AMMAN (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad is losing support among key constituents and risks plunging Syria into sectarian strife by intensifying a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, the U.S. ambassador to Damascus said on Thursday.
Time is against Assad, Robert Ford told Reuters in a telephone interview from Damascus, citing the resilience of more than six months of what he described as overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations demanding more political freedoms.
Ford said there was economic malaise in Syria, signs of dissent within Assad's Alawite minority sect and more defections from the army since mid-September, but the military is "still very powerful and very cohesive."
"The government violence is actually creating retaliation and creating even more violence in our analysis, and it is also increasing the risk of sectarian conflict," Ford said.
"I don't think that the Syrian government today, September 22, is close to collapse. I think time is against the regime because the economy is going into a more difficult situation, the protest movement is continuing and little by little groups that used to support the government are beginning to change."
Ford cited a statement issued in the restive city of Homs last month by three notable members of the Alawite minority community, to which Assad's family belongs, that said the Alawites' future is not tied to the Assads remaining in power.
"We did not see developments like that in April or May. I think the longer this continues the more difficult it becomes for the different communities, the different elements of Syrian society that used to support Assad, to continue to support him."
He said Assad could still rely on the military to try and crush the protest movement but the killing of peaceful protesters was losing him support within the ranks.
"The Syrian army is still very powerful and it is still very strong," Ford said. "Its cohesion is not at risk today but there are more reports since mid-September of desertions than we heard in April and May or June. And this is why I am saying time is not on the side of the government."
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)