refugees - AFP - June 12 2011
Two refugees from Syria in the Turkish Red Crescent camp in the Yayladagi district, two kilometers from the Syrian border last year. Photo by AFP
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A Syrian opposition website yesterday compared President Bashar Assad with a hijacker who names his ransom fee and then cuts off all contact until his demands are met.

The comparison is right about one thing at least - Assad isn't taking phone calls from Ban-ki Moon. In their last conversation, a few days ago, he asked the United Nations Secretary General why he had called him, anyway. The Turkish prime minister is apparently in the same boat; Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he last spoke to Assad "four or five days ago." On Friday he denounced the "atrocities" being committed by the Syrian regime against its own citizens, calling its actions "savagery." Strong words for a man who only a week ago said he still considered Assad a "good friend."

Syria seems unmoved by both Erdogan's remarks and by the UN Security Council, where he has the full backing - and the threat of their veto of any anti-Syrian resolution - of China and Russia. Their support enables Assad to continue to characterize his violent suppression of demonstrations and shooting of protesters as an "internal Syrian matter" or the work of "armed gangs," and to claim that any international intervention is a plot to destroy the regime.

Assad is operating on the assumptions that time is not working against him, that his army will succeed in suppressing the demonstrations even if they continue for longer than anticipated and that even if Turkey or other states sever ties with Syria it will still be able to count on cooperation from Iraq, Iran and Russia. Another assumption, presumably correct, is that Syria will not be subject to a Libya-style international military onslaught. Assad's Syria has endured periods of severe diplomatic isolation in the past. With the UN draft resolutions intended, for now, only to censure the acts of suppression, without imposing additional sanctions, Assad can ignore the threat.

The position of the Syrian army lends further support to Assad's intransigence. Its junior and mid-level echelons, as well as the senior command, is behind him. While opposition leaders have reported the defections of soldiers and some officers, even they admit that their numbers are in "the hundreds, and not thousands." Most of these defectors are soldiers or junior officers from towns and villages that are under army assault. According to Lebanese sources, senior commanders remove soldiers or officers who are "suspected" of disloyalty and either imprison them or order them to remain in barracks.

Assad has also stopped offering a "dialogue" with the opposition; in recent days, the reports mention only an intention to carry out reforms "in the coming days." These announcements no longer have any effect on the resistance movement, which now encompasses large parts of Damascus and of Aleppo, the country's two largest cities, which have not as yet joined the anti-regime protest full-force. The opposition's ultimate goal is to get rid of the Assad regime and introduce democracy.

The opposition, however, is having difficulty forging a unified leadership, and this plays into Assad's hands. Even though the convention held by the opposition movement early this month elected a 31-member consultative council and drafted a declaration of intentions that was also signed by the Muslim Brotherhood, many internal disagreements remain. These include, for example, whether to call for international military intervention, how to build the post-Assad regime, how to divide the political pie among Sunni and Shi'ite, Christian and Alawi; between urban and rural, between tribal heads and urban elites. And, as usual in such circumstances, the will is being read before the deceased has breathed his last breath.