BEIRUT — 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. “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 Ghadafi’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-Qaida 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 al-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, where he is the secular responsible power and that the opposition are terrorists and al-Qaida.”
At the heart of U.S. plans for a military strike against Assad was his alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people. U.N. inspectors found “clear and convincing evidence” that poisonous sarin gas was used in an attack near Damascus last month, according to a report Monday.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition, said Assad’s government should not be allowed to go unpunished for the atrocities.
“If the world does not act now, this war will continue, and thousands more will die,” Najib Ghadbian, the coalition’s special representative to the United Nations, said in a statement.
Under the accord to give up the chemical weapons arsenal the Syrian government must divulge the location, types, quantities and production sites by a Sept. 21 deadline.
The deal has made Assad “weaker because it came at a serious cost, but not as weak as he would’ve been after a strike,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “In that sense, he did a clever move. Given his two bad options, he took the less bad one.”
The rebels, who had hoped that an American strike would open up opportunities on the ground they could capitalize on, have rejected the U.S.-Russian plan that envisions international monitors taking control of Syria’s chemical weapons until they can be destroyed or removed from the country by mid-2014.
Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s high command, said he worries that Assad would use the next few months to prolong the life of the regime.
“For him, time is an advantage,” Saadeddine said. “He will use it to keep himself in power and protect himself from prosecution for using chemical weapons.”
Fighting meanwhile continues across Syria. At least 150 people were killed on Sept. 15, 42 of them civilians, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
While giving up chemical weapons used as a strategic deterrent in the Middle East ultimately will weaken Assad, his “new lease of life” at the negotiating table allows him to cement gains on the battlefield, said Salem at Carnegie.
In Damascus, the mood among Assad supporters is jubilant as residents celebrate the postponement of military action. “Imagine the destruction, the loss of life that would’ve been incurred by the strike,” Salloum said by phone.
One man Assad’s supporters credit for standing by their country is Russian President Vladimir Putin. An online video showing Putin crooning “Blueberry Hill” is making the rounds of social media among Syrians.
The agreement with Russia reflects how Assad comes out stronger, getting the United States “off his back,” said Hamid, the researcher at the Brookings Doha Center.
“That’s certainly the kind of approach that many dictators in the Arab world use: just survive in the meantime and get through the rough patch,” he said. “Assad is a survivor.”
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