Support for Assad Government Shows Signs of Weakening


  Youssef Badawi/European Pressphoto Agency

Syrian forces Wednesday began leaving Hama, the site of a recent fierce army assault where antiaircraft guns were said to have been used on civilian buildings.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — As Syria continues its most relentless assault yet on a five-month uprising, killing more than a dozen protesters Wednesday, cracks have begun to emerge in a tight-knit leadership that has until now managed to rally its base of support and maintain a unified front, officials, dissidents and analysts say.

 Though there are no signs of an imminent collapse, flagging support of the business elite in Damascus, divisions among senior officials and even moves by former government stalwarts to distance themselves from the leadership come at a time when Syria also faces what may be its greatest isolation in more than four decades of rule by the Assad family.

“They’re starting to be divided, and you have people in the government who are really getting frustrated with Assad and his security circles,” an Obama administration official in Washington said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad.

“It’s almost like watching a dysfunctional marriage,” the official said.

The shifting constellation of power in Damascus has underscored the perils of the months ahead. American and European officials acknowledge that they have limited tools to influence events in Syria, and a deeply divided opposition has so far failed to provide an alternative to the leadership of Mr. Assad. Activists in Syria warn that the government crackdown may also push largely peaceful protesters to violence, especially in the east, which is populated by well-armed extended clans with deep ties to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.

“We are stuck right now,” said Louay Hussein, a leading opposition figure who has had conversations with government officials on trying to open the political system “The government is counting on its military, and it could take a very long time before it uses up all its resources.”

An American diplomatic official said it seemed increasingly unlikely that Mr. Assad could remain in power. As a result, he said, the United States has begun making plans for a post-Assad era out of concern for the chaos that many expect to follow, should he fall. The Obama administration, he said, does not rule out a civil war. “It’s going to be messy,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the topic involved internal deliberations.

In Washington, the Obama administration has continued to ratchet up pressure on Syria. The Treasury Department announced Wednesday that it had sanctioned the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria, along with a Lebanese-based subsidiary and Syriatel, the country’s largest mobile telephone operator. Syriatel is owned by Rami Makhlouf, a powerful businessman and a cousin of the president who was first sanctioned by the United States in 2008. The United States has already imposed sanctions on most of the country’s senior leaders, including President Assad, and several other businesses with close ties to the government.

Officials said European countries might take a decisive step to sanction Syria’s oil and gas industry this month, which would cripple one of Syria’s few remaining sources of revenue as its economy reels under the strain of the uprising. In Washington, officials say President Obama may soon declare that Mr. Assad must step down, a pronouncement the White House has so far been reluctant to make.

Turkey, once an ally of Syria, remains a wild card that could ease the pressure on Mr. Assad or intensify it. Its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, went to Damascus on Tuesday, and American officials said he gave Mr. Assad a two-day deadline to end the crackdown. Though Turkish officials have said they are running out of patience, they still appear to hold out hope that Mr. Assad will make democratic changes in one of the region’s most repressive countries. It is a position few others share.

“We’re not on the same page,” the American official acknowledged.

In Damascus this week, 41 former Baathists and government officials took a step that would have been unthinkable for party stalwarts not long ago: They announced an initiative for a political transition. Led by Mohammed Salman, a former information minister with deep connections to the leadership closest to Mr. Assad, the group urged an end to the crackdown, the deployment of the military and the relentless arrest campaign.

Otherwise, the group warned, the country was headed for “catastrophic results.”
Some opposition figures dismissed the initiative as trying “to whiten its black page in the past.” But to others it represented a remarkable fissure, coming as it did from former ministers and senior party officials who at the very least acknowledged that change was inevitable.

Through much of his reign, Mr. Assad had managed to conceal the ferocity of the ubiquitous police state his father, Hafez, built after taking power in 1970. Since the uprising, the military and, in particular, the security forces have returned to the forefront, and they have remained unified despite occasional defections in carrying out a crackdown that some activists say has killed more than 2,000 people. Unless armed forces turn against Mr. Assad, analysts and diplomats say, there is no immediate threat to his rule.

But as the government has resorted almost solely to violence in repressing the uprising, with more killed Wednesday in the central city of Homs, in Idlib in the north, in Nawa in the south and in the Damascus suburbs, frustration appears to be growing within the inner circle. That has pitted hard-line members of Mr. Assad’s family — figures like Maher al-Assad, his brother, and Assef Shawkat, his brother-in-law — against some longtime officials who remain in contact with foreign colleagues.

Some analysts and diplomats say Mr. Assad himself has yet to appreciate the depth of the challenge posed by the uprising. Others said senior officials remain convinced the uprising is led by militant Islamists. A Western official, citing multiple accounts, said security forces went so far as to use antiaircraft guns against civilian buildings in Hama, which the military attacked July 31.

“The level of frustration within the regime right now is unprecedented,” said a Damascus-based analyst with access to Syrian officials who asked not to be named.

“The regime has played all its cards,” the analyst said. “The one left is a constant increase in levels of repression and violence, and I think that will fail, too. That’s what it’s trying now, but I don’t think that will be successful, either. Then after that, what’s left?”

Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, have remained quiet, as the economic elite in both locales remain fearful of a chaotic aftermath to Mr. Assad’s government. But officials and analysts say more and more businessmen have reached out to the opposition, including a leading figure from the Alawite minority, from which Mr. Assad’s leadership disproportionately draws its support. Others seem to be trying to keep channels open to both sides, as they wait to see which party gains a decisive edge, analysts said.

“They’re starting to turn to us, to the United States, and say, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’ ” the American official said. “The domino effect is going to go even faster for the Sunni business elite, and that’s when you’ll see Damascus go up in flames.”

Even some activists, who long insisted colleagues chant “peaceful!” at their protests, warned of the shape any change might take. In Hama, Saleh al-Hamawi, an activist, said youths were insisting on taking up arms after the military’s assault.

“ ‘Either they kill us or we kill them,’ I heard them saying the other day,” he said.

Anthony Shadid reported from Beirut, and Steven Lee Myers from Washington. Hwaida Saad and Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 11, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Signs of Doubt On Assad Rule Grow in Syria.


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