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‘Bashar al-Assad has proved he is still in control’
The Syrian army has retaken control of the rebellious Baba Amr district of Homs after weeks of heavy shelling. Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche looks at the implications of the fall of the opposition stronghold.
On Thursday March 1 the opposition stronghold of Baba Amr in Homs fell to the regime after weeks of intense bombardment, a sure sign that the Syrian regime is not faltering in the face of a year-old uprising. Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at Lyon University, answers FRANCE 24’s questions.
FRANCE 24: How significant is the Syrian regime’s recapture of Baba Amr in Homs?
Fabrice Balanche: The inevitable recapture of Baba Amr is a turning point in Syria’s year-old uprising. The regime has demonstrated that it is perfectly capable of retaking a zone that had been beyond its authority for a number of months. Indeed Baba Amr’s fall proves that any rebel enclave can be crushed if it does not have international military support.
Even if the Free Syrian Army (FSA) claims to have made a “tactical withdrawal”, its defeat in Baba Amr may force it to change tactics and to seek heavy weapons.
F24: What effect will the fall of Baba Amr have on the opposition movement?
F.B.: It may well discourage the population from continuing protests. Civilians have seen that if they harbour opposition fighters they will pay the price by losing their lives or their property.
Nevertheless, opposition continues in other areas of Syria and more protests may well flare up in other cities.
We must bear in mind, however, that many Syrians want a return to calm despite their desire to see regime change. People do not want to see their country descend into civil or sectarian war. They saw what happened in Homs and they do not want the same thing to happen to their towns and cities.
Moreover, the number of people openly protesting has decreased considerably since last summer, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators turned out on the streets of Homs and Hama. There have been no significant protests in Aleppo or Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities, which remain firmly under regime control.
F24: How do you explain President Bashar al-Assad’s resilience in the face of a year’s protest against his regime?
F.B.: Bashar al-Assad has proved beyond doubt that he is firmly in control of his elite, his administration and the Syrian army, despite his isolation in the international community. Peaceful protest and even armed resistance have done nothing to weaken his grip on power. And so long as he enjoys the support of Russia and China, he remains in a safe place in terms of international diplomacy.
While there are divisions among Western powers and within the Syrian opposition itself, Assad’s regime is not ripe for collapse.
F24: What is likely to happen next in Syria?
F.B.: Some countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia may try to arm the FSA and provoke a civil war in the country. Such a scenario would risk fanning the flames of a conflict that could last a decade. The western nations would then be able to sit back and allow this situation to develop, while applying pressure on the regime through economic sanctions.
The other possible scenario is that the western nations will realise that the game is up and resign themselves to a gradual restoration of relations with Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad would be obliged to start negotiating with the internal opposition, notably with the Local Coordination Committees, which have been organising opposition on the ground. But, having restored military control over the country, he would eventually regain the upper hand politically as well.