Key Areas Retaken, Assad Reasserts Himself Over War-Torn Syria

Despite the civil war, Syria is holding a presidential election on Tuesday. President Bashar Assad is expected to win another seven-year term.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm David Greene. In Syria, there is a presidential election today. And as people go to the polls, the streets are lined with posters of President Bashar al-Assad. It's impossible to find posters from any other candidates. The president seems confident of victory in the election and even in the civil war that is tearing the country apart. NPR's Alice Fordham takes a look at how Assad has reasserted himself over a shattered nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's more than three years since the first protests, like this one, filmed by an activist, sprang up. A huge moment in the repressive country. Security forces responded violently, but the rallies grew. And overtime, the opposition armed itself and declared places liberated.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

FORDHAM: Like Kafranbel, where villagers sang at a rally in 2011. The U.S. said Assad was no longer viable as a leader. Optimists within the opposition began planning for a post-Assad Syria. But today, Assad is strong again. His forces have retaken key territory. Songs celebrating Assad ring around Damascus. To regain his position, analysts say the Assad regime used international backing, domestic crackdowns and, of course, military force. Charles Lister is an analyst at the Brookings Institute.

CHARLES LISTER: If a state military is able to adapt, in such a way, that it can fight its opposition in the same way that it's opposition is fighting it, then very often it can actually retake the advantage.

FORDHAM: Lister says that to fight an insurgency, Assad forces acted like insurgents. They formed militias, drawn from local Assad supporters and from regional Shiite opponents of the mainly Sunni opposition. Assad forces gained ground. Plus, Lister says they became more brutal after it became clear that Western powers were reluctant to intervene.

LISTER: That secondary aspect is a sort of brutal enforcement of control and in an exertion of control over a civilian, an innocent civilian population.

FORDHAM: Then there was the political side. Mohammad al Abdallah, head of a group in Washington tracking war crimes in Syria, says Assad targeted the activists most able to provide a convincing opposition.

MOHAMMAD AL ABDALLAH: Targeting those people by killing them, arresting them or forcing them to leave the country, that will automatically send - like remove the first row of activists who's the most qualified to do this leadership and planning a strategic vision for the uprising.

FORDHAM: And once that first row of activists was gone, says Abdallah, the ones left were less experienced, more narrow-minded. And Assad had powerful friends. Randa Slim from the Middle East Institute in D.C. says Russia understood in a way the U.S. never did, that Assad would even destroy Syria to stay in power.

RANDA SLIM: But more importantly, Russia understood what it takes to keep Assad in power.

FORDHAM: Russia committed money and weapons to the fight on a large scale. And Iran sent men, too. Plus, they knew Assad and they backed only him.

SLIM: When the United States started working with the opposition group, we did not know what we were dealing with.

FORDHAM: The opposition kept shifting. And the U.S. and its Gulf allies worked across purposes, backing different groups. Now the U.S. is stepping up its efforts to help rebels. But as they do, government forces are moving in on rebel-held areas of the key city of Aleppo. And in Damascus, Assad's preparing to celebrate another seven-year term. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.

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