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Even amid uproar over alleged chemical attack, Syria regime seems confident it has upper hand

The signs would seem bad for President Bashar Assad. Blasts echo all day long over the Syrian capital as troops battle rebels entrenched on its eastern doorstep. The government admits the economy is devastated. Allegations of a horrific chemical attack have given new life to calls for international action against his regime.

Yet the regime appears more confident than ever that it weathered the worst and has gained the upper hand in the country's civil war, even if it takes years for victory.

Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil traces a slow arc in the air with his hand to show how the country has reached a turning point in "the events" — the most common euphemism here for 2 1/2 years of bloodshed.

"If the previous trajectory was all negative, it is now on a new course of a gradual reduction of violence, until it goes back to zero," he told The Associated Press.

"The turning point changes the course of things, but it will take a while," he said. "I don't think the path downward will take as long as the path of escalation did."

There are multiple reasons for the new sense of assurance. The military scored a string of victories on the ground the past few months that blunted a rebel surge early in the year. Army offensives stalled or pushed back rebels in Damascus' suburbs. A rebel drive into a regime heartland in the western province on the Mediterranean coast was swiftly reversed over the past week. The bleeding of defections from the military to the rebellion appears to have slowed.

The regime also believes it has shored up its most serious vulnerability: the economy. Prices for food and clothes have quadrupled in some cases, the Syrian pound has plunged in comparison with the dollar, and the war has crippled production and trade.

But this summer, Syria's allies Russia and Iran effectively handed the government a lifeline, with credit lines to buy rice, flour, sugar, petroleum products and other staples. With that, the regime hopes it can keep an exhausted population clothed, fed, warm in the winter — and firmly on its side — enough to endure a long fight.

When asked whether Syria would have to pay back the credit lines in the future, Jamil smiled, saying, "It's between friends."

Also, the increasing presence of foreign jihadi fighters, many linked to al-Qaida, has played in the regime's favor. The Islamic militants' strength has made the United States and its allies wary of sending badly needed weapons to the rebels and of taking direct military action against Assad, for fear of what could come next if he falls.

Those worries could overcome any sense of outrage over the alleged chemical attack Wednesday in a Damascus suburb that rebels say killed more than 100 people, including many children. The rebels blamed the attack on the regime, an accusation the government has denied, claiming that foreign jiahdis among the rebels were behind it.

Fear of foreign radicals is also a powerful tool for keeping the population's support for the regime. State television gives a steady stream of reports of the "barbaric" nature of the jihadis. One station recently aired an interview with a purported "repentant" female rebel who spoke of jihadi sheiks issuing religious decrees allowing foreign fighters to rape Syrian women. Another station aired alleged audiotapes of a phone call between a Saudi extremist and a Syrian rebel about transporting sarin gas and planning other attacks.

Every suicide bombing — the trademark of foreign jihadis — gets front-page coverage, like a blast that ripped through an Aleppo restaurant Thursday, killing a girl and six of her guests at a party celebrating her successful high school test scores.

Revulsion at the jihadis also has a strong resonance with the public.

"People get infected by ideas. I'm a Sunni, I pray and I fast and I have faith in God. But I'm moderate. But there are people who listen to these lunatic ideas," said Abu Ahmed, who works at a dress store in Damascus' historic Hamidiya market.

He contended that the extent of the bloodshed has disillusioned even some who supported the calls for reform when peaceful protests against the regime first began in March 2011, only to be met by a fierce crackdown.

"Some people thought, OK, we'll see some change. But they didn't think about the consequences and what would be unleashed. Now anyone who thought that is rethinking it," said Abu Ahmed, fled to Damascus from a rebel-held suburb, leaving behind his property. He spoke on condition he be identified only by his nickname for fear of reprisals against him.

"We never thought it would reach this point, that we would become like Iraq or Libya. It was unimaginable. No one could conceive of this sort of chaos and bloodshed."

Syria's Sunni majority makes up the backbone of the rebellion against Assad's rule, which was dominated by members of the president's own minority Alawite sect. The mounting death toll in the conflict — at least 100,000 killed so far — and its relentless viciousness have stoked sectarian hatreds in the country. Still, the sectarian lines are not clean-cut. During his 13 years in power, Assad elevated some Sunnis to prominent positions. Others in the community prize the stability that his rule — while autocratic — ensured in the country.

Adnan Dirkawi, a 67-year-old Sunni who runs a real estate office in an upper middle class Damascus neighborhood, enthusiastically lists what he bills as Assad's achievements: the spread of electricity and water facilities to villages around the country, free or cheap education and health care, new universities and growing business.

"The vast majority of the people, 90 or 95 percent, have nothing to do with the events. They didn't want this," he said. "All this is why I'm very confident that things can go back to normal. I'm totally at ease about that. People are just waiting for this to end so they can go back to their lives."

He dismisses the sectarian hatreds enflamed by the war. "Syrians were never sectarian," he insisted, recalling carvings of a Jewish menorah, Christian cross and Muslim crescent on buildings in the historic Ottoman marketplaces of his northern city of origin, Aleppo.

That picture is almost certainly rosy, reflecting Damascenes' relative isolation from carnage that has gone on in large swaths of the country. It also reflects a line pushed incessantly on state media — that once the "foreign terrorists" trying to destroy Syria on behalf of enemies like Israel are stopped, the country can return to what it was.

Even if the regime is confident now that the danger of Assad's fall has passed, it has seemed unable to take back rebel-held territory in the north and east. The bitterness and sense of vengeance on both sides may never be resolved. And all bets are off if the West, prompted by the images of children killed in Wednesday's alleged gas attack, takes the dramatic step of direct military action.

Jamil, who touts himself as a voice of dissent within the government since he heads of one of Syria's officially approved opposition parties, says there can be no outright military solution. It's an "illusion" to think the Syrian army can "crush completely" what he calls a foreign intervention.

"Just like the Syrian army can't achieve a complete military victory, the armed groups can't either," he said. So he backs a negotiated political solution "to stop the burning of Syria."

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Follow Lee Keath on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lkeath .