Syrian opposition hopes for coup as sanctions, protests grind on

Almost half a year into Syria's deadly military campaign against street protesters, the United States and Europe remained locked in a strategy of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure to respond to the violence and try to push President Bashar Assad from power.

Leaders of Syria's protest movement stay locked into their own strategy as well. Each day, they stage sit-ins and unarmed marches that are met by gunfire and, in some cases, tank assaults. Security forces stage house-to-house raids.

With deaths mounting and the increasing detention of protesters, Syria's uprising has become a race against time, testing whether public anger over the collapsing economy and brutal crackdown can break the government before Assad's security forces break the nonviolent protest movement.

"We have actually to survive and we have to continue this pressure. If the demonstrations stop, the international pressure stops," Radwan Ziadeh, a leading Syrian opposition activist, said by telephone from Turkey, where he was visiting camps housing 7,000 of the Syrians who have fled across borders to escape government assaults.

"We think the army will one day make a coup," Ziadeh said. "It would make the situation much easier."

Syria's military and security forces so far have experienced no widespread mutiny. The opposition overall also has rejected armed resistance, unlike Libya's rebels. And few in Syria, and few in the international community, want a Libya-style foreign military intervention.

Besides the security forces, analysts and Syrians say, the nation's business class remains the most crucial base for the more than four-decade rule of the Assad family. That includes the favored elite, many of them members of Assad's Alawite religious minority, a small Muslim sect, who control much of Syria's biggest enterprises, and the middle-class Christians, Alawites and Sunni Muslims who make up Syria's merchant class.

Some of Syria's merchants still see their survival as tied to Assad's government, said one leading businessman who has substantial investments. A few wealthy ones "will fight the war of the regime to the end," the businessman said in a telephone interview, speaking on condition he not be identified further.

Others, however, are constantly assessing whether Assad's regime will survive. For that crucial bloc, sanctions have weight, the businessman said.

"Some of them might not have problems with the regime politically, but they are enraged by its inability to manage the political crisis," the businessman said. "If the sanctions are developed further, the economic situation will definitely worsen. And that will, most probably, stir up the resentment among the businessmen."

Syrians are feeling the effect of sanctions imposed by the United States last month when Assad ignored international demands to stop military offensives.

Last week, many found their credit cards and debit cards frozen. Trade in dollars all but stopped, depriving Syrian importers and exporters of the currency in which most pay foreign suppliers and bill foreign customers. A major Danish shipper became the first to refuse to load petroleum shipments from Syria late last month, citing the U.S. sanctions.

Even before the first sanctions, Syrians registered the economic toll of the unrest as trade withered and tourism stopped.

In Hama, security forces have employed threats to compel shop owners to keep their stores open, despite the lack of trade, one merchant said.

Countrywide, Syrians say they wait in hours-long lines for diesel, hoping to buy rationed amounts at twice the pre-crisis price.

In Damascus, the capital, where activists have been unable to mount the steady protests being staged elsewhere in the country, customers skipped the shopping sprees that would normally accompany last week's Eid al-Fitr religious holiday, one 55-year-old trader said. "Selling food is the only goal for people in Damascus," the merchant said.

The international community took what could prove to be its toughest swing at the Assad government late last week, when the European Union tentatively approved a broad set of new sanctions, including a ban on Syrian oil imports.

Cash from oil exports accounts for a third of the Syrian government's revenues. Europe imports 95% of Syria's crude. Oil sanctions will deliver a "final blow" to Assad's government, asserts the London-based Strategic Research and Communication Center, a Syrian opposition group that is lobbying Western governments for sanctions against Assad.

"The absence of money equals the absence of hired mercenaries and thugs" to attack protesters, the group maintained in a report delivered to U.S. and European officials.

Sanctions overall are meant "to drain Assad's checking account" while diplomats search for an exit strategy for the leader, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Sanctions "definitely will have an impact," Tabler said. "But that takes awhile to work."

He pointed to penalties imposed on Libya to force it to surrender suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, as an example of successful sanctions, but that process took more than six years.

Activists are divided on sanctions, with some saying they will hurt the Syrian people too much, and others arguing for tougher efforts.

Some economic weapons have already been launched against the government, such as a movement to stop paying electricity and other utility bills.

The only development that would bring Syria's Alawite and Christian minorities into the rebellion "is if they felt like their personal interests and businesses were harmed," said a resident of the hard-hit port city of Latakia who gave his name only as Abu George. "That is why I believe that to succeed, the Syrian economy needs to be targeted."

Knickmeyer is a special correspondent.

Special correspondents in Lebanon and Syria and special correspondents Alexandra Sandels and Roula Hajjar in Beirut contributed to this report.

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