers.
Now, Iranian tourists, many of them on pilgrimages, are almost the only
foreigners. Merchants say business has collapsed and Syrian shoppers are
tense and gloomy.
"Everything we are getting is local now. We cannot find imported goods,"
said Fadwa Fahham, a Damascus housewife who complained food prices have
doubled and heating fuel is scarce.
In the gold souq, shopkeepers say sales have fallen. Those who do come are
not buying for a special occasion, but to invest in something that may hold
its value in a time of crisis.
"These days people are buying to save for worse times ahead," said one of
the jewellers, who did not want to be named.
"We are now like Lebanon - we are an arena for conflict," said Khaled,
another resident of Damascus who spoke to Reuters privately. "There are
political interests at play and every country has a say now in Syria's
Assad's supporters are confident their president will crush the revolt,
which they say is destroying the country. They speak of a silent majority
upon which Assad can count.
His forces are still overwhelmingly stronger than anything his opponents can
muster, Western and Arab powers have ruled out military intervention of the
kind they deployed in Libya, on the fringe of the Arab world. And he enjoys
support from Iran and Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security
But Moscow could reconsider its political and military ties with Syria,
which date back to the Soviet era, if it judges that Assad's position is
untenable. And even his sympathisers in the region expect Syria to slide
deeper into conflict.
"For sure, Syria is heading for civil war, sectarian war - if it hasn't
already broken out," said the Lebanese politician who is broadly supportive
of Assad's rule.
"The Alawites see it as a battle for survival."
For the time being, Assad's support base remained solid, despite the
defection of thousands of army conscripts and growing numbers of officers,
many from the Sunni majority.
"It's not a disintegrating state," the Lebanese politician said.
But the prospect of an extended stalemate between the two sides, described
by an opposition figure in Damascus as a "balance of weakness," fills many
Syrians with dread.
"Before, I used to wonder when I watched the news from Iraq, how could this
happen? How could people kill each other?" said Ali, a student in the
capital. "But now I know that is possible - because it might happen here."
Even some of those who supported the early protests, exhilarated by the
calls for reform and inspired by their Arab neighbours, say the bloodshed -
and emergence from the shadows of hardline Sunni Islamists who disdain
secular liberals and religious minorities alike - cast a shadow over their
Nonetheless, after two generations of repression under the Assads, they
believe there is no going back now, however long - and it may indeed be long
- it takes.
"The dreams of my father were crushed by the regime. Now that we have the
courage to challenge the regime, the bullies have stolen the revolution. It
does not represent me now," one leading pro-democracy activist said -
quietly - in Damascus.
"But whatever happens, I will not accept Bashar."
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Editing by Dominic Evans
and Alastair Macdonald)
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
Street battle rages near Egypt's Interior Ministry
Fri Feb 3, 2012 6:28pm GMT
> Print |
* Four reported dead in Cairo and Suez clashes
* Protesters block roads near security HQ in Alexandria
* Soccer deaths behind fresh anger with army rulers
* Public prosecutor orders stadium suspects detained (Adds more on clashes,
public prosecutor decision)
By Patrick Werr and Tom Pfeiffer
CAIRO, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Rock-throwing protesters fought riot police through
clouds of tear gas near Egypt's Interior Ministry on a second day of clashes
triggered by the deaths in Port Said of 74 people - the country's worst
A demonstrator and an army officer were reported dead in Cairo and in the
city of Suez two people were killed on Friday as police used live rounds to
hold back crowds trying to break into a police station and fought in front
of the state security headquarters, witnesses and the ambulance service
Hundreds of protesters blocked roads near state security headquarters in
Egypt's second-largest city Alexandria.
Most of those killed in the Port Said football stadium on Wednesday night
were crushed in a stampede and the government declared three days of
mourning. Protesters hold the military-led authorities responsible.
It was the country's deadliest incident since an uprising ousted Hosni
Mubarak almost a year ago and it gave fresh impetus to regular street
protests against Egypt's ruling generals.
"We will stay until we get our rights. Did you see what happened in Port
Said?" said 22-year-old Abu Hanafy, who arrived from work on Thursday
evening and decided to join the protest.
The ministry in Cairo, a focus of hatred for football fans who say lax
policing was to blame for the stadium disaster, has been hemmed in by street
battles since Thursday.
