By all accounts, Bashar Al-Assad would seem to have a lot going for him these days. Diplomatically Russia is supporting him to the hilt, while militarily Iran and Hezbollah are teaching him how to defeat the rebellion. The latest prize to fall to Assad’s successful campaign is the southern town of Khirbet Ghazaleh near the Jordanian border, reopening the Syrian government’s southern supply routes. So in all Assad’s message to friend and foe alike can be phrased thus: ‘Don’t worry. I got this.’ Indeed, at this moment there would only seem one significant threat to Assad’s regime: the possibility of the West overlooking its misgivings and launching some form of military action to allow rebels to regain the advantage.
Which makes it all the more peculiar that recent days have seen Assad apparently aggressively courting such a Western intervention. Think about it. First we had the reports of Assad using chemical weapons on a small scale. This pretty much ended up fizzling among Obama’s hesitancy and doubts about the origins of the attacks. But as if not to let the world forget about their evil character, Assad’s shabiha allies subsequently launched the atrocious massacres of dozens of civilians in the towns of Banias and Beyda, horrifying videos [graphic] of which soon appeared on the internet. And if moral outrages were not enough to force the West into action, this week we might have witnessed Assad top things off with the massive car bombing of Reyhanli, Turkey.
What is behind these various high-profile atrocities? Several strategic rationales have been given for Assad’s use of chemical weapons and his massacres in the North. Perhaps they serve to cautiously introduce these horrifying tactics to Western toleration; perhaps they serve as a stark red line for further rebel action or foreign (i.e. Turkish) involvement. But are these benefits worth the risk of a game-changing Western intervention? Alternatively, perhaps Assad knows the West is planning to take action anyway, and these acts serve to deter or respond. Or perhaps Assad precisely knows the West will refuse to get involved anyway, forestalling any risk to his operations.
But a final option is that Assad’s regime (specifically its allied militias) are taking on the vengeful extremist form we have seen in other conflicts, often with genocide as a result. Historically there has been a (albeit far from universal) pattern to acts of genocide and atrocities. As regimes are pressured militarily (particularly by foreign interventions aided by domestic groups) they turn their wrath on the ‘weak targets’ they are still able to hurt: civilians. This was true certainly in Rwanda, where the Hutu government committed its atrocities while fighting a losing battle against Kagame’s Tutsi forces. It even was true to some degree in Hitler’s Germany, where strategic losses against the Soviets coincided with the escalation of the Shoah.
Clearly this is the world’s nightmare scenario. Let’s hope, with a cynical view of what is possible, that Assad still has his head on (relatively) right, and is pursuing rational strategy.