BEIRUT — As his Arab neighbours abandon him and his allies in Moscow warn of impending civil war, Syrian President Bashar Assad still has a strong bulwark to prevent his meeting the same fate as the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia or Libya anytime soon.
His key advantages are the support of Russia and China, fear among many Syrians about a future without Assad, and the near-certainty that foreign militaries will stay away.
But after eight months, the popular uprising is morphing into an increasingly bloody armed conflict that will test Assad’s strongest allegiances.
“This is all looking very much like a civil war,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday in Moscow, expressing alarm over an attack this week by the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors determined to bring down the regime.
There was no sign that Russia’s support for Damascus was wavering; indeed, Lavrov appeared to be condemning anti-regime forces for the escalating bloodshed. Lavrov also urged Syrian and opposition forces alike to cease violence and negotiate.
“It is not a secret that along with the peaceful demonstrators, whose strivings and demands we support, there is more and more participation from groups of armed people who have an entirely different agenda from reform and democracy in Syria,” he said.
Asked about Lavrov’s remarks, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington does not view the conflict as a “civil war.”
“There has been a concern expressed around the world at the possibility of an escalation in violence,” Toner said. “But again, let’s be very clear that the primary author of the violence in Syria is the Assad regime.”
Toner added: “It’s not surprising that Assad’s campaign of violence against the Syrian people has led to this, but it’s a very dangerous path.”
Until recently in the uprising, most of the violence came as security forces fired on mainly peaceful protests. But there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad’s forces — a development that some say plays into the regime’s hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.
Assad blames the unrest on a foreign plot to destabilize Syria, saying extremists and terrorists — not true reform-seekers — are driving the calls to oust him.
In Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the world must urgently “hear screams” from Syria and do something to stop the bloodshed.
“The lack of reaction to massacres in Syria was causing irreparable wounds in the conscience of humanity,” said Erdogan, whose country has imposed an arms embargo on Damascus and is sheltering more than 7,700 Syrian refugees.
Moscow’s ties to Damascus stretch back to the Soviet era, when Syria relied heavily on economic and military aid from the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the mid-2000s, then-President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying that Russia would re-establish its place in the Mideast via “the Syria route” — that is, by strengthening ties with Damascus.
Damascus still relies on Russian military equipment, receiving fighter jets, air defence systems and armoured vehicles.
Syria has seen the bloodiest crackdown against the Arab Spring’s eruption of protests, with nearly 4,000 people killed since March. Deaths in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have numbered in the hundreds. Libya’s toll is unknown and likely higher than Syria’s, but the conflict differed there: Early on, it became an outright civil war between two armed sides.
Although longtime leaders fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Assad has kept a firm grip on power as the country is besieged by street protests at home and condemnation abroad. Even the Arab League, long ridiculed in the region as ineffectual, suspended Damascus over the crackdown in a surprisingly strong move.
Russia and China have remained steadfast friends to Syria through all the isolation. The alliance gives both countries a foothold in the Middle East and wards off what they see as a world dominated by Western interests.
In October, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that threatened sanctions against Syria. But on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin appeared to suggest Beijing might support a resolution in the future.
“It depends on whether these actions will help to resolve the tensions in Syria and facilitate the resolution of disputes through political dialogue,” he said.
Damascus fears the United States and its allies might use the rare Arab consensus to press for tougher sanctions at the United Nations.
Still, there are signs that the unrest could be spiraling out of Assad’s control.
Some protesters even are calling for the kind of foreign military action that helped topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but NATO has ruled that out. The U.S. and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil.
Assad has said the region will burn if foreign powers try to intervene, and his warning has a chilling truth to it.
Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Alawite dominance has bred resentment, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity. Now, however, he appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed relatives, to crush the resistance.
The uprising has brought long-simmering sectarian tensions to the surface.
Michael Young, opinion editor for Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star newspaper, wrote a scathing commentary Thursday that predicts Assad’s days are numbered.
“The Assad order has been stripped down to its carcass, left only with the brutality of Alawite solidarity, fortified by mounting Arab isolation,” Young wrote.
The unrest also is eviscerating the economy, threatening the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges.
The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent, but hugely important, sectors of society. But Assad’s opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo — the two economic centres in Syria.
“In the absence of large scale opposition in Damascus and Aleppo, Assad will survive for the foreseeable future, albeit by means of force,” said David Hartwell, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS Jane’s in London.
In the long run, however, Assad’s chances of survival are poor, Hartwell said.
The growing calls for his ouster are a severe blow to a family dynasty that has ruled Syria for four decades — and any change to the leadership could transform some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond.
Syria’s tie to Iran is among the most important relationships in the Middle East, providing Tehran with a presence on Israel’s border and a critical conduit to Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza.
Meanwhile, the violence is only getting worse.
At least nine civilians were killed Thursday in raids by security forces in central, eastern and northern Syria, including a 9-year-old girl, activists said. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition, also said four soldiers who defected were killed in Hama.
The Free Syrian Army reportedly staged another bold attack, firing rocket-propelled grenades on ruling Baath Party offices housing security agents in the town of Maaret al-Numan, near the border with Turkey. There was no immediate report on casualties.
Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, called for unity amid signs that some Syrians have been turning on each other, with growing reports of sectarian killings and kidnappings.
“Do not fall in the regime’s trap when you are standing at the doors of certain victory,” Ghalioun wrote on his Facebook page Thursday. “We are at a crossroads. One of the roads leads to freedom and dignity, and the other leads to the abyss and to civil war.”
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Lynn Berry in Moscow, Matthew Lee in Washington and Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.