BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies are showing renewed confidence that the momentum in the civil war is shifting in their favor, due in part to the rapid rise of al-Qaida-linked extremists among the rebels and the world’s reluctance to take forceful action to intervene in the fighting.
His invigorated regime has gone on the offensive — both on the ground and in its portrayal of the conflict as a choice between Assad and the extremists.
Several factors appear to have convinced Assad he can weather the storm: Two years into the uprising against his family’s iron rule, his regime remains firmly entrenched in Damascus, the defection rate from the military has dwindled, and key international supporters Russia and China are still solidly on his side.
Moreover, the regime has benefited from the fallout created by audio distributed last month in which the head of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group, one of the most powerful and effective rebel groups inSyria, pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
There are signs of Assad’s renewed confidence.
After dropping largely out of sight following an hour-long speech at the Opera House in central Damascus in January, Assad has appeared in two TV interviews in the past month. His wife, Asma, appeared in public in March for the first time in months, surrounded by women and children for a function honoring mothers.
“I can say, without exaggeration, that the situation in Syria now is better than it was at the beginning of the crisis,” Assad said in an interview with state-run broadcaster Al-Ikhbariya on April l7.
“With time, people became more aware of the dangers of what was happening. … They started to gain a better understanding of the real Syria we used to live in and realized the value of the safety, security and harmony, which we used to enjoy,” he added.
On Wednesday, a smiling Assad made another rare public appearance, visiting a Damascus power station just a day after a bombing in the capital and two days after his prime minister escapade an assassination attempt.
Syrian TV showed Assad, looking confident and wearing a dark business suit, chatting with workers and shaking their hands on May Day.
“They want to scare us, we will not be scared. … They want us to live underground, we will not live underground,” Assad was shown telling a group of workers gathered around him in a garden.
Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, Assad’s regime has tried to portray the movement as being driven by what it called terrorists and foreign-backed mercenaries. The government responded with a brutal military crackdown that led many to take up arms to fight back. Gradually, the rebellion turned into an armed insurgency, drawing in radicalized elements and foreign fighters from other countries.
Jabhat al-Nusra, designated a terrorist group by the U.S., has emerged as one of the most potent fighting forces.
Assad’s regime has seized on the recording of Nusra Front’s leader pledging allegiance to al-Qaida as proof it is fighting terrorists, prompting some members of the Syrian opposition to claim the audio was faked by the government to tarnish their movement.
“The regime is trying, and succeeding unfortunately, in brainwashing some segments of society into thinking that they are their protectors and whoever follows will massacre them,” said opposition figure Kamal Labwani.
Many Syrians acknowledge feeling more secure under Assad.
A Christian Syrian tailor who fled last month to Lebanon said at least Assad was a known quantity. He said people fled when “heavily armed and bearded gunmen” from an anti-Assad group arrived in his hometown last month, setting up roadblocks and checking people’s IDs. The tailor insisted on identifying himself only as Amin, his first name, for fear of reprisals from the regime or its opponents.
Despite losing large swaths of territory in northern and eastern Syria, Assad’s military has retained his firm grip on Damascus, his seat of power, and key coastal areas. In recent weeks, his troops have made advances, pushing back rebels in parts of the Damascus suburbs and some areas where rebels regularly fire mortars on the capital.
Inspecting the site of a car bombing Tuesday in Damascus, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar told reporters the attacks in the capital were in response to the “victories and achievements scored by the Syrian Arab Army on the ground against terrorism.” Al-Shaar himself escaped a bomb that targeted his convoy in December.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the civil war, said the number of defections from the military as well as political circles has gone “significantly down” in recent months. Those who are now fighting are considered the “hard-core regime supporters” who will stay until the end, he said.
Syrians opposed to Assad accuse him of encouraging and planting extremists in the ranks of the rebellion, including releasing hundreds of jihadis from prison early in the uprising, knowing full well that they were bound to take up arms against it.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based Syrian pro-democracy activist and director of the Tharwa Foundation, said that while the regime has probably lost control over these cells by now, their presence has helped it achieve its goal.
They can now point to these cells and their activities to bolster their message of “either us or the terrorists.”
The Assad dynasty has long tried to push a secular and nationalist identity in Syria while flirting with extremists when it suited it. In 2003, the Syrian regime was known to be providing safe passage to jihadis to enter Iraq to fight U.S. forces.
“This is a game that the Assad regime has perfected by now. They create the problem and then they offer their services to the world to solve that problem,” said Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.
Still, the extremists’ role in the civil war has raised alarm among Syrians and officials in the West. Their presence has been among the chief reasons behind international reluctance to arm the rebels.
Allegations that the regime used chemical weapons have not triggered an international response, despitePresident Barack Obama’s earlier assertion that use of such weapons would be a “game-changer” and a “red line.”
Obama said Tuesday that the evidence available does not yet merit the quick use of U.S. military power.
Russia and China, Assad’s main allies, have stuck by him during the course of the uprising, as have his supporters in the region — Iran and Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group.
In a further boost, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Tuesday that Syria’s “real friends,” including his Iranian-backed group, would intervene on the side of Damascus if needed.
Abdulhamid said that if groups like al-Nusra increase their profile in Syria, there will be a greater willingness among some Western leaders to listen to Assad’s argument again.
“The mantra of ‘Either us or the extremists’ is slowly but surely regaining some of its popularity and relevance in decision-making circles in the West,” he said.