Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT: With deep divisions preventing forceful international action, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pressed security forces long loyal to Bashar Assad and his family to oust the Syrian president and end the bloodshed that is ripping his country apart.

A much-anticipated gathering of representatives of more than 60 countries held Friday in the Tunisian capital highlighted divisions at multiple levels: within the anti-Assad international coalition, the fractured Syrian opposition and the people of Syria, where Assad maintains considerable support among minorities fearful of a takeover by Islamists.

Clinton and other leaders of a coalition calling itself Friends of Syria demanded an immediate halt to the violence, but ended up satisfying almost no one at the Tunis meetings.

“This conference does not meet the aspirations of the Syrian people,” said Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group. Assad supporters demonstrated outside the venue.

Saudi Arabia’s delegation, frustrated by the failure to take more direct action, such as arming the Syrian rebels, withdrew from the conference.

Clinton, speaking to reporters, raised the prospect of a coup to remove Assad, who has withstood an almost yearlong rebellion.

“We also know from many sources that there are people around Assad who are beginning to hedge their bets ... they didn’t sign up to slaughter people,” Clinton said.

Clinton cited the cases last year of Tunisia and Egypt, where militaries stepped in to remove longtime autocratic leaders after popular protests.

“We saw this happen in other settings last year,” Clinton said. “I think it is going to happen in Syria.”

Clinton’s suggestion that top Syrian officers might take matters into their own hands was an explicit recognition of one scenario that could avert an even longer struggle: removing the polarizing figure of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Much of the opposition, including the Syrian National Council, has rejected negotiations with Assad and insisted that he must go.

Clinton and other Obama administration officials have hinted that they would like to see elements within Syria oust Assad. But Robert Danin, a former State Department official now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said Clinton’s statement Friday was “by far the most explicit call by the administration for what would be a coup.”

“It would be the quickest, most expeditious way, and it would also leave intact one of the few functioning institutions in the country,” Danin said. The administration has been publicly committed to trying to leave as much of Syria’s order as possible intact, in part to calm minorities’ fear that Assad’s departure could plunge the country into chaos.

The military “is still one of the few institutions in the country that can provide unity and stability,” Danin said.

However, many Syria observers say the prospect of a coup is remote because Assad is surrounded by a coterie of loyal commanders and advisers from his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Some Alawites have come to view the conflict as a sectarian fight for survival against radical Sunni Islamist forces backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Persian Gulf states.

Others say that even if there were a coup, there is no guarantee that other Alawite commanders would not keep on fighting, perhaps under the banner of Assad’s brother Maher, who commands an important military brigade.