Syria's Assad 'more confident than ever'

Karim Abou Merhi
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A picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on October 15, 2013 shows President Bashar al-Assad being greeted by supporters following Eid al-Adha prayers in Damascus

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is feeling strengthened as international pressure to step down appears to ease amid growing Western fears of an Islamist takeover and unwavering Russian support, analysts say.

Only a few weeks ago, the United States was threatening military strikes on Syria, but there has been a major shift since then.

Much of that is due to a US-Russian deal on destroying Syria's chemical weapons, apparently giving Assad the confidence he needed to announce on Monday that he would be willing to stand for re-election.

Assad also said he did not feel the situation was yet ripe for peace talks.

"It's no mistake he's feeling more confident than ever," said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Centre.

"Any previous talk of regime change on the part of the international community has been pushed to the side and now Assad is a partner for the international community," he added.

While much of the West supported the rebels' demand that Assad must go, "you don't hear people talking about regime change any more," Hamid said.

Fearing the growing influence in rebel ranks of hardline Islamist groups, some of them loyal to Al-Qaeda, the United States has opted to push for a political settlement, rather than giving all-out support to the revolt.

At the same time, Assad "continues to enjoy the full support of (key backers) Russia and Iran", Hamid said.

In the West, "I think there's a real concern that the strongest and most dominant factions are people the international community does not want to win", he said.

"Assad feels that that kind of development helps his narrative."

When the uprising against his rule erupted in March 2011, Assad's regime claimed it was a foreign-funded "terror" plot, despite ample evidence of extensive domestic support for change.

But Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups entered as the protest movement escalated into an armed rebellion and have gained ground militarily, particularly in the north and east.

At the same time, the opposition is deeply divided, not only militarily but politically. That has raised further concern among international backers of the revolt, particularly ahead of US-Russian-proposed peace talks in Geneva that have been repeatedly delayed and are now targeted for next month.

Hamid said "the political opposition is totally irrelevant, so the people who are going to Geneva do not represent the fighters on the ground," who are now mostly Islamist.

'This has definitely gone in his favour'

Another factor strengthening Assad's hand has been the deal struck by Moscow and Washington after a sarin gas attack near Damascus on August 21.

The deal led to a UN Security Council resolution that orders the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal and urges peace talks to end the conflict that has already killed more than 115,000 people.

"Things have definitely gone in (Assad's) favour in the past two months, ever since the chemical weapons attack," Hamid said. "You might have expected that that would be his downfall but actually it turned out to be a major boost."

When the deal was first proposed, Assad quickly volunteered to cooperate, and Hamid said there was a "real shift" when US Secretary of State John Kerry commended the Syrian leader's commitment to a swift implementation of the deal.

The arms deal "was a victory for Assad, plain and simple. Ever since then, he's in some sense been rehabilitated," he added.

Hilal Khashan, who heads the political science department at the American University of Beirut, said "the overall balance is still tilted in (the regime's) favour, even though it cannot win... The Syrian regime's backers are faithful to their stance, and they know what they're doing."

In contrast, the rebels have complained for months that their backers have not given all the support they promised for the fight against Assad.

Amid international efforts to organise talks in Geneva, Assad said on Monday that "the factors are not yet in place if we want (the talks) to succeed."

"Which forces are taking part? What relation do these forces have with the Syrian people?"

Syria expert and former Dutch ambassador to several Arab countries Nikolaos Van Dam said Assad's refusal to deal with any opposition groups with links to the outside "is not new."

But "whether it is realistic for President Assad to want to exclude the main Syrian opposition groups with substantial military forces inside considerable parts of Syria is another thing."

For Khashan, Assad's refusal to negotiate with the main opposition National Coalition shows he is pressing to increase his bargaining power.

"His gains on the ground allow him to do this," he said.

Author of the "Struggle for Power in Syria," Van Dam said Assad is unlikely "to make serious concessions as long as his regime is the main dominant force on the ground."

"He wants presidential elections to be held in 2014, but might in the end be willing to accept an alternative candidate, preferably from within the regime," he said.