Bashar al-Assad’s goal since the Syrian uprising began has been to preserve his regime and his leadership of it – at all costs. Now, amid western preparations to punish him for allegedly using chemical weapons, that remains the bottom line.
It is always difficult to fathom what is really going on in Damascus, an impenetrable place at the best of times. But official pronouncements since last Thursday’s deadly attacks in the Ghouta area have been a familiar mixture of rhetorical defiance and – so far, at least – fairly cool calculation.
Syrian statements describe a “conspiracy” to overthrow the regime or force it, in Assad’s words, to become a puppet of the west. But to all appearances, the US, Britain and allies are drawing up a limited punitive campaign, which they appear at pains to signal is not intended deliberately to intervene in the civil war, let alone to provoke regime change. Their inaction and disarray over the last two and a half years lends credibility to that interpretation.
“If the strikes follow the templates as advertised, they will not be a game changer,” said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Assad himself told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that the US would face failure in a war on Syria, as it had in wars since Vietnam. Walid al-Moallem, his foreign minister, insisted that the government would not surrender. Its defences, in the event of attacks by the US and its allies, would “surprise”, he said.
That could be a reference to an air-defence system improved with Russian help, or to retaliatory strikes against “soft” targets such as US embassies in the region or British bases in Cyprus. Turkey and Saudi Arabia clearly have reason to worry.
Syria’s long-standing enemy Israel is far more dangerous militarily. Assad has usually exercised restraint when provoked by Israel in the past, notably when it bombed Syria’s fledgling nuclear reactor in 2007 and (almost certainly) assassinated the Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in the heart of Damascus a few months later. He also ignored two recent Israeli air strikes near Damascus.
Like his father, Hafez, before him, Bashar has combined political pragmatism with military passivity on the occupied Golan Heights – facing punning taunts for behaving like a lion (Assad in Arabic) in Lebanon and a rabbit while confronting the “Zionist enemy”.
Bashar negotiated with Israel for eight years and came close to a deal with it while continuing to employ the rhetoric of a leading member of the “resistance front” along with Iran, and Hezbollah (and the Palestinian Hamas, until it changed sides).
Threats to attack Israel have been made by a senior Ba’ath party official, but they were not broadcast inside Syria. Warnings from Binyamin Netanyahu and his chief of staff of a partial call-up of Israeli army reserves will have served as a reminder of the dangers of risk-taking.
Assad can count on political support from Iran, which was quick to follow the Damascus line of accusing the Syrian rebels of using chemical weapons. Otherwise, Tehran – which is still adjusting to the new president, Hassan Rouhani – has been fairly muted, with little comment from Revolutionary Guard commanders.
Hezbollah, his other key ally, is capable of serious offensive action against Israel, as it proved in the 2006 war. “Syria is an existential issue for Hezbollah,” argues Nicholas Noe, an expert on the Lebanese Shia militia. “They are very clear that, for them, the Assad regime is a red line that cannot be crossed. And they are the ones who have the capability to turn this into a regional confrontation.”
Overall, though, the signs are that this will not happen if, as an avalanche of briefings and leaks suggests, the US-led operation is carefully calibrated. “I believe that if the [western] strike is limited to one or two military targets in Syria, I doubt there will be any military reaction from Syria, Hezbollah, or Iran,” Abdallah Bou Habib, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the US, told Beirut’s Daily Star.
For Assad and his regional allies, the key question remains the scope and duration of the operation. Flattening a brigade headquarters – for example, ones found responsible for mounting chemical weapons attacks – sends a different signal from destroying a divisional HQ, which has wider strategic significance. “The risk,” warns Eyal Zisser, the leading Israeli expert on Syria, “is that what looks limited to the Americans may not look like that to Assad.”
A US-led attack may even serve Assad’s interests, feeding his narrative of resistance and allowing him to turn up the rhetoric and carry on undisturbed with what matters to him: defeating the rebels and guaranteeing the survival of his regime and family.
“The kind of strike the Americans are planning will not be a debilitating one or erode Assad’s military superiority vis-a-vis the rebels,” said Hokayem. “Assad may find himself humiliated, but not so much that he has to escalate against the Americans. Sure, he will have to calm down for a couple of days, but then he will be able to go after the rebels again.”