In shifting Syria conflict, Assad assumes command of forces

* Assad convinced he can prevail militarily

* Russia and Iran will not give up on Assad for now

By Samia Nakhoul

BEIRUT, Oct 10 (Reuters) - The picture is deceptivelynormal. Posted on the Facebook page of President Bashar al-Assadof Syria, it shows the first lady Asma, dressed in jeans and at-shirt, accompanying her daughter and three sons on their firstday back at school.

Two of the boys wear camouflage shorts with khaki t-shirtsand caps, in keeping with the spirit of a ruler under siege. Yetwhen she dropped off Hafez, the eldest, named after hisstrongman grandfather, only one other child had arrived in classbecause of rebel attacks in Damascus that morning.

More than 18 months into the battle for Syria, an estimated30,000 people are dead and the country is disintegrating.

The rebels are outgunned by the government but can stillstrike at will, and Assad has assumed personal command of hisforces, still convinced he can prevail militarily.

U.N. mediation efforts headed by Algerian diplomat LakhdarBrahimi are adrift and there is no indication Western pressureon Assad will translate into real military support for Syria'srebel forces. Russia and Iran continue to back Damascus.

Supporters of Assad say the government has steadied itsnerve after a wave of defections and rebel attacks on strategicgovernment targets since the summer.

A Facebook picture of Assad dressed in military uniform sumsup his transformation since a bomb attack in July killed hisinner circle security leadership, including his brother-in-lawand defence minister.

Recent visitors say the 47-year-old president has taken overday-to-day leadership. They speak of a self-confident, combativepresident convinced he will ultimately win the conflict throughmilitary means.

"He is no longer a president who depends on his team anddirects through his aides. This is a fundamental change inAssad's thinking," said a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician withclose ties to Assad. "Now he is involved in directing thebattle."

The endgame may have changed too. "Nobody is now talkingabout the control of the regime over all of Syria, they talkabout the ability of the regime to continue."

Until recently, the Lebanese politician said, people askeddaily who would defect next. But for some time now there hadbeen no significant military defections.

"The fighting nerve is steady. The Iranians and the Russiansmay have helped them. Their ability to manage daily and controlthe situation has improved."

The government has decided to focus its effort on essentialareas - the capital Damascus, the second largest city of Aleppo,and the main highways and roads.

Other close observers of the conflict say Assad is deludedif he believes he can prevail.

"The problem is the regime lives in its own world. It isclear the people are rejecting this idea - the regime'snarrative - that it is a secular regime set upon by extremists,a battle between good and evil and Bashar will one day bevindicated. Bashar is not the victim. He is the cause of theviolence," said a Western diplomat.

<^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Graphic on the Syria conflict



The conflict has spiralled into a civil war with almostdaily massacres and sectarian killings which some observers saymake Assad's fate almost irrelevant.

"Everybody is kind of hypnotised by the issue of whetherBashar is president or not, whether he is leaving or not," saidone Arab official. "I fear the problem is much bigger than that.The problem is to see how Syria is going to survive, how the newSyria is going to be born."

The feuding among the opposition and its failure to uniteunder one command is one factor that has helped Assad to holdon. There is still no serious effort to unify the opposition.

Some rebel groups, made up of moderate liberals and Islamistzealots, have clashed with each other militarily, activists say.Their religious and ideological disagreement is displayed inthe open on Islamist web sites with individuals trading insults.

"The opposition has got to grow up and get its act togetherand stop just reciting this mantra, Bashar must go, Bashar mustgo," the Arab official said. "There are other things they can dostarting with some unity among them."

"One has got to gather all sorts of building blocks that arelying around and make of them a viable construction. It isterribly important to see how violence can be stopped. It iscreating walls of hatred between neighbours. It is becoming moreand more sectarian," he said.

The rebels have so far failed to sustain gains in the faceof superior government firepower. They have lost many bases thatthey had won in the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere.Frustrated, they seem to have switched tactics to suicidebombings and hit-and-run attacks.

