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How Syria's Assad plans to survive

Despite promises of a referendum next week on a new constitution, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime seems to have made a clear decision to base its survival on repression.

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It was also unclear how a referendum could be organized amid the turmoil gripping much of the country.

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Push for a UN peacekeeping force

Despite Assad pursuing an intensified crackdown against opposition hubs, he cannot completely ignore Syria’s near-total diplomatic isolation and the fears of his Syrian supporters on the future stability of the country. Announcing the referendum not only keeps alive the semblance of a political process to end the crisis, it also helps maintain the support of Syria allies Russia and China.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the referendum, saying “we certainly believe a new constitution to end one-party rule in Syria is a step forward.”

But Russia and China are lone voices of international support in the United Nations Security Council for Assad’s beleaguered regime. Since the vetoing of the UN Security Council resolution on Feb. 4, the West and its Arab allies have mulled a range of alternative actions to help resolve the crisis.

On Sunday, the Arab League formally recognized the Syrian opposition and requested that the UN Security Council deploy a peacekeeping force to Syria. But it is unlikely that the Assad regime would accept the presence of UN peacekeepers on Syrian soil.

Other options include providing logistical support to the FSA, such as intelligence information, communications equipment, weapons, and ammunition, to help the fledgling force mount a campaign of attrition to wear down the Syrian army.

But the FSA operates in a largely autonomous and localized fashion and lacks a coherent system of command and control. Furthermore, smuggling sizable quantities of arms and communications equipment into Syria to reach isolated FSA battalions would present significant difficulties, analysts and diplomats say.

On Thursday, the European parliament passed a resolution urging member states to close their embassies in Damascus and to launch talks on setting up humanitarian corridors along Syria’s borders.

With a Libya-style military intervention having been ruled out by the US and Europe, the notion of setting up humanitarian corridors is seen as something of a half-way step: It theoretically would allow aid to reach desperate Syrian civilians but falls short of a full military intervention.

The devil, however, lies in the details. The Assad regime would probably reject the establishment of one or more humanitarian corridors on Syrian territory, claiming they breach national sovereignty. That would require external armed support to protect the enclave from potential attack by the Syrian army, leading inadvertently to a military intervention, analysts and diplomats say.

'Friends of Syria meeting next week

Meanwhile, the international community is pinning hopes for fresh ideas on a “Friends of Syria” meeting on Feb. 24 hosted by Tunisia. The meeting will bring together disparate opposition groups and individuals, Arab states, Turkey, the European Union, and the US. But Syria risks sliding deeper into violence the longer the world dithers about how to handle the crisis.

“Assad’s bet, which he has made for eleven months, is that the opposition tires of getting killed and will succumb to his changes as the best deal,” says Mr. Tablet, author of a recent book on Syria under Assad's presidency. “Only problem for Assad is … the protesters continue to come out on the streets. They know that these 'reforms' will not change the way the minority regime runs the country.”

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