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Assad cheered in Damascus for canny survivor’s delaying tactics

Osama Salloum was on the balcony of his Damascus apartment last week when a procession of honking cars celebrating President Bashar-Assad’s birthday passed by.

The 34-year-old accountant joined the youths waving flags and singing patriotic songs not only because he wanted to mark Assad’s Sept. 11 birthday, “but also to express gratitude for the government’s wise policies that prevented a U.S. strike,” he said. “Syrian diplomacy has borne the best of fruits.”

Assad’s agreement to the seizure and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons was his first significant political concession to Russia and the international community since the conflict started in 2011. Rather than weakness, supporters like Salloum are lauding the move as a diplomatic coup.

While averting a U.S.-led attack that might have tipped the balance in favor of his rebel opponents, Assad is buying time and extending his Alawite family’s 42-year rule of the majority Sunni Muslim country.

“He knows how to play this game,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said from Washington, D.C. “He knows how to manipulate his opponent. He’s a master at that and that’s what you need in order to survive ruling as a minority regime in Syria.”

The unrest in Syria began with peaceful anti-Assad protests in March 2011 as leaders entrenched in their positions for decades began to crumble across the Arab world.

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced out a month later. Protests led to Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster and later killing in October 2011. Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule in Yemen was undermined and he was replaced through a negotiated settlement in February 2012.

The Syrian crisis turned violent after Assad’s troops began firing on the protesters later in 2011.

It gradually turned into a sectarian war pitting the mainly Sunni opposition against the regime of Assad, whose Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The rebel fighters failed to unite and various strains of al-Qaeda and other more radical militants joined the war, raising international concerns about an Islamist state should Assad be deposed.

“His waiting game worked,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “This story was framed in the first year as tyranny versus freedom. Now the story is framed as al-Qaida versus a tyrannical dictator.”

Assad, 48 last week, took over as president when his father, Hafez Assad, died in 2000. He was in power for almost three decades following a 1970 coup, balancing Soviet military aid with adapting to U.S. foreign policy including joining coalition forces against Iraq in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

“Assad believes that time is on his side,” Landis said by telephone. “The longer this drags out, the more the world will accept his vision of Syria.

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