"Militarily the regime is more relaxed but from a securityposition the country is falling apart," said the pro-Syrianpolitician."An explosion might happen anywhere, an assassinationmight happen, the situation is chaotic and out of control."

Having seen the country of 23 million become an arena inwhich foreign players are fighting proxy wars, mediators havecome to the same conclusion - that the longer the conflict laststhe more Syria will become beyond rescue.

Talk of political reform - as demanded originally bypeaceful protesters wanting greater freedom, democracy and anend to vested interests by an Alawite minority ruling a SunniMuslim majority - have long ceased to be realistic.

Only an orderly transition can save Syria, they say.

"The solution will have to involve regime change not onlythe change of one man. The problem is how to engineer thismomentous change in a country that is complicated and wherefighting has further complicated things. This certainly cannotall happen overnight," the Arab official said.

A Western envoy familiar with Syria said U.N. envoy Brahimiwas trying to find a formula.

"By virtue of what has happened, the destruction and thefighting - if you don't have a transitional government with astrong army, Syria will be lost for a long time," he said

Hopes for the Brahimi mission are dim given that arms andfunds are still flowing to rebel groups, while Assad's forcesare still getting Russian and Iranian support.

"The Russians and the Iranians are even more robust. Theysupport them with funds and political support and technicalexpertise," said the Lebanese politician.

Despite a collapse in revenues, a halt in oil sales andtourism income, and a fall in the value of the nationalcurrency, the economy has so far avoided meltdown. But this mayonly be a temporary respite for a government spending heavily onits military campaign. Support from Iran, its own currencycollapsing, cannot be relied on indefinitely and the Syriangovernment's capacity to withstand economic headwinds isdiminishing.

"The following five or six months will be essential in thebattle and not like the past four or five months that havepassed. The Americans would have completed their election, theRussians will have evolved their position and the situation inIran will have crystallised," the Lebanese politician said.

"Until now, the Arabs have not changed their position, theAmericans don't want to be decisive and the Russians haven'tseen one factor that makes them back track one iota from theirposition. For the Russians, the matter is bigger than a navalbase in Tartous, they can secure it through negotiations, it isabout their role in the region."


For the average Syrian citizen, the primary preoccupationremains violence, insecurity and chaos.

In Damascus, shops open during the day but life grinds to ahalt by late afternoon, residents say. The government and armyhave set up roadblocks. They carry out searches ofneighbourhoods, they storm houses and arrest activists.

There is a sense of despair among residents. Kidnapping onsectarian grounds and also for ransom is rife. Inrebel-controlled areas devastated by government firepower,resentment simmers among people who believe the rebels havebrought havoc.

Most analysts predict a long battle. The stakes are high forAssad and his two million Alawite community - an offshoot ofShi'ite Islam linked religiously and politically to Iran andLebanon's Hezbollah. Bashar cannot leave easily.

There are people tied to him, there are people who fought abattle with him, he cannot abandon them and wash his hands ofthem," the pro-Syrian politician said.

Observers say, Russia is unlikely to give up its ties toSyria and get out of the Mediterranean.

And Iran looks unlikely to abandon its strategic ally.

"It is not easy for the nerve centre, the leadership in Iranto abandon or leave Syria because when we say Iran is giving upSyria it means it is getting out of the regional power playwhich means it will lose a lot of its external influence," saidthe Lebanese politician.

Yet officials from countries aligned against Assad remainhopeful that there will be a trigger to bring him down.

Until then, regional and Western powers are working onmeasures that need to be in place for a time when Assad is goneto avoid a post-Saddam-style, anarchic power vacuum.

"There will be some event which causes the regime to fall.The fall of Damascus, a regime coup, or something else. I can'tpredict what the trigger will be but the regime will fall," saidthe Western diplomat.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Dominic Evans and MariamKarouny; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Janet McBride)