Syria is standing firm despite the enormity of the human rights violations the regime there is indulging in. According to the United Nations' estimate, more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed since the protests began in February last year in support of the demand for democracy — a crime in Syria which is under the iron rule Bashar al-Assad, whose family has been ruling Syria for 42 years.
On Tuesday, Assad was defiant. In his address to the nation, he said he would strike back with an "iron hand" at those who threaten his regime.
On Wednesday, in a rare public appearance, he told a pro-regime rally in the capital Damascus that the 'conspiracy' against his country would fail. He branded those who raised the cry for democracy as foreign-backed terrorists and conspirators.
He pins the terrorist label on the protesters, accusing them of masterminding the two recent suicide bombings which killed scores of people.
However, Western news agency reports gave prominence to the opposition's claim that the regime staged the two bomb attacks. They used the word "contested" to describe the attacks. For instance, A Reuter headline last week read 'Syria buries victims of contested bombing". No such qualifications appear when reporting contested bomb blasts in Pakistan or Iraq, where at least some of the bomb blasts are said to have been carried out by foreign intelligence agents.
Biased reporting apart, the Syrian leader sounded audaciously confident when he delivered the speeches. Probably he is certain that there won't be a war on Syria, however grave the situation is. There are several factors that give rise to such confidence.
Chief among them is the theory that the Western nations won't go to war unless there are economic benefits. Since Syria has not much oil for Western oil giants to gobble up, there won't be a war. Besides, Assad is also confident that US President Barack Obama won't take his country to war during election year.
The economic crisis in the West is also to his advantage. A war that promises a little or no economic returns at a time when Europe is facing an economic downturn is a recipe for double disaster. Let alone economic benefits, even political benefits are also doubtful. The West intervened in Libya's civil war last year, only to see the Islamists riding roughshod over pro-West politicos in post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya. The Islamists, including those who profess the Jihadi or holy-war ideology and have had links with al-Qaeda, are expected to win June's general elections in Libya, just as they have won the elections in Egypt and Tunisia.
It is not only in Libya that the West's regime change scheme has gone awry. In Iraq democratic elections under US occupation have brought pro-Iranian regimes to office. What's more, the present Iraqi government is supporting Assad because, like Iran, it does not want a pro-Saudi Sunni regime in Syria. Assad and most top officials in the government are Alawaites, whom the Sunnis label as infidels while the Shiites tolerate them as a breakaway sect of Shiite Islam.
If Assad is ousted and democracy is established in Syria, it will pave the way for Islamists to take over power. The West fears such an outcome because unlike the corrupt rulers, leaders who depend on people's support won't be its cronies.
These worries have apparently applied some brakes on the Western jingoism as regards Syria, although the United States and its European allies know that ousting the Assad regime will deal a severe blow to Iran and pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, especially in view of a possible war against Iran.
Syria is strategically important not only for Iran but also for Russia. Many Russian companies have undertaken multi-billion dollar projects in Syria. Moscow also maintains a naval base there and sends weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime while in the United Nations Security Council it squashes Western moves aimed at slapping sanctions on Syria.
The Russian naval base at the Syrian city of Tartus is being modified to enable visits of even nuclear-armed warships. The base has assumed strategic significance in the face of the US expanding its military presence not only in the Middle East but also in Russia's backyard – Eastern Europe where a US move to station an anti-missile system has caused serious strains in US-Russian relations. On Wednesday, a Russian ship carrying weapons to Syria was briefly detained at Cyprus and released.
The fact that Russia continues to supply Syria with weapons, including MiG-29 fighters, air-defence systems, missile systems and submarines despite the Syrian regime's horrid human rights record is, however, also a reason for Assad's confidence and the West's brakes on war plans. Also adding to Assad's muscles is the lack of unity among the Syrian opposition groups, although Washington is trying its best to unite them. In his speech this week, Assad taunted the fractious opposition, saying he was ready for a dialogue with the opposition, but saw no one to speak with.
Against this backdrop, the Arab League monitoring mission in Syria has come a cropper with even the ramshackle Syrian opposition questioning its efficiency, while the US described it as toothless. The opposition Syrian National Council and Free Syria Army, instead, want the UN to replace the Arab League monitors.
Earlier this week, the Arab League, while admitting to its mistakes, defended its monitoring mission saying it had secured the release of Syrian activists from Assad's jails whose fame for torture is such that even the US once sent a suspect, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin, to be interrogated there. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, who heads the Arab League commission on Syria, described the Arab League monitoring mission in Syria as a waste of time and called for UN assistance to buttress it. However, the Arab League's next move will depend on its monitors' report expected at the end of this month.
With Turkey also resorting to measured criticism of Syria, Assad, appears to have won some reprieve. In his speech this week, he offered to hold a referendum on political reforms. But the reprieve won't be long if he is not genuine in his reforms move. The reprieve may also end if bipartisan consensus emerges in the United States for a limited military mission in Syria as a prelude to a larger war with Iran.