March 14 (Reuters) – Bashar al Assad always said Syria would be different.
When the Arab uprisings first erupted more than a year ago, the Syrian president confidently said his government was in tune with its people, ready to reform on its own terms, and immune from the turmoil starting to sweep the region.
Within weeks he was proved wrong, when a few dozen protesters took to the streets of Damascus on March 15 to call for greater freedoms, setting off one of the most protracted and bloodiest of all the Arab revolts.
But while those uprisings toppled four Arab leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the 46-year-old Assad has withstood the year-long turmoil, deploying tanks, elite troops and artillery to crush rebellion across the country.
Bombarding the city of Homs into submission last month and taking control of much of another rebel hotbed in Idlib, Assad has challenged the assumptions of many who just a few weeks ago were talking of his imminent departure.
As the anniversary of the uprising approached there were even comparisons with the nearly four-year war in Bosnia between Serb, Muslim and Croat forces that tore apart the Balkan nation.
The severity of Assad’s crackdown, in which the United Nations says 8,000 people have been killed, triggered Western condemnation and sanctions. Arab countries have called on Assad to step aside, while the economy has ground to a halt and the Syrian pound has halved in value.
In January, rebel fighters briefly seized control of the eastern suburbs of Damascus, barely five km from the centre of the president’s power, while rebels controlled much of Homs, Syria’s third biggest city and a major industrial centre.
But Assad’s forces swept back into the suburbs, dismantled rebel checkpoints and regained control of Homs after a month-long rocket and artillery assault.
And one year on from the first protest - which soon spread south to Deraa where people rallied in support of dozens of children tortured for writing anti-Assad graffiti - Assad is still at the helm, challenging the "Arab Spring" narrative of people power and defying predictions that his days are numbered.