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Adrian Hamilton: Can Assad hold on to power?


Whether the Syrian ceasefire holds may be the question that most of the world is asking at the moment. But, renewed firing or not, another question remains: can the opposition unseat the Assad family and change power in Syria? Kofi Annan has been trying to do more than just produce a ceasefire. He has been attempting a diplomatic solution to the growing civil war in the country. He's called his a "peace plan" and bent his efforts to try to bring all the parties, outside and inside the country, into a common consensus.

The effort is noble. The likelihood of success is virtually nil. In diplomatic terms he has achieved what might have seemed impossible even a few weeks ago: getting the Arab League and the West to retreat from their demands that President Assad steps down as the pre-condition of any settlement.

If Assad had been cleverer, he would have seized on this to pull back the tanks and worked on the fact that most people in Syria and the world outside wanted an end to the bloodshed. The images of pounded buildings and dead bodies have aroused fury against Assad but also a feeling that it must be stopped by whatever means available. As that excludes any direct military intervention for the time being, a political settlement seems the only other option.

It's still possible that Damascus could follow this course. Annan clearly hopes so. The trouble is that Assad has constantly passed up opportunities whenever they have been presented to him.

The reason is blunt and brutal. This is not a fight about democracy in which the regime could, like the generals in Burma or the King in Morocco, give a little in order to preserve themselves in power. This is a revolt against the whole nexus of corruption and suppression which keeps the Assad family in wealth as well as power. Give even minor concessions, the regime fears, and the whole edifice will start to crumble as ethnic, religious and regional differences surface.

The adoption of a ceasefire represents a sense of exhausted stalemate. The authorities have managed to use their heavier weaponry to reduce to ruins the places of resistance. But they have not been able to crush all signs of opposition. Their opponents have failed to set up viable independent centres of power, but they have survived to fight on.

Assad's hope is that, by stopping the bombardments but keeping his troops in position, he can get the world off his back and starve the rebels into giving up or fading away. The opposition hope that they can use the period of calm to recuperate, re-supply and bring their supporters on to the streets in peaceful protest. That will achieve their purpose, if anything can. Assad has the upper hand militarily but, if the ceasefire is followed by a resumption of mass peaceful protest demanding his resignation, what can he do but return to suppression in front of the cameras?