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Syria's regime has lost crucial support from close allies Iran and Turkey at a time when its Army is beginning to fall apart, signaling cracks within and without that could spell the end of more than 40 years of rule by the Assad family.
Syrian residents and activists say that dozens of soldiers defected after the Army told them to fire on protesters in a Damascus suburb, according to Reuters.
The Damascus soldiers fled to nearby farmland after security forces fired on demonstrators in Harasta to prevent them from gathering in the center of the city, Reuters reports. Their defections are the first reported in the capital, whose support for Assad has been crucial so far in shoring up the government against uprisings elsewhere in the country.
The regime, which has blamed the uprising on terrorists and foreign saboteurs, denies that any soldiers have defected.
Iran, Syria's most powerful ally, had until now echoed President Bashar al-Assad's claims of a "foreign conspiracy. But on Saturday it began urging its ally to listen to the protesters' "legitimate demands."
The shift appears driven not so much by a desire for human rights protections or democratic progress, however – Iran reportedly has helped Syria crack down on the protesters – but rather a concern that a collapse of the Assad regime could result in an "unprecedented regional crisis," according to the Associated Press.
Iran's ties with Syria go far beyond the countries' long-standing friendship in a region dominated by Arab suspicions of Tehran's aims. Syria also is Iran's conduit for aid to powerful anti-Israel proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Should Assad's regime fall, it could rob Iran of a loyal Arab partner in a region profoundly realigned by uprisings demanding more freedom and democracy.
Iran's comments show that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top officials are concerned about being on the losing side of the uprising, writes Syria expert Joshua Landis.
Iran, Syria’s only backer and ally, is hedging its bets. Its leaders no longer have confidence that Assad will survive. Ahmedinejad “warned” Bashar yesterday in an interview on Hizballa’s Almanar TV that “the people should have the right to elect and get their freedoms”. He also said that a timeline and deadlines should be put in place so the west can’t have an excuse to interfere. Iran is worried about throwing good money after bad.
Turkey's leaders also said this weekend that they had "lost confidence" in Assad's government – a diplomatic step just shy of calling on him to step down.
“Clearly we have reached a point [in Syria] where anything would be too little, too late. We have lost our confidence,” said Turkish President Abdullah Gul, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “No regime that uses heavy weapons and brutal force to kill unarmed people who take to the streets can stand," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, also on Sunday.
Turkey's stance on Syria's uprising has steadily shifted over the past few months from its "zero problems" foreign policy of having no conflicts with its neighbors to vocal criticism of the Assad regime. Turkey was previously one of Syria's strongest regional allies, but the rising death toll from the regime's bloody crackdown – at least two during Friday's protests and more than 2,000 since March – has eroded that support.
There also appears to be eroding support for the regime within the ranks of its Army. In addition to the Damascus defections, Al Jazeera reported defections in the town of Rastan, in central Syria. The defections began when the town, a traditional "reservoir of recruits" for the Army, was stormed three months ago by tanks, according to the Arabic TV network.
While Assad currently has the upper hand militarily, an increasing number of analysts such as Mr. Landis are declaring that his departure is now not a matter of if, but when.
President Assad will not be able to survive this. It is not clear how he will be pushed out. Today, he appears strong militarily. The Syrian army has retaken Hama and destroyed large demonstrations in Homs, Deir and many other places, but the people are boiling. Anger is traveling up the Syrian social hierarchy. People cannot support this killing if there is no end in sight. Sunni merchants, the professional classes, and Christians stood by Bashar yesterday. They considered him Syria’s only option. They are rethinking. They can see that there is no light at the end of the Assad tunnel. They are beginning to pray that the change comes quickly. How that change will come remains unknown.