Syria's Allies Want Crackdown On Protesters Curtailed

Diplomats from several countries are in Syria to make an appeal to end the government's violent crackdown there. It's been five months of violence and the government continues to launch new attacks. Renee Montagne talks to Christopher Phillips, Syria analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, about the Syrian military's latest assaults.

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It is not going well diplomatically for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, whose government is losing friends fast as it continues its deadly assaults on protestors around the country. Even its staunchest ally, Russia, has come around to condemning the violence, and Turkey is among several countries whose diplomats are descending on Damascus this morning to make an appeal to end the government's violent crackdown.

We're joined now by Christopher Phillips, Syria analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PHILLIPS (Economist Intelligence Unit): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And so far this month, four Arab countries and Italy have all withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria in protest, and now diplomats from the region, as I've just said, are having meetings in Damascus. Do you think Assad's government will continue to defy all of this international condemnation?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, it's an interesting question. On the one hand, this is a regime that is used to international isolation. It was isolated for a long time during the George Bush administration. So there will be a sense within the regime that it can get on on its own without international support or even whilst facing international condemnation.

However, the movement of Arab countries and regional neighbors against the regime or in protest in the regime is something that it didn't really experience in the past and might give it cause to perhaps think twice.

MONTAGNE: Well, the king of Saudi Arabia just came out a couple of days ago and called on Mr. Assad - and I'm quoting - to stop the killing machine and end the bloodshed. That's pretty strong language.

Mr. PHILLIPS: It is strong language, particularly from Saudi Arabia, which has been notably quiet until now. Bear in mind this uprising has been going on in Syria for going into its sixth month now. So to suddenly come out almost from nowhere and be so clearly against the regime is a surprise. However, it should be added with a caveat that this isn't alongside any concrete action.

They're not talking about supporting a U.N. resolution against the Syrian regime as yet, they're not talking about economic moves against the regime, and they're certainly not talking about military moves. So at the moment it really is nothing more than rhetoric, even though it is rhetoric that we haven't heard until now.

MONTAGNE: The forces of President Bashar al-Assad have not managed to score decisive victory against the protest movement. Why not?

Mr. PHILLIPS: It's interesting the position in Syria at the moment. It seems to be a kind of stalemate between the opposition and the regime. On the one hand, the regime has this rather large security apparatus and large military. It has only a few units whose loyalty it can completely 100 percent rely upon, which are the Fourth Armored Division commanded by the president's brother, Maher, and the Republican Guard.

And so it can only use those units in one place at a time. And what's happening is as it's moving into one place it seems to pacify that area, but as soon as it moves, another area will spring up in rebellion. But on the flip side, the opposition haven't actually had been able to land the decisive blow either. The two major cities of Aleppo and Damascus, which have between them about 50 percent of Syria's population, have been relatively quiet. So at the moment it's a stalemate between both sides. Neither seems able of winning but neither looks like it's going to lose anytime soon.

MONTAGNE: Christopher Phillips' book, "Contemporary Arab Identity," comes out early next year. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Thank you very much.

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