He can't last more than a few months, the experts said. When months flew by, they said it again: in just a few months he'll be gone. But ten months later, universally hated and despised for his brutality, Bashar Assad is still very much in control of his country.
This week, he was blasé enough to open embattled Syria for the first time to US and European television crews and correspondents. They needed permission to move out of their hotels in central Damascus – and then only with Syrian officers in attendance, but they were allowed to interview opposition members, film freed prisoners who had been tortured, and record the terrible destruction wrought by the regime's tanks in Syrian flashpoint cities.
The correspondents were even allowed to film Syrian armored forces surrounding cities and villages.
Assad obviously didn't give a hoot if foreign reporters showed his uniformed killing machine in action after at least 6,000 fatalities according to opposition estimates – any more than he bothered to put on a show of innocence for the benefit of Arab League observers during the three weeks of their mission.
All the Syrian president cared about was that the foreign cameras established that – like it or not – he was still master of all they surveyed.
Russian and Iranian propagandists depict Assad in full control
The message was particularly unpalatable to governments seeking to unseat him: Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states and Turkey, whom Assad suspects of acting as a front for the US and NATO. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani urged the deployment of "some Arab troops to stop the killing" when he spoke to the CBS Sunday, Jan. 15. But this is not about to happen as yet.
Iranian and Russian intelligence and propaganda advisers working together in Assad's bureau gave him the idea of opening up Syria to Western media, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report. Let them show the world that the Syrian President's grip on his country is assured, they said.
Al Qods Commander Maj. Gen. Haj Qassem Soleimani directs the Iranian team in Damascus, as well as his government's military advisers who are attached to Syrian Army riot dispersal units in the towns and villages.
Moscow's high-placed Arab expert Mikhail Margelov leads the Russian effort on behalf of the Assad regime. He also bears the title of Chairman of the Committee for Foreign Affairs in the Federation Council of the Russian Federation.
Our sources report that the Iranian general and the Russian diplomat arrived in Damascus at the same time earlier this month. The two were not reported to have met, but there is confirmation that their command centers in Damascus are working in sync.
Tehran and Moscow are certainly coordinating the influx of Iranian and Russian weapons to the Syrian Army. The shipments consist mainly of ammunition to refill fast depleting stocks and replacement parts for tanks and the armored vehicles used to their limits by the Syrian Army in crushing protest.
Tehran sics Baghdad against Ankara
Iran has also harnessed Hizballah’s military machine in Lebanon to pumping out emergency reinforcements for the Syrian military and for bombardments from Lebanese soil to ease the pressure on embattled Syrian troops.
Moscow is keeping the Russian aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov and its strike force on hand in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus.
This week, Tehran took advantage of a serious misstep by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to corner him. Erdogan urged the Iraqi government to get the fallout from the US withdrawal last month under control or else "those who were responsible" for Iraq's polarization and partition (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) "would go down in history as devils, regardless of their sectarian or ethnic background."
The Turkish prime minister failed to take into account that the Shiite Al-Maliki is an Iranian pawn. He was thereupon deployed by Tehran to throw Baghdad's relations with Ankara into crisis.
Erdogan had inadvertently opened the door to friction with Baghdad so providing Tehran-Ankara discord with an extra dimension and a new flashpoint for helping Bashar Assad against his enemies.
Wednesday, Jan. 18, three rockets were fired at the Turkish embassy in Baghdad – the first such attack on this location. One hit an outside wall.
The Arab League monitors and Western correspondents in the country have done their best to present the Assad regime as "collapsing in slow motion" and Syria on the verge of civil war.
Power cuts for several hours a day are routine; shops in Damascus depend on generators out on the pavement. Petrol is in short supply, drained by massive usage by security forces, and the prices of heating and cooking oil have risen steeply.
Foreign investment and tourism have disappeared. Hotels are empty. Credit cards are out of use and the value of the Syrian pound has dived.
All these factors are presented as evidence that Assad is on his way out.
Russia, Iran and Iraq trust Assad to weather the uprising
All this is probably true, but in staking the Assad regime, Moscow, Tehran and Baghdad rely on the military picture. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that the Syrian president's allies see his armed forces close to success in stabilizing the regime's grip on the country. The military has reorganized into two intersecting axes: the vertical arm runs from Damascus north through Hama, Homs and Idlib up to the Turkish border. The horizontal arm starts in the central town of Palmyra and runs up to Damascus and the western towns of Tartus and Latakia.
Military units are dug in around the Euphrates River Valley cities of the east and solidly deployed around Dar'aa and its neighbors in the south, where the uprising first erupted ten months ago.
This week, according to our sources, Syrian security forces turned their attention to flushing out the last rebel strongholds in the Damascus vicinity and points west, up to the Lebanese border.
The authorities in Damascus were unworried by foreign Western reporters witnessing and recording on film the 150 Syrian tanks and armored vehicles besieging and shelling the town of Zabadani on the Lebanese border. For them, the indiscriminate shelling of a town demonstrated that the army was not just in full control but also absolutely loyal to the Assad regime and willing to carry out all its orders.
A senior Western intelligence official conversant with the situation inside Syria remarked this week, “Assad has lost the Syrian people, but is still the undisputed lord of his domain.”