First Published: 2014-07-15

Assad seeks to win over war-weary Syrians
Syrian President will play role of 'victor' at inauguration as question of his ouster is no longer on the cards.
Middle East Online

By Rana MOUSSAOUI - BEIRUT

Assad will also try to convince the West his regime is a bulwark against the extremist Islamic State

President Bashar al-Assad on his inauguration on Thursday is expected to play the role of "victor" while trying to win over war-weary Syrians and those fearful of jihadist advances.

Analysts say Assad, who was swept back to power in a June 3 election slammed as a "farce" by the opposition, will also try to convince the West his regime is a bulwark against the extremist Islamic State (IS) which is sowing terror in Syria and Iraq.

"Assad wants to consolidate his image as the victor" in the regime's bid to crush a three-year rebellion, said Khattar Abou Diab, Paris-Sud University professor of international relations.

The inauguration "will be a show of defiance against countries that demanded his ouster" ever since the outbreak of a popular revolt in March 2011, Abou Diab said.

Three years on, according to Bassam Abu Abdallah, an expert close to the regime in Damascus, the question of Assad's ouster is "no longer on the cards".

Abu Abdallah, who directs the Damascus Centre for Strategic Studies, said: "Even the Americans, the Saudis and the Qataris (who back the revolt) are no longer calling for that."

- 'Semblance of legitimacy' -

A veteran opposition figure and member of the exiled National Coalition, Samir Nashar, said: "Bashar al-Assad continues to claim he is a legitimate president despite the victims and the massacres ... He is holding on to a semblance of legitimacy.

"His message is clear: he will not leave power at any price."

For the past year, the anti-Assad rebellion has suffered a string of defeats on the battlefield.

Opposition fighters lost control of bastions in the heart of Homs city, Damascus province and east of Aleppo city in the north.

Regime troops have made advances around Aleppo in recent weeks, pressing a bid to besiege the rebels.

The regime controls most of the coast, though the rebels have the upper hand in Idlib in northwest Syria and Daraa in the south, dubbed the "cradle of the revolution" that later morphed into a civil war.

The mainstream rebels, however, have also faced defeats in eastern Syria, from where they have been expelled by IS, which last month proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq.

Damascus, meanwhile, has been heavily reliant on a steady flow of fighters from Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah and the unwavering support of allies Iran and Russia.

The rebels, in contrast, say they have received practically no military aid from the West.

- 'Pyrrhic victory' -

Assad, said Brookings Doha Center director Salman Shaikh, "has the momentum now".

Shaikh, meanwhile, said that Assad will use his inauguration for a new seven-year term to try to win over those who neither support his regime nor back the rebels.

He will try, said Shaikh, to "cosmetically... reach out... in order to win over those in the grey area."

But, said the analyst, "the regime is still a war cabinet... and the rebels will continue to fight" Assad's troops.

Karim Bitar, director of the Paris-based International and Strategic Relations Institute, said Assad will capitalise on fears of the jihadists while pursuing his own offensive against the rebels.

"He hopes the IS abuses will help him win over a population exhausted by three years of war," Bitar said.

Assad will "continue to take advantage of the West's obsession with Islamism and try to portray himself as a partner in the fight against IS."

At the same time, he will "press his counter-insurgency plan, which aims to take over major highways and big cities, while abandoning... the east of the country."

But analysts say Assad faces an uphill task on the political front.

"Too much blood has been spilled... Regardless of the military successes, (Assad) will never be able to restore his legitimacy in the eyes of much of the population," said Bitar.

"So what we're really talking about is a Pyrrhic victory, won on the ruins of a country that will not accept the return of the status quo ante."

 

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