By Faysal Itani
April 9, 2018
A year ago, the United States launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the government of President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own population. Almost exactly a year later, Mr. Assad seems to have once again unleashed a chemical agent on the besieged suburbs of Damascus, killing dozens.
Will President Trump decide, again, that the use of chemical weapons is intolerable and respond with missiles? Perhaps. But it won’t matter. When it comes to Syria, Washington is incoherent and, ultimately, disinterested. Mr. Assad knows this. He also knows that as long as there isn’t prolonged, focused American military action, his regime can survive. He rarely puts himself in real danger. For years, he has carefully balanced his aggression and brutality with strategic patience. This has served him well with the United States; it most likely will again in the latest crisis.
Mr. Assad is a careful watcher of the signals from Washington and he understands America’s appetites and anxieties in the Middle East. He likes what he’s seen recently.
Just a week before this latest chemical attack, Mr. Assad heard President Trump announce that American troops would be leaving Syria “very soon,” and that Syria would become someone else’s problem. A few weeks before that, Rex Tillerson, then the secretary of state, announced that the United States would essentially be staying in Syria indefinitely and sought nothing less than Mr. Assad’s removal. Then Mr. Tillerson was fired.
Given this chaos, contradiction and incoherence, it’s little surprise Mr. Assad feels confident enough to use chemical weapons. In fact, he probably believes he can wait out limited strikes by an ambivalent president. He knows this because throughout the years he’s learned that the United States and its allies don’t have the appetite or commitment to hold him accountable for his serial obscenities. That means he can engage in periodic acts of extreme aggression and wait for the inevitable international outcry and limited backlash to pass.
Waiting out half-hearted enemies is a key Assad survival tool.
In 2003, Mr. Assad watched the United States invade neighbouring Iraq and pull its fearsome dictator out of a hole in the ground. Mr. Assad worried, briefly, that he might be next. But rather than trying to placate the Americans by ending his support for terrorist groups or his alliance with Iran, he instead waited for the United States to exhaust itself in Iraq. (He helped speed up that exhaustion by funnelling extremists to Iraq.) Sure enough, the United States not only spared Mr. Assad — it left Iraq and went home.
In 2005, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon was assassinated in Beirut. The Syrian regime and its allies in Hezbollah were suspected. The United States responded with extreme diplomatic pressure, eventually forcing the Assad government to end Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon. But Mr. Assad wouldn’t be so easily discouraged.
His government reinfiltrated Lebanon through intelligence assets and local allies. He knew that the United States was growing tired of the Middle East as the Iraq war went sour. So rather than end his interference in Lebanon, he gradually deepened it. An international tribunal investigating the assassination shifted its attention from the Syrian regime to individual Hezbollah members.
Soon enough, Mr. Hariri’s son Saad, the new prime minister, swallowed his dignity and visited Mr. Assad in Damascus. He was not the only erstwhile foe to mend fences. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France hosted Mr. Assad as a guest of honor on Bastille Day in 2008, despite France having previously accused him of killing Rafik Hariri, a French ally.
In 2009, John Kerry went to Damascus and hailed the Syrian president as “an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region.” Mr. Assad had waited out yet another passing storm of Western hostility, which was replaced by outright friendship, without sacrificing his interests in Lebanon.
When the civil war began in Syria in 2011, President Barack Obama called on Mr. Assad to step down. At times, it seemed that the United States might even try to make that happen. But Mr. Assad took steps to protect against an American intervention. He allowed the Islamic State to flourish, essentially creating a dilemma for the Americans: Would they rather have the jihadists take over Syria? So long as the Islamic State existed, Mr. Assad was safe — all he had to do was wait. Not only was he spared, but also the United States obliged him by fighting the Islamic State while letting him continue his war on the opposition unobstructed.
As the Islamic State weakened, life grew dangerous again for Mr. Assad. Not only did the group’s defeat eliminate the “Assad or the jihadists” dilemma, but it also coincided with a new administration in Washington that is bent on “rolling back” the influence of Mr. Assad’s main ally, Iran. However, despite Mr. Tillerson’s announcement of an indefinite American military deployment in Syria, President Trump soon signalled the United States would beat the Islamic State and get out of Syria.
This most likely won’t be the United States’ last word on Syria. The latest chemical attacks could force Washington’s hand once more, leading Mr. Trump to try to prove that his “red lines” matter. If so, Mr. Assad will wait out any American response, knowing it will not aim to endanger his regime’s survival. And then he will resume his conquest of Syria. (Though it’s also possible that the policy machine in Washington is too dysfunctional to decide on and execute a strategy.)
American policymakers like to say that Mr. Assad has not won the war because much of Syria is occupied by foreign powers, its economy and cities are in ruins and its regime is an international pariah. But Mr. Assad does believe that he is winning, that he will take his country back eventually and that a wave of airstrikes or cruise missiles will not change that. Who can blame him?
Faysal Itani is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.