Rana Moussaoui, AFP
Last updated: 4 June, 2012

Assad defiant as ever thanks to Russia, analysts say

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is determined to crush the rebellion against his regime, even at the cost of triggering a civil war in the country, bolstered by support from Moscow, analysts say.

“He has been ready to fight to the end right from the start and as long as he has Russia’s support he believes he will win,” Middle East expert Agnes Levallois told AFP.

On Sunday, Assad vowed to eradicate anti-regime dissent “at any cost,” blaming armed “terrorists” for violence that has killed thousands since a popular uprising broke out in March 2011.

Addressing parliament for the first time since May 7 elections, Assad said his government faced a foreign plot to destroy Syria but defiantly warned that “national security is a red line.”

“The masks have fallen and the international role in the Syrian events is now obvious,” Assad said, paying tribute to civilian and military “martyrs” and vowing their blood was not shed in vain.

France-based Levallois said Assad “knows he can count on (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.

“He gets a kind of tranquillity from this support that allows him to push on with the repression as he wishes.”

Her comments on Monday came as Putin hosted EU leaders in Saint Petersburg for talks that largely focused on Syria and ways of bridging differences with Russia over the conflict.

International frustration with Moscow’s stance on Syria has grown since Russia refused to squarely blame Assad’s regime for the massacre of 108 people, including 49 children, in the central Syrian town of Houla last month.

Moscow insists rebels fighting government forces should share some of the responsibility for the violence in Syria and has steadfastly refused Western calls for Assad’s ouster.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who met Putin alongside EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, admitted after the Saint Petersburg talks that the EU and Russia “might have some divergent assessments” concerning Syria.

But he said they agreed that implementing UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan was the only way forward in a situation that risks developing into full-scale civil war.

“We fully agree that the Annan plan as a whole provides the best opportunity to break the cycle of violence in Syria, avoiding a civil war and finding a peaceful, lasting solution,” Van Rompuy said.

“We need to combine our efforts in order for this to happen and to find common messages on which we agree.

“We need to walk towards an immediate stop of all forms of violence in Syria and towards a process of political transition.”

According to analysts, Assad’s speech on Sunday presages a new and even deadlier cycle of violence in Syria.

“It was a very defiant speech,” said Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Doha Centre.

“The future of Syria is pretty alarming, the next phase will get much worse,” he added.

Experts say Assad clearly ignored calls by Annan who urged the Syrian president, during a meeting in Damascus late last month, to take “brave decisions” in order to end the bloodshed.

“Annan told Assad that he wanted acts, not words. But Assad replied that he planned on pursuing the war from inside,” said Khattar Abou Diab, a lecturer at the Universite Paris-Sud.

Abou Diab said he expected Assad’s regime to press its assaults on rebel forces until the end of Annan’s mandate in mid-July, determined to crush the armed uprising and safeguard his clan’s grip on power.

“Unfortunately this strategy will lead to more bloodshed and push the country to the brink of civil war,” said Abou Diab.

Levallois agreed, saying: “Assad wants to protect his clan” which has ruled Syria for the past 40 years.

“He couldn’t care less about a civil war.”

Shaikh added: “The regime is perpetrating civil war, by inciting sectarian violence.”

But the analysts also agreed that Assad was anxious that he could lose Russia’s support.

“Moscow does not consider Assad as sacred, which means that the day will come when Moscow could drop its support for Assad, without dropping its support for the regime,” as happened in Yemen, said Abou Diab.

Veteran Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February after a year of anti-regime protests, with in a deal that promised him immunity from prosecution. He remains leader of the General People’s Congress party.