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Syria's Bashar Assad in control after a bloody year of unrest
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 news 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 said 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.
The firefight was decidedly less bloody than previous operations to oust rebels, such as the monthlong siege in Homs that devastated the Baba Amr neighborhood, killing hundreds of people and leaving much of the area in ruins.
Although the rebels insist they pulled out to spare civilians, they acknowledge they are low on weapons -- making a protracted fight all but impossible to win with the odds stacked as they are now. The loss of Deir el-Zour, in particular, was a blow because the city was the easiest conduit for weapons being smuggled in from Iraq.
Despite predictions by the Obama administration and others that the Syrian regime's days are numbered, Assad still commands a strong army that is unlikely to turn on him. The entire structure of the state has been built to preserve Assad's power. The military, the police and security services -- even the economy -- are tied up with the survival of his presidency.
Significant sectors of society also depend on Assad. The regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs. The community is likely to stick by him, fearing the alternative is retaliation from the country's Sunni Muslims. Assad, and his father who ruled the country before him, reserved the top echelons of the military and political leadership for Alawites, which bred smoldering resentments.
Sunnis make up the majority of Syria's 22 million people, as well as the backbone of the opposition. Even as much of the opposition insists the movement is entirely secular, disturbing reports from the ground suggest religious tensions are boiling over.
The volatile sectarian divide makes civil war one of the most dire scenarios.
But another likely scenario is a grinding insurgent conflict in which the regime tries to impose control over as much territory as it can while rebels try to weaken it with a guerrilla war.
On Monday, Syrian rebels battled regime forces in a heavily protected, upscale area of Damascus in a sign that the opposition is increasingly turning to insurgent tactics. There also have been ambushes on government checkpoints, attacks on security forces and roadside bombs.
This week, Human Rights Watch accused some elements in Syria's armed opposition of carrying out serious abuses, including the kidnapping and torture of security forces, in a sign of the growing complexity of the uprising.
The increasingly militarized conflict is a far cry from the early days of the uprising, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests. Mindful that the government would respond to dissent with overwhelming force, many of the early protesters would chant "peaceful, peaceful" and carry olive branches.
As the government used tanks and snipers to break up rallies and rounded up suspected opponents, many Syrians abandoned peaceful methods.
Now there is the new threat that as the conflict drags on, Islamic extremists will enter the fray.
On Wednesday, an al-Qaida-inspired group called the Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant claimed responsibility for two recent suicide bombings in Damascus, which killed more than two dozen people. The statement's authenticity could not be independently confirmed.
"We tell the (Syrian) regime to stop the massacres against the Sunnis, otherwise, you will bear the sin of the Alawites," the Al-Nusra Front said. "What is coming is more bitter and painful, with God's will."