BEIRUT — Bashar Assad's regime would appear to be setting itself on a collision course: It let in outside observers for the first time Thursday to monitor his commitment to halting the crackdown on dissent, even as his security forces unleashed a fiercer onslaught this week, killing more than 200 in two days.
But the Syrian president and his inner circle are veterans at playing for time, maneuvering and denying realities on the ground, and they seem confident they can deflect pressure from Arab neighbors without easing their campaign to crush the uprising.
As an advance team for the Arab League observers flew into Damascus on Thursday, activists said the regime was already acting to prevent the mission from seeing protesters arrested in the crackdown, which is supposed to be part of its mandate. Thousands of prisoners have been moved into military facilities, which are off limits to the monitors, two dissidents said.
By allowing the observers in, Syria has avoided a worse scenario for the time being, defusing Arab League threats to ask the U.N. Security Council for action against Damascus.
The strategy, opponents and outside observers say, is to keep international pressure at bay for as long as possible while the regime tries to snuff out the uprising. Activists said given the high death toll of the past few days, the Syrian government appears to be furiously trying to control the situation on the ground before the full monitoring team of about 500 arrives.
Damascus has shown itself willing to shrug off world outrage over its onslaught against protesters, in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died since March.