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Why Syria's Assad could hang on for a decade or more (+video)

Despite defiant talk from fighters vowing to oust him, Syria's Assad is in a much stronger position than was Libya's Qaddafi.

By Staff writer / March 15, 2012

Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad attend a rally at Umayyad square in Damascus March 15. Several government rallies took place across the country for support of Assad.

Khaled al-Hariri/REUTERS


Antakya, Turkey

As Syrian forces shelled, rocketed, and sniped their way back into the northern town of Idlib this week, witnesses to the carnage say the sacking of the town is emblematic of the vastly unequal fight between those who want to remove the Syrian regime and President Bashar al-Assad's large and disciplined Army.

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Private emails between Syria's leader Bashar al Assad and his wife were published by the London news organization, The Guardian.

“Of course, our Kalashnikovs are no match for their tanks,” activist Omar told Al Jazeera English (AJE), recounting how the rag-tag Free Syrian Army could do little to stop the armored advance on the town.

“A lot of martyrs [civilians] are underground, buried by the shelling…. You can’t imagine what is happening inside the city,” said Omar, adding that 150 people had died in the first two days. “They’re killing relatives of activists, burning activists’ houses … and arresting any activist they can find.”

One year after a popular uprising began against the Syrian strongman – fanned by Arab Spring optimism after the swift fall of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt – Mr. Assad is fighting back, reimposing harsh rule at the point of a gun. First was a month-long bombardment of Homs, then the indiscriminate shelling of Idlib, and now Assad's troops are moving back into Deraa, where the uprising began in March 2011. More than 8,000 Syrians have died since then, according to the United Nations.

While most observers echo President Obama in stating that Assad’s “days are numbered,” some also look at how Saddam Hussein, in 1991, crushed a Shiite/Kurdish uprising, and then ruled over a cowed population for 12 more years. Assad's father, Hafez, himself crushed an Islamist revolt by destroying the city of Hama in the early 1980s.

So far, the Syrian case has differed from every other Arab Spring example, from the scale and brutality of the regime crackdown to the willingness of Syrian civilians, after all the bloodshed, to keep up their protests.

“Not only has Assad absorbed the first shocks of the uprising, in fact he is on the offensive,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast specialist at the London School of Economics who has done fieldwork in Syria in the past year.

“He can mobilize half a million men, skilled, active, healthy men who can fight,” says Mr. Gerges, noting that Assad has barely deployed any of his hundreds of planes and helicopters.

“You’re talking about a regime that has been preparing itself for 40 years for the worst-case scenario,” adds Gerges. “Assad seems to be in charge of how and when he’s using force…. He’s really acting, of course in a very brutal way, but as a man walking tall – not a man scared. Acting decisively. Yesterday it was Idlib, today it is Deraa. This is a systematic, concerted effort; he is going for the kill.”


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