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Global press review: Are Assad's days numbered in Syria?

| July 9, 2012

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Attention has again returned to Syria, where the government and various rebel factions continue to fight over the future of Syria. With reporters barred from entering the country, reporting in the country has been difficult and unverifiable at times. Yet, when word of defections comes, it is often verified very quickly, as seen with the defection of Manaf Tlass, the highest ranking official of the Syrian regime to defect to date.

For those opposed to the current rulers of Syria, this is a welcome sign that the end is near for Bashar al-Assad and his government. Yet, as important of a defection as it may appear to be, the Syrian government appears to be unfazed by the defection of Tlass. It has continued to bombard opposition strongholds as attempts at mediation by the United Nations and among the world powers continues to be at an impasse. 

Al Jazeera was one of the first news outlets to report the apparent defection of the Republican Guard brigade commander. Having already been sidelined by the Syrian government a year ago, Tlass defected after the number of civilian causalities became too high.

Opposition activists have told Al Jazeera that Manaf Tlas, a brigade commander in Assad's Republican Guard, has left the country and will soon announce that he abandoned Assad because of anger over civilian deaths during the 16-month uprising.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed on Friday that Tlas, who attended military college with the 46-year-old Assad, had defected and was bound for Paris.

Tlas is the son of Mustafa Tlas, who served as defence minister for 30 years under former president Hafez al-Assad and briefly under his son, the current president.

Riad al-Asaad, the commander with the Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera from Turkey: "Our people picked [Tlas] up from the borders with Syria". Asaad said on Thursday that he had not yet met with Tlas. 

Ankara did not immediately confirm the reports. Syriasteps, a news website close to Assad's security services, quoted a Syrian official as saying Tlas was in Turkey.

Syriasteps wrote: "His desertion means nothing. If Syrian intelligence had wanted to arrest him it would have."

A source in the opposition said a relative of Tlas had confirmed his defection.

"It's a very important defection," the source said. "His brigade is very attached to their general, so we can say the true defection has started."

The Tlas family is from Rastan, in central Homs province, a town that has seen large anti-government protests since the uprising began in March 2011.

Rastan later witnessed heavy fighting between government forces and members of the Free Syrian Army. It is now mostly under the control of the opposition. 

Meanwhile, Asharq Alawsat English reported, in an exclusive interview with the Free Syrian Army leader, Riad al-Asaad, that the Syrian opposition is in control of 70 percent of Syria. The timing of this announcement is crucial as it came only a couple days before Tlass' defection.

85 Syrian soldiers, including a General and a number of more junior officers, defected en mass from the al-Assad regime on Monday, crossing the border into Turkey to join the Free Syrian Army [FSA]. At the same time as this, Syria's Chief of Staff, General Fahd Jassem al-Freiji, was giving the keynote speech at a graduation ceremony for the latest batch of Syrian army officers.

During the speech, General al-Freiji acknowledged that "Syria is passing through exceptional circumstances and a semi-cosmic war that targets its existence and seeks to undermine its power" adding that "the conspirators seek to take revenge upon the Syrian people who foiled the enemies' goals in tearing apart Syria's unity." However this speech, in which the Syrian army commander attempted to raise the morale of his troops, only serves to highlight the escalating rate of defections from the Syrian army.

Turkey's state-run Abdolou news agency said that the group of 85 defectors included 14 officers ranging from one colonel to seven captains. This group represents one of the largest groups of Syrian army defectors to cross into Turkey since the beginning of the popular uprising against al-Assad.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, FSA commander Colonel Riad al-Asaad confirmed that "a large group of soldiers defected from the regime's forces and joined the FSA in Turkey."

He added "the increasing pace of defections is due to the deteriorating morale of the Syrian army, and its belief that the al-Assad regime has begun to collapse, and that the tide has turned in the favour of the revolution."

Colonel al-Asaad also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that "90 percent of the military units affiliated to the al-Assad regime are being provisioned with food by helicopters, because they no longer possess the military capabilities to move freely on the ground in Syria for fear of being targeted and attacked."

He added "we, the FSA and the revolution, are in control of approximately 70 percent of Syrian territory, but we will not reveal the names of the provinces under our control in order to avoid them being targeted by aerial bombardment."

Al Akhbar English reported that the Syrian military had retaken a strategic rebel stronghold in northern Syria. The town of Khan Sheikhoun fell after a concerted assault by the Syrian military as the Free Syrian Army ran out of ammunition.

Syria's army took control of the rebel stronghold of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province on Friday after an assault on the town backed by helicopters, an insurgent spokesman and government news agency confirmed.

"The Free Army withdrew from the town (Khan Sheikhoun) last night after it ran out of ammunition. Assad's army is in control of it," said Abu Hamam, a rebel spokesman. "They are burning the houses. They have burned my own house. I see the smoke covering the sky from where I am now," he said.

Syrian state media, SANA, confirmed the army's capture of the town, saying it had "chased the armed terrorist groups in the city and the surrounding farms and raided their dens."

SANA reported "that the clash resulted in the destruction of a number of the terrorists' dens and heavy losses among the terrorist groups who had been attacking the citizens and public and private properties including acts of killing, abduction, looting and burglary."

