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Worst turmoil is over, Syrian president says

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar Assad's government is confident that it has weathered the worst of the turmoil sweeping Syria and will soon be able to overcome any remaining challenges to its survival.

Whether that confidence is justified, and how broadly it is shared, is in question. Even as the government boasts that it is prevailing over the eight-month-old uprising, the economy is imploding, protests persist in many parts of the country and an armed rebellion is stirring.

On Friday, 40 people died in protests calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. Over half of those killed died in the troubled city of Homs, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a group that organizes and monitors protests.

But on the streets of Damascus, the capital, where the revolt has never managed to gain traction and Assad can count on significant support, the outward appearance of normalcy, the bustling streets and the packed cafes mask an undertow of mistrust and fear about where the country is heading.

But during a rare authorized visit to Syria by a Western journalist, conducted under close government supervision, it became clear that not only do Assad and his allies appear to be in no imminent danger of falling, but that they also feel no pressure to offer concessions to those who have been taking to the streets for months to call for radical change.

Rather, the government is touting a package of limited changes that would leave the existing power of the state intact while focusing on crushing the remainder of the protest movement by force. That "security first" approach has failed to prevent demonstrations from erupting repeatedly in many parts of the country, but it does appear to have diminished their size and scope.

"The Syrian leadership is quite confident and very strong, and we feel sure that despite all the international campaigns against Syria, we will survive," said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad. "Syria is secure … and will be stronger after this crisis. It will be a new Syria. Give us time, and it will be reborn."

Western diplomats scoff at the government's plan for changes and its proposals for dialogue with a hand-picked selection of mildly critical opposition figures who command little support on the streets. But the government's confidence is rooted in more than mere bravado, they say.

Nearly eight months of protests have failed to dent the Assad family's grip on power. There have been no significant defections from the army or the government. Though the United States and the European Union have called for Assad to step aside, vetoes at the United Nations by China and Russia have prevented the kind of united front against Syria that helped bring down Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

Because Syria lies at the nexus of a web of overlapping regional, sectarian and ethnic conflicts among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Arabs and Israelis, the government is convinced that the West will not dare intervene militarily, as it did in Libya, despite increasingly desperate pleas from the protest movement for it to do so.

"Syria has a strong army, and Syria is not alone," said Bassem Abu Abdullah, a professor of international affairs at Damascus University and a member of the dominant Baath Party. "Attacking Syria means regional war, because we will attack Israel directly. Hezbollah will participate. Iran will participate. This is not in the interests of Europe and America."

As the months have dragged on, the mood in the capital has shifted palpably, said Waddah Abd Rabbo, editor in chief of the state-run al-Watan newspaper.

"When this started, there was a panic," he said. "Damascus was empty, and people were afraid. Now the government is two steps ahead of the demonstrations, so you can feel they are much more confident."

Yet there are many who question whether the government's plan will be enough to stabilize the country, even if the security forces do succeed in crushing the revolt. Thousands of people have been detained, including many key protest organizers, and dozens of activists have been forced to flee. But outside Damascus, the protests have proved irrepressible, and the death toll, already estimated by the United Nations to exceed 3,000, rises daily, creating new resentments and new reasons to take to the streets.

Worst turmoil is over, Syrian president says 10/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 12:16am]

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