Assad has cards to play as rebels draw closer

2012-12-15T00:00:00Z Assad has cards to play as rebels draw closerThe Associated Press The Associated Press
December 15, 2012 12:00 am  • 

With rebels trying to penetrate Syria's capital of Damascus, President Bashar Assad is not necessarily on his way out just yet.

He still has thousands of loyal troops and a monopoly on air power. A moribund diplomatic process has given him room to maneuver despite withering international condemnation. And the power of Islamic extremists among the rebels is dashing hopes that the West will help turn the tide of the civil war by sending heavy weapons to the opposition.

"The West, for all its rhetorical bombast, has restricted the flow of important weapons," said University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis, who runs an influential blog called Syria Comment. "They have not brought down this regime because they are frightened of the alternative."

There is no appetite for intervening actively against Assad - as NATO did against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya - and run the risk of having him replaced by an Islamist regime hostile to the West. Those concerns have deepened after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and political turmoil in Egypt where a bid to promote an Islamist agenda threatens to tear the nation apart.

During a reign of more than 40 years, the Assad family has built a powerful military and paramilitary force controlled by fellow members of their Alawite sect who are committed to maintaining the once-marginalized religious minority and its allies in power.

Some observers believe the die-hard loyalists around Assad - a man who has vowed to live and die in Syria, despite the uprising - may not allow him to abandon ship, even if he wanted to.

"Assad has effectively ... convinced them to go down this road, which could very well lead to horrible retribution," Landis said.

So far, air power has been the regime's most potent tool against the rebels, who remain largely helpless in the face of jets and attack helicopters. The rebels have managed to seize large swaths of territory in the north, overrun military bases and expand their control on the outskirts of the capital. But rebels admit there is little to do about the threat from above.

An ineffective diplomatic process also plays into Assad's hands. The U.S. has warned Assad not to cross a "red line" and unleash chemical weapons against the rebels, but there is no clear sign that Washington or its allies want to send troops or arm rebel forces.

Many rebel fighters are bitter that the U.S. and others have not intervened to stop Assad's air force as they did in Libya against Gadhafi.

The increasing power of Islamic extremists among the rebel fighters has been a boon for the regime, as well. The opposition appears split over how much to embrace the Islamist fighters.

The president of the new opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, has disagreed publicly with the U.S. decision to blacklist Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked force that has proved to be one of the most successful groups fighting against Assad.

Russia backtracks on statement about Assad's fall / A26

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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