Khan Sheikhoun, a town of more than 70,000 people in rural Idlib province, straddles the western highway linking Damascus to Aleppo. It has been one of many fronts contested by the Syrian army which aims to crush a 16-month revolt against Assad.

Activists say 80 percent of residents have now fled.

The rebels said they had suffered heavy losses in battles which intensified on Wednesday night.

"This is a very fierce operation that is going on now. It seems Assad has sent all of his army to crush Khan Sheikhoun and the towns around it," Abu Hamam said.

Veteran Middle East correspondent and columnist Robert Fisk had quite a different take on the current violence in Syria and the inability of the world powers to achieve any sort of solution. In his piece, he wrote the West is willing to have Assad rule Syria for another two years until gas supply lines have been built to circumvent Russian control of oil and gas supplies to Europe and to allow for political concessions to regional powers.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria may last far longer than his opponents believe - and with the tacit acceptance of Western leaders anxious to secure new oil routes to Europe via Syria before the fall of the regime. According to a source intimately involved in the possible transition from Baath party power, the Americans, Russians and Europeans are also putting together an agreement that would permit Assad to remain leader of Syria for at least another two years in return for political concessions to Iran and Saudi Arabia in both Lebanon and Iraq.

For its part, Russia would be assured of its continued military base at Tartous in Syria and a relationship with whatever government in Damascus eventually emerges with the support of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia's recent concession - that Assad may not be essential in any future Syrian power structure - is part of a new understanding in the West which may accept Assad's presidency in return for an agreement that prevents a further decline into civil war.

Information from Syria suggests that Assad's army is now "taking a beating" from armed rebels, who include Islamist as well as nationalist forces; at least 6,000 soldiers are now believed to have been murdered or killed in action since the rebellion against Assad began 17 months ago. There are even unconfirmed reports that during any one week up to a thousand Syrian fighters are under training by mercenaries in Jordan at a base used by Western authorities for personnel seeking ‘anti-terrorist' security exercises.

The US-Russian negotiations - easy to deny, and somewhat cynically hidden behind the current mutual accusations of Hillary Clinton and her Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov - would mean that the superpowers would acknowledge Iran's influence over Iraq and its relationship with its Hezballah allies in Lebanon, while Saudi Arabia - and Qatar - would be encouraged to guarantee Sunni Muslim rights in Lebanon and in Iraq. Baghdad's emergence as a centre of Shia power has caused much anguish in Saudi Arabia whose support for the Sunni minority in Iraq has hitherto led only to political division.

But the real object of talks between the world powers revolves around the West's determination to secure oil and particularly gas from the Gulf states without relying upon supplies from Moscow. "Russia can turn off the spigot to Europe whenever it wants - and this gives it tremendous political power," the source says. "We are talking about two fundamental oil routes to the West - one from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Jordan and Syria and the Mediterranean to Europe, another from Iran via Shia southern Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean and on to Europe. This is what matters. This is why they will be prepared to let Assad last for another two years, if necessary. They would be perfectly content with that. And Russia will have a place in the new Syria."

Diplomats who are still discussing these plans should, of course, be treated with some scepticism. It is one thing to hear political leaders excoriating the Syrian regime for its abuse of human rights and massacres - quite another to realise that Western diplomats are quite prepared to put this to one side for the proverbial 'bigger picture' which, as usual in the Middle East, means oil and gas supplies. They are prepared to tolerate Assad's presence until the end of the crisis, rather than insisting his departure is the start of the end. The Americans apparently say the same. Now Russia believes that stability is more important than Assad himself.

Taken from a larger piece focusing on the direction of the Arab revolutions a year and a half on, German weekly Der Spiegel questions what the Syrian experience has taught the Arab populations who see the violence of their uprising taking place every day.

Sometimes the fate of one people affects the determination of others. Today, the same images are being watched in living rooms and cafés from Casablanca to Dubai, as millions of Arabs watch the events unfold in Syria.

How will the horrors of Damascus influence what happens in neighboring countries?

For the oppressed, the lesson is: Perhaps the government will want to kill us all. And for the rulers, the lesson is: Despite everything, the people do not give up.

In the end, the suffering of the Syrian people and the foreseeable downfall of Bashar Assad could promote moderate change elsewhere -- because both sides now know what is at stake.

The question raised in the last paragraphs of the Der Spiegel piece is crucial to determining the future of the current uprisings in the region. In contrast to the other revolutions, Syria's has been very bloody. Even Libya's revolution did not result in the deaths of so many civilians and soldiers alike.

But there will be no quick solution. While Qaddafi was very much the stray dog of the Great Game now being played by Western powers versus Eastern powers in the Arab Spring, Assad is not. He and his father have long relied on open support from Russia to remain in his position. But Russia can only send so much physical and political support without risking complete alienation, even among its allies. Combined with rising defections and casualties in the Syrian military at the hands of an increasingly effective Free Syrian Army, Assad's time as Syria's president is running out.

 

Saif Alnuweiri is a third-year journalism student studying at Northwestern University’s Qatar branch campus. He follows media and politics in the region, monitoring the course of the 'Arab Spring' uprisings as well as global politics more broadly. He has written articles and also served as the news editor of the branch campus’ student publication, The Daily Q.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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