Thousands staged running battles with riot police throughout Friday,
ignoring government appeals to end the violence.
Tens of thousands were protesting peacefully nearby in Cairo's landmark
Tahrir Square after 28 youth activist groups and political parties called
for a "Friday of Anger".
A Reuters witness heard firing and found gun pellets on the ground.
Demonstrators had heaved aside a concrete barrier blocking a main road near
the ministry overnight to get closer to the building.
"We pulled it down with our bare hands," said Abdul-Ghani Mohamed, a
32-year-old construction worker. "We are the sons of the pharaohs."
Ambulances had to intervene overnight to extract riot police whose truck
took a wrong turn into a street full of protesters.
Police fired round after round of tear gas and the wind picked up on Friday
afternoon to waft the fumes back to the police lines, leading the rioting
protesters, some of whom waved soccer team flags, to cry "God is Greatest".
Some of the demonstrators, mostly men in their late teens and 20s, goaded
police defending the neat five-story ministry building, shouting "The army,
the police - one filthy hand".
DESTRUCTION IN SUEZ
Almost 1,700 people had been hurt by late morning in the latest
confrontations in Cairo and 207 in Suez, the Health Ministry said, many of
them from inhaling tear gas.
An army lieutenant was killed by a security vehicle that ran over him by
mistake, Health Ministry officials said.
Rocks thrown by protesters littered streets that two months ago saw clashes
between police and activists who view the Interior Ministry as an unreformed
vestige of Mubarak's rule.
Hardcore football fans known as "ultras", who often clash with the police
and were at the forefront of the uprising against Mubarak, vowed to continue
"The crimes committed against the revolutionary forces will not stop the
revolution or scare the revolutionaries," said a pamphlet printed in the
name of the ultras.
In Suez, witnesses said fighting broke out at a police station. "We received
two corpses of protesters shot dead by live ammunition," said a doctor at a
Police cordoned off the Suez state security headquarters and a Justice
Ministry compound with razor wire and seven burned-out vehicles were nearby.
Many shops in Suez were wrecked and the facade of the Suez Canal Bank was
destroyed. Police fired tear gas and shotgun pellets at protesters throwing
The soccer stadium deaths have heaped fresh criticism on the military
council that has governed Egypt since Mubarak stepped down. Critics regard
the generals as part of his administration and an obstacle to change.
The army leadership, in turn, has presented itself as the guardian of the
"Jan. 25 revolution" and promised to hand power to an elected president by
the end of June.
INTERIOR MINISTER BLAMES FANS
Health officials said at least 1,000 people were hurt in Port Said when fans
invaded the pitch after local team al-Masry beat Cairo's Al Ahli, Africa's
most successful club.
Hundreds of al-Masry supporters surged across the pitch to the visitors' end
and panicked Al Ahli fans dashed for the exit. But the steel doors were
bolted shut and dozens were crushed to death in the stampede, witnesses
The cause of the violence has been the focus of intense speculation. Some
believe it was triggered by unknown provocateurs working for remnants of the
Mubarak administration who are seeking to sabotage the transition to
Fans were puzzled at how match officials allowed the game to continue even
as rival supporters threw stones and fired flares.
They also pointed to a thin police presence given the tense build-up to the
game and a precedent of violence at such highly charged events.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said the fans started it by insulting and
provoking each other.
The public prosecutor ordered 52 suspects in the Port Said incident detained
for 15 days pending investigation, state news agency MENA said.
They all face charges of premeditated murder, causing bodily harm, thuggery
and destroying public property, MENA quoted deputy public prosecutor
Abdul-Maguid Mahoumd as saying. The prosecutor will base his case partly on
footage from 33 video cameras running in the stadium during the violence.
Ibrahim was widely blamed for the deaths during an emergency parliamentary
session on Thursday. MPs including the Islamists who control some 70 percent
of the chamber called for him to be held to account and accused him of
Safwat Zayat, an analyst, said the incident had done further damage to the
image of the country's military rulers. "The current events push in the
direction of speeding up the transfer of power to civilians," Zayat said.
(Additional reporting by Ashraf Fahim, Ahmed Tolba and Omar Fahmy; Writing
by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Louise Ireland)
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Fri Feb 03 2012 - 14:26:27 EST