Syria's Assad still has upper hand

Rebels' disarray boosts president's bid for third term

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BEIRUT -- Three years into the revolt against his rule, Syrian President Bashar Assad is in a stronger position than ever before to quell the rebellion against his rule by Syrians who rose up to challenge his hold on power, first with peaceful protests and later with arms.

Aided by the steadfast support of his allies and the deepening disarray of his foes, Mr. Assad is pressing ahead with plans to be re-elected to a third seven-year term this summer, while sustaining intense military pressure intended to crush his opponents.

The strategy has started to yield tangible progress in recent months, in the form of slow but steady gains on several key battlefield fronts that call into question long-held perceptions of a stalemate. Most notably, the government has pushed the rebels back or squeezed them into isolated pockets in large swathes of the territory surrounding Damascus, diminishing prospects that the opposition will soon be in a position to threaten the capital seriously or to topple the regime.

For those who joined the effort to unseat Mr. Assad three years ago, flush with the fervor of Arab Spring protests sweeping the region, the realization that the rebellion is faltering is "deeply depressing," said student activist Abu Emad, using a pseudonym to protect his identity, who has watched as the regime has steadily crushed the armed rebellion in his hometown, Homs, once seen as the revolt's epicenter.

Today marks the third anniversary of the initially tentative anti-government demonstrations that spiraled into civil war, and many Syrians are wondering whether the 140,000 deaths and displacement of millions of people were worth the price, he said.

The extent of the regime's progress has been such that Mr. Assad felt confident enough this week to travel 20 miles outside Damascus, through territory held by rebels for much of the past two years. In the northeastern suburb of Adra, he visited displaced people, pledged aid and to uphold the fight.

Meanwhile, the poorly armed and highly disorganized rebels have launched no significant offensive or captured any key military facility since the fall of Menagh air base in northern Aleppo province last summer.

Preparations are gathering pace in Damascus for presidential elections due by July under terms of Syria's constitution. A new election law passed by Syria's parliament this week for the first time permits challengers to Mr. Assad -- but under restrictions that preclude serious opposition contenders.

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi warned Security Council members in a briefing Thursday that an election would jeopardize prospects for resuming the failed Geneva peace talks, which underpin the Obama administration's Syria policy. "If there is an election, then my suspicion is that the opposition, all the oppositions, will probably not be interested in talking to the government," he told reporters afterward.

But the government has displayed no desire to talk to its foes, and the Geneva talks' failure also revealed that Syria's ally, Russia, is disinclined to pressure Mr. Assad to do so. The attention of the United States and other Western powers has been diverted by the Ukraine crisis, and the opposition's main Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are consumed with disputes of their own.

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