- - Monday, March 19, 2012

BERLIN — Middle East analysts acknowledge that they underestimated Syrian President Bashar Assad, who remains in power and on the offensive a year after protests against his regime erupted.

They say that with continued backing from Russia and China, Mr. Assad could cling to power for years.

“In contrast to the crisis in Libya, regional and international variables have complicated and exacerbated the situation in Syria, and that is why one year later, Assad is still there,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

“We underestimated the staying power and strength of Assad’s regime.”

Neighborhoods that had become strongholds for opposition groups have been decimated swiftly. The United Nations reported that more than 8,000 people have been killed in the brutal crackdown over the past year.

But thousands of Syrians across the country still take to the streets in protest, and further violence in the region has led analysts to fear that the conflict could turn into an all-out sectarian civil war or even a drawn-out guerrilla war.

On Monday, deadly clashes rocked a neighborhood in the capital, Damascus, as international efforts picked up pace to initiate a daily humanitarian truce and for monitors to be deployed across the country.

Russia, a Syrian ally, added its voice to calls for a daily truce so that aid can be delivered to affected cities. In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov joined Jakob Kellenberger, chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to demand that Mr. Assad allow in humanitarian aid.

Syrian security forces, meanwhile, launched attacks in several regions, opposition activists said. Pre-dawn fighting in a heavily guarded area of Damascus erupted as residents reeled from deadly weekend bombings. A car-bomb explosion was reported in Syria’s second-largest city, Aleppo, on Sunday, one day after three bombings at security buildings killed dozens in Damascus.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia and China have twice blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime.

“It is not so much that Syria remains their strongest ally in the region,” Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at London’s City University, said about Moscow and Beijing.

“It’s very clear that they don’t like the idea that on the grounds of responsibility to protect [the population] or humanitarian atrocities, Western governments can go in and change regimes or can interfere and help the locals overthrow their governments. This is something they can’t tolerate on principle because it could come and get them at some point.”

Russia has experienced its own protests after the presidential election this month in which Vladimir Putin won by a landslide, but Moscow remains one of the Syrian regime’s closest allies and has called for Mr. Assad to agree to a number of reforms even while Russia supports keeping him in power.

Islamists worry Russia, China

Analysts say Moscow is concerned that power gained by Islamists in the Middle East could resonate with Russia’s Muslim communities.

“I think [Russia] will stick to their position for the near term, especially if the Syrian regime relatively succeeds and scores a couple of victories,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

“However, if the situation in Syria takes a dive for the worse and the massacres become dramatically more extended, and if the regime seems to be declining and failing, Russia is not going to stick with them to the end,” he said.

In China, the government has sought to play down dissent in towns and villages. In December, censors blocked Internet searches relating to Wukan, where protesters were involved in clashes with security forces over the death of a villager in police custody.

“They fear most that the essence of the Arab Spring will reach their populations,” Mr. Salem said. “From the very beginning, China was very panicked about the Arab Spring, so it’s not surprising that they continue to oppose it.”

Although many analysts have said Mr. Assad’s days are numbered with the country’s economy in shambles and continuing sanctions by Western governments, others say the regime has done well in comparison with governments toppled by the Arab Spring uprisings such as those in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. They note that Mr. Assad is not looking for an exit strategy.

“There are many places he could go — Doha, Iran, Russia, and other countries might offer as well — but that’s not where we are,” Mr. Salem said.

“The regime is fighting for victory, and they haven’t been defeated. They’ve lost control of many areas, but compared to other regimes in the region, they’ve done remarkably quite well, and they feel they could ride this out and come out more or less victorious at the end.”

Other analysts said there have been some top defections to the opposition, which is beginning to arm itself.

“So far, Assad’s regime has stayed relatively cohesive, although we have started to see a few high-level defections,” said Jane Kinninmont of the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Many analysts say Mr. Assad will have to resign eventually.

“The regime is very strong and cannot be defeated, but their time has passed,” Mr. Salem said. “Their legitimacy is largely gone, and they don’t represent a solution for the future.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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