- - Sunday, November 20, 2011

BERLIN — Reports of rocket-propelled grenades striking the headquarters of Syria’s ruling party early Monday underscore the Syrian rebels’ mounting brazenness in President Bashar Assad’s 8-month-old crackdown on dissent.

Meanwhile, the Syrian foreign minister’s criticism Sunday of the Arab League over its suspension of Damascus highlights Syria’s increasing isolation in the international community, which is urging an end to the violence that the United Nations estimates has resulted in 3,500 deaths.

The situation raises the question: How long can the Assad regime survive?

“If they still fight to the last man, it will take longer, but for sure [Mr. Assad] won’t be able to hold on to power forever,” said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies.

Syria analysts say it is too difficult to predict, considering the strength of Mr. Assad’s security apparatus and his backing by a significant segment of the Syrian population, particularly in the urban powerhouses of Damascus and Aleppo.

Still, most agree that after the Arab League’s suspension last week and escalating attacks by rebels and army defectors on government installations, the situation in Syria has changed markedly since the uprising began in March.

Syria seems to have reached the point of no return,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “We are witnessing the emergence of a potent armed insurgency in addition to the peaceful protesters. Both sides are now going for broke.”

The Free Syrian Army, a group of military defectors, claimed responsibility for the rocket-propelled grenade attack early Monday, the Associated Press reported. The attack on the ruling Baath Party’s building in the capital of Damascus apparently caused no damage or casualties.

On Wednesday, the 22-member Arab League confirmed its suspension of Syria for the country’s failure to end the violent crackdown against its people that was part of the terms of a peace agreement reached on Nov. 2. The league also threatened economic sanctions if the regime did not comply with agreements, including allowing foreign monitors into the country within three days.

The deadline expired Saturday. On Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused the Arab League of being used as a “tool” by the West to take the crisis to the U.N. Security Council. He said the league’s mission places “impossible conditions” and gives excessive authority to the observers in a way that violates Syria’s sovereignty.

Some observers say the regime is trying to buy more time.

“This is not strange [for] Syria,” said Walid Saffour, president of the Syrian Human Rights Council in the United Kingdom, which closely monitors the situation there. “They will send [observer] missions to [only select places] to stop from showing what is actually happening on the ground.

“This is the manner of the Syrian authorities, lying and deceiving the international community. In the past, the international community has accepted this. Increased isolation helps, but Assad won’t fall unless he is being forced in the same way as [Moammar] Gadhafi in Libya.”

Activists said violence escalated after the Arab League’s suspension even as they hailed the decision “as a positive step.”

“It is a good thing,” said Anas El-Khani, chairman of a British group that holds regular protests in London and helps activists inside Syria. “The U.N. and NATO won’t take a stronger position without the Arab League taking one themselves. It is all about pressure … and now [Mr. Assad’s power] is being chipped away.”

Germany, France and Britain are pushing for a resolution this week in the U.N. General Assembly calling for an end to the human rights violations in Syria.

Even so, Russia and China continue to oppose U.N. sanctions. Last month, the two countries vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the crackdown against protesters.

However, Mr. Assad now is being shunned by his neighbors. Jordan’s King Abdullah II said last week that Mr. Assad should step down. Turkey has threatened to cut off power supplies to Syria and is calling for regime change.

Close ally Iran has expressed dismay over the violence even as it accuses the West of escalating tensions in the country.

In the meantime, the internal pressure is increasing.

The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for several military-style raids in the past week, including attacks Thursday on the governing party’s offices near the Turkish border and on intelligence bases just outside the country’s capital on Wednesday as well as an attack on a checkpoint near Hama that killed eight members of the Syrian military.

Turkey and France have promised to support the rebels, also with weapons.

With the increasing violence from both sides, many worry about civil war.

“People hope the end is coming soon,” said Hozan Ibrahim of the Local Coordination Committee of Syria, which has organized the uprising. “People have to keep demonstrating. But the regime, meanwhile, keeps trying to push them more and more into a sectarian war.”

Analysts say that prospect is real as the conflict continues and note that a few key factors will determine what happens.

One is whether the opposition, the deeply divided Syrian National Council, becomes a credible alternative to the regime.

Activists and analysts say council members are increasingly putting aside their differences and learning how to become a uniting force.

“The Syrian National Council is trying to bring increasingly more opposition parties together to [create a unified voice],” said Mr. Ibrahim. “This way, there will be people who can take over power.”

Another issue is economics. The Syrian economy is buckling under the strain of months of near siege in some areas, as well as international sanctions and embargoes.

So far, Mr. Assad’s backing has come from the business community in Damascus and Aleppo, but it is unclear how long he can maintain such support.

For Syrians, things are dire. Private-sector activity has dropped at least 70 percent, say analysts, and employment prospects are dismal.

“I am looking for work, but everything is at a standstill,” said Mohammed, 31, in Damascus, one of the country’s many unemployed graduates. “It’s hardly a search at this point, more like a hobby — I have to continue looking, but I know I won’t find anything.”

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