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Don't write off Assad yet

He may be in a difficult position but the Syrian leader's military forces are still strong. Peter Beaumont writes.

india Updated: Dec 14, 2012 21:58 IST

Wars, even those drawing to a close, have a habit of following their own timetable. Even if the conflict in Syria - and the regime of Bashar al-Assad - is approaching the beginning of its end, as claimed by Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, what is far less certain is how quickly that might happen. And also with what degree of misery, bloodshed and destabilisation. Rasmussen's view appeared to be endorsed by one of Assad's most assiduous defenders, Moscow, whose deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, told a hearing at a Kremlin advisory body his country was beginning contingency planning to evacuate its citizens. "Unfortunately an opposition victory can't be excluded," Bogdanov said.

According to recent estimates drawn up in neighbouring countries, Syria now has only between $3bn-$4bn in cash available for a war costing an estimated $1bn a month. At that rate, the coffers will be empty by late winter or early spring, although Iran and Russia, it is claimed, have been sending funds.

Despite the increasing pressure on the Damascus regime the view, according to one senior figure in the immediate region, is that Assad is still in charge and his military forces remain relatively strong. What has become more challenging is the regime's ability to move fuel imports and food from the coastal strip. That, in turn, has led to grave concern over what might occur if the main generating plant, south of Damascus, were to be put out of action. Upwards of eight million people rely on it for their power and water supplies.

"Assad's situation is difficult," said one senior Arab source in the region. "But he has a lot of strength. He is still getting arms and finance from Iran and his military capability is still robust." The increasing difficulties of the regime in maintaining basic services have led to fears that in the case of a prolonged endgame far larger numbers of refugees might be displaced, which in turn might overwhelm neighbouring countries.

Of growing concern to some of Syria's neighbours is the fear that the regime might attempt to regroup as an Alawite-dominated rump in the coastal strip, a notion dismissed at the beginning of the uprising but which has returned.

What appears to have undergone a subtle change in recent weeks is the attitude of Russia and Iran. According to an observer closely familiar with recent high level diplomatic exchanges over Syria, Russia is said to be moving gradually towards accepting there may need to be a third alternative to the scenarios in which either Assad survives or is replaced by an unknown quantity involving jihadist groups. On Iran's part, the objective now appeared not to be an absolute commitment to Assad's survival but rather to limit potential damage to its key ally, Hezbollah, by ensuring the cost of Assad's fall remains high.

A final concern is whether the regime, with its back to the wall, might choose to use chemical weapons. US claims that the government is preparing weapons have been hotly disputed, but the Assad regime's attitude is towards their use is less clear, despite being warned against it by Moscow and Tehran.