BEIRUT – Only a few weeks ago, the United States was threatening military strikes on Syria, but there has been a major shift since then.
Much of that is due to a U.S.-Russian deal on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, apparently giving Assad the confidence he needed to announce Monday that he would be willing to stand for re-election when his current term ends next year.
Assad also said he did not feel the situation was yet ripe for the peace talks that the United Nations is trying to organize in Geneva next month with Russian and U.S. support.
“It’s no mistake he’s feeling more confident than ever,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center.
“Any previous talk of regime change on the part of the international community has been pushed to the side and now Assad is a partner for the international community,” he added.
Hamid was speaking before a meeting in London of Arab and Western governments that support the opposition that issued a joint statement renewing their insistence that the Syrian leader could have no future political role.
But that statement was seen as part of a wider effort to persuade at least some of the opposition to take part in the planned Geneva peace conference.
While much of the West supported the rebels’ demand that Assad must go, “you don’t hear people talking about regime change any more,” Hamid said.
Fearing the growing influence in rebel ranks of hard-line Islamist groups, some of them loyal to al-Qaida, the United States has opted to push for a political settlement, rather than giving all-out support to the revolt.
At the same time, Assad “continues to enjoy the full support of (key backers) Russia and Iran,” Hamid said.
In the West, “there’s a real concern that the strongest and most dominant factions are people the international community does not want to win,” he said.
“Assad feels that that kind of development helps his narrative.”
When the uprising against his rule erupted in March 2011, Assad’s regime claimed it was a foreign-funded “terrorist” plot, despite ample evidence of extensive domestic support for change.
But al-Qaida-affiliated groups entered as the protest movement escalated into an armed rebellion and have gained ground militarily, particularly in the north and east.
At the same time, the opposition is deeply divided, not only militarily but politically.
Hamid said “the political opposition is totally irrelevant, so the people who are going to Geneva do not represent the fighters on the ground,” who are now mostly Islamist.
Another factor strengthening Assad’s hand has been the deal struck by Moscow and Washington after a sarin gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.
The deal led to a U.N. Security Council resolution that orders the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal and urges peace talks to end the conflict that has already killed more than 100,000 people.
“Things have definitely gone in (Assad’s) favor in the past two months, ever since the chemical weapons attack,” Hamid said. “You might have expected that that would be his downfall but actually it turned out to be a major boost.”
When the deal was first proposed, Assad quickly volunteered to cooperate, and Hamid said there was a “real shift” when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commended the Syrian leader’s commitment to a swift implementation of the deal.
The arms deal “was a victory for Assad, plain and simple. Ever since then, he’s in some sense been rehabilitated,” he added.
Hilal Khashan, who heads the political science department at the American University of Beirut, said “the overall balance is still tilted in (the regime’s) favor, even though it cannot win. . . . The Syrian regime’s backers are faithful to their stance, and they know what they’re doing.”
Syria expert and former Dutch ambassador to several Arab countries Nikolaos Van Dam said Assad’s refusal to deal with any opposition groups with links to the outside “is not new.”
But “whether it is realistic for President Assad to want to exclude the main Syrian opposition groups with substantial military forces inside considerable parts of Syria is another thing.”
For Khashan, Assad’s refusal to negotiate with the main opposition Syrian National Coalition shows he is pressing to increase his bargaining power.
“His gains on the ground allow him to do this,” he said.
Author of the “Struggle for Power in Syria,” Van Dam said Assad is unlikely “to make serious concessions as long as his regime is the main dominant force on the ground.”
He added: “He wants presidential elections to be held in 2014, but might in the end be willing to accept an alternative candidate, preferably from within the regime.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad is feeling strengthened as international pressure on his regime appears to ease amid growing Western fears of an Islamist takeover and unwavering Russian support, analysts say.