For Syrians, No Easy Exit From Conflict

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syria is locked in an ominous and violent stalemate: With overwhelming firepower and a willingness to kill, President Bashar al-Assad could hold on to power for months or even years, keeping the opposition from controlling any territory and denying it breathing space to develop a coherent, effective leadership, according to analysts, diplomats and Syrians involved in the uprising.

Syrians and regional analysts say sheer force alone is unlikely to eradicate what has become a diffuse and unpredictable insurgency, one able to strike out even after the government has used crushing force against centers of resistance like Homs, Idlib and Dara'a. Broad areas of the country are hostile territory for government troops, and attackers have managed to hit centers of power, even in the capital, Damascus.

But with so much blood spilled, diplomacy stalled and both sides refusing to negotiate, there is no obvious path out. That has made Syria stand out among the countries swept up in the regional Arab revolts, impervious to a sustained popular uprising and so far beyond the reach of outside intervention. It has become a war of attrition that grows more dangerous as it goes along.

Many Syrians say that Mr. Assad cannot afford to stop shooting and can never go back to ruling as he did before, when his authority stemmed from the bonds of sect, business interests and fear. If he dials back his repression, Syrians of many political stripes say with certainty, citizens will demand his ouster.

"We will see millions of protesters in the streets, not hundreds," said a Christian engineer in the old city of Damascus, who, like many people interviewed recently in Syria, refused to be fully identified for fear of reprisal. "And the regime knows that."

The reverberations of a protracted sectarian conflict in Syria have begun to spread across a region where the geopolitical calculus is already being altered. Tensions have spilled over borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan and raised fears that radical Islamic militants will find a new cause for recruitment.

The quickest ways out -- if Mr. Assad were to leave, or if insiders were to stage a coup -- also seem highly unlikely, analysts said. Insulated from all but his inner circle, Mr. Assad appears to believe that his strategy is succeeding.

The security officials who might be able to overthrow him now see their fates intertwined with his. The public has suffered too much to be satisfied with a coup alone; they would seek the entire security system's downfall and, possibly, revenge.

"We'll see this society, which has been bullied into despair, resort to desperate means," said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of people pushed to the brink."

The reliance on force has produced short-term results, but at a cost, leaving Mr. Assad's base fraying as the economy implodes.

Some members of the constituencies Mr. Assad counts on -- Sunni Muslim business elites, the Christian minority, state employees and ambitious young urbanites -- said last week in Syria that they had lost faith in the government and no longer believed its claims of victory.

Reem, a government health worker who said she long supported Mr. Assad but now tends wounded protesters in a field hospital, summed up the president's options: "Kill all Syrian protesters or leave in peace to save the country," she said as her mother served coffee at their home in a Damascus suburb.

Some of the government's questionable business ties also appear to be coming undone.

In a currency-exchange office in downtown Damascus recently, customers anxiously haggled for dollars. The proprietor, Anas, 25, said that in early March, black market currency traders enraged at the arrests of some of their colleagues broke a "gentlemen's agreement" with the state to keep informal dollar rates relatively close to official ones. That has helped drive up prices for sugar and basic goods, which rose more in recent weeks than in the previous year.

Electricity cuts chill and darken homes and create bread shortages, even in the capital. Sixty cars lined up for gas recently near the historic Hijaz train station in central Damascus, an unprecedented sight.

"I am not anti-Assad, but I cannot support the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which offers nothing for me," said Yusef, 40, a government employee. He said he lost his temper recently with a shopkeeper who, asked the price of cooking oil, dialed his cellphone to ask the dollar rate -- a common practice nowadays.

Yusef said he and his wife earned a combined 35,000 Syrian pounds a month, worth $729 in early March and about half that when the price of dollars spiked last week.

"The government sells us silly propaganda on its victories in Homs, Baba Amr or Idlib," he said, citing assaults on rebel strongholds. "But we need food and electricity, not honeyed promises."

He called the intractable economic crisis "the tipping point for middle-class and poor residents, who have begun to change their political views."

Bilal, a Sunni Muslim businessman, proudly displays a picture of his father with the previous president, Hafez al-Assad, above his expensive leather sofa. He said: "We need a solution, whether it is to keep President Assad in power or not. We don't want to spend our lives organizing pro-Assad demonstrations."

Most Sunni businesspeople have already switched sides, with many giving money to families of people killed in the uprising, said Mr. Harling. But they lack the power to overthrow Mr. Assad. The only force that can do that, besides reluctant security elites, is the army.

Mr. Assad's level of confidence in the conscript army is unclear; by choice or necessity his forces have moved from town to town rather than trying simultaneous assaults. Troops returning from pitched battles appear well rested and well trained, with well-maintained new weapons and vehicles decked in flags, as if fresh from defeating a foreign enemy, said Mr. Harling, who lives part time in Syria.

Mr. Assad seems unconcerned with restoring ties with the religious Sunni Muslim working class in provincial cities devastated by fighting, Mr. Harling said. Instead, he said, Mr. Assad has consolidated his base among minority Alawites, the heterodox Muslim sect he belongs to, and Christians, who represent about a fifth of the country.

But even the mild reforms Mr. Assad promises would come at the expense of those allies. Already, prominent Christians have voiced outrage at the new Constitution, approved in a referendum held last month amid widespread fighting and widely discounted as illegitimate. It requires the president of Syria, long a resolutely secular state, to be a Muslim.

As an insurgency takes hold, some opposition activists are uncomfortable with the bloodier tactics of armed groups who fight on their side but not under their control. There have been mysterious car bombings, roadside bombs and massacres of families, including the stabbing of children -- a visceral form of violence rare in the region, even amid sectarian bloodletting in Iraq. Each side blames the other.

Thamer, a Syrian activist interviewed on Skype, expressed "many doubts and fears" about the tactics of loosely knit armed groups called the Free Syrian Army. He blamed them for picking fights that civilians ultimately lose. "If you know you don't have enough weapons, what are you doing?" he said.

But what they lack in weapons and unity, the activists make up in resolve. A wealthy Sunni Muslim student at Aleppo University said via Skype that his father, who had opposed his involvement, now drives him to protests.

Last week, he said, he watched fellow protesters at the university -- in Syria's commercial hub, long a bastion of government support -- advance under government fire. "They weren't afraid," he said. "They attacked a security man and beat and threw rocks and stones at him until he died. You think these people will stop now?"

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria, and Hala Droubi from Beirut.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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