By Dominic Evans
(Reuters) – The road to Bashar al-Assad’s palace on the edge of Damascus has four checkpoints manned by Republican Guards and plain-clothed police which guests must pass before they reach the main gate.
Inside the People’s Palace, in the hills overlooking the Syrian capital, visitors who have seen the Syrian president in the last month say security is surprisingly light for a man who has lost control of half his country to a rebel uprising.
Assad’s air of confidence – a constant through more than two years of conflict – appeared almost delusional when rebel mortars and bombs were tearing at the heart of Damascus and fighting closed its airport to foreign airlines late last year.
But after weeks of counter-offensives by Assad’s army in the south of the country – against rebel supply routes east of Damascus and most recently in the border town of Qusair – that optimism looks less irrational.
The fall last week of President Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt prompted a defiant Assad to proclaim the defeat of political Islam. The Brotherhood’s Syrian branch, already under pressure from more radical opposition groups, was dealt a psychological blow that comes on top of delays to promised supplies of weapons from Washington.
Congressional committees are holding up a plan to send U.S. arms to the rebels because they doubt the deliveries will be decisive in the war and they fear the weapons might end up in the hands of Islamist militants, U.S. national security sources have told Reuters.
In an interview in May with Al-Manar, the television station of his Lebanese militant ally Hezbollah, Assad said the tide had turned on the battlefield and repeated an assertion he has made since protests against his rule first erupted in March 2011.
“We are confident and sure about victory,” he said.
The conflict has killed 100,000 of Assad’s own people, driven a million and a half more abroad as refugees and left swathes of urban Syria in ruins.
The 47-year-old president looks little changed since the conflict began apart from a graying of his moustache and deepening frown lines.
From teenage protest in the southern city of Deraa, Syria’s uprising against four decades of Assad family rule escalated into nationwide demonstrations, armed insurrection and finally an increasingly sectarian civil war drawing in regional powers.
Throughout, Assad has blamed foreign terrorists for the violence, all the time ratcheting up his own use of force from gunfire to tank shells, helicopters to fighter jets, and from mortars to indiscriminate missile strikes. His Western and Arab foes suspect Assad’s forces have also used chemical weapons.
Dismissing suggestions of blame for the bloodshed, the man who trained as an eye doctor told parliament: “When a surgeon cuts a wound, the wound bleeds. Do we say to him ‘Your hands are covered in blood’? Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”
Preparing for possible negotiations on a political settlement – which now look unlikely given intransigence on both sides – he dismissed his rebel foes as slaves of foreign masters.
30 YEARS AFTER HAMA
Assad’s crackdown on the protests against him two years ago drew inevitable comparisons with his father, Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in a coup in 1970 and ruthlessly put down an armed Islamist uprising in the city of Hama a dozen years later.
Three decades after Hama, in the era of the Internet, camera phones and global media, conventional wisdom said no leader could crush an uprising in the way the elder Assad did in 1982, killing more than 10,000 people, and hold on to power.
In Tunisia and Egypt, leaders were toppled within weeks by peaceful protests and when Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi used military force against rebels, NATO forces provided support to help his opponents bring him down.
But Assad, aided by powerful security forces dominated by his Alawite minority and shielded by international allies Russia and Iran, has proved far tougher.
That stands in contrast to the mood in 2000 when Bashar inherited the presidency aged 34. He was seen then as a reformer. His marriage to a British-educated banker cemented the image of a 21st century couple who might lift Syria out of its Soviet-style political stagnation.
But after flirting with political liberalization Assad abruptly closed the door on his ‘Damascus Spring’ experiment and within five years, relations with the West were in crisis over the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik al-Hariri, which a United Nations-backed inquiry initially blamed on Damascus.
In an early sign of his resilience, Assad weathered that storm, betting that Syria was too important to be ostracized if the West wanted to make any progress resolving decades of Arab-Israeli conflict or the turmoil in post-Saddam Iraq.
He was right. In the summer of 2008 Assad was guest of honor at France’s annual Bastille Day military parade capping his international rehabilitation.
RELIANT ON IRAN
Neither the violence nor economic collapse has truly shaken a power base centered on a clan within the Alawite minority, intelligence services and an army bolstered by local militias.
But defections have stripped away some of his entourage, including Manaf Tlas, son of the former defense minister, who grew up with the young Bashar.
“He was cheated by many of his friends,” said one person who visited Assad in May. “He lost a lot of his friends and the one that upset him the most is Manaf.”
But Assad has lost more than friends. Despite his recent military gains, the north and east of the country, including the eastern oil fields, remain out of his control.
Kurds in the north-east have enjoyed de facto autonomy for two years, much like their brethren in northern Iraq, and it is hard to see Assad ever regaining full control of a country whose Sunni majority is implacably opposed to being ruled by Assad’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Assad has increasingly turned to Shi’ite Iran for support, evidenced by meetings with senior Iranian officials in the aftermath of a bomb attack last July that killed four of his inner circle.
Iranian money has propped up Syria’s economy, while Iranian officers have helped train the Syrian army and set its counter-insurgency strategy, regional security sources say.
The Iranian-backed Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah was also largely responsible for Assad’s forces regaining the town of Qusair in early June – their most symbolic military victory in two years of fighting.
“This is really the world upside down,” said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, referring to Assad’s reliance on Hezbollah. “It reflects such a change in the relationship between the regime and what used to be its proxy.”