US envoy: Assad losing support among key constituents

Army still cohesive although less than in May; Alawite leaders no longer consider their future connected to Assad.

September 23, 2011 03:56
3 minute read.
US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford

Robert Ford 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Syrian President Bashar Assad is losing support among key constituents and risks plunging his country into sectarian strife, the US ambassador to Damascus said on Thursday.

“The government violence is actually creating retaliation and creating even more violence in our analysis, and it is also increasing the risk of sectarian conflict,” Robert Ford said in a phone interview with Reuters from Damascus.

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“I don’t think that the Syrian government today, September 22, is close to collapse.

I think time is against the regime because the economy is going into a more difficult situation, the protest movement is continuing and little by little groups that used to support the government are beginning to change.”

The envoy said there was economic malaise in Syria, signs of dissent within Assad’s Alawite minority sect and more defections from the army since mid- September, but the military is “still very powerful and very cohesive.”

He cited a statement issued in the restive city of Homs last month by three notable members of the Alawite minority community, to which Assad’s family belongs, that said the Alawites’ future is not tied to the Assads remaining in power.

“We did not see developments like that in April or May. I think the longer this continues the more difficult it becomes for the different communities, the different elements of Syrian society that used to support Assad, to continue to support him.”

The ambassador said Assad could still rely on the military to try and crush the protest movement but the killing of peaceful protesters was losing him support within the ranks.

“The Syrian army is still very powerful and it is still very strong,” he said. “Its cohesion is not at risk today but there are more reports since mid-September of desertions than we heard in April and May or June. And this is why I am saying time is not on the side of the government.”

On Wednesday, Ford told the website The Daily Caller that he has been amazed by the protesters’ “sheer courage.”

“I don’t think Americans can really get a grasp on really how dangerous this is, to go out on these streets with this army and these thugs,” he said.

Asked whether he would describe the Damascus regime as “evil,” he said, “Yes, actually I do because of what’s happening under his authority in terms of people being tortured to death, people being shot who are unarmed and no one being held accountable for it.”

“I can understand it if it was against orders and you just were trying to remake a police force or you were trying to remake a prison system and so there are a lot of orders being disobeyed, but you would want people held accountable. But because I see no accountability, I can only assume that on some level that he accepts it if not encourages it. To me that would be evil,” he said.

Ford was nominated last year by US President Barack Obama to be America’s first ambassador to Damascus in six years. His nomination met opposition from Senate Republicans, citing Syria’s designation in Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Obama circumvented the Senate, giving Ford a recess appointment, and the diplomat arrived in Damascus at the start of this year, shortly before anti-government protests began.

Also Thursday, the London- based daily Asharq Alawsat reported that residents of several Lebanese villages close to the Syrian border fear impending Syrian invasion to root out refugees seeking sanctuary there.

The paper reported that in recent days Syrian soldiers have opened fire at the villages at night in an attempt to scare residents from housing refugees.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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