Is Assad Going Rogue?

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.

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5 thoughts on “Is Assad Going Rogue?

  1. I think you’re over-identfiying the coalition of forces that support a continuation of Ba’ath Party control in Syria with Assad himself. I think you’re also overestimating his control over the ethnic militias that form part of that coalition.

    • Yeah you may be right. But I guess that’s equally problematic. What you have to worry about is the pro-Assad military campaign, whoever it’s executed by, devolving beyond the strategically rational and into the genocidal the way you saw e.g. in Rwanda.

    • (At the same time, clearly the bombings in Turkey and the (alleged) chemical weapons attacks are fairly difficult to imagine having happened without regime knowledge— i also imagine Iran is keeping a fairly keen eye on what’s being done so as to avoid unnecessary risks)

      • Maybe. But, as you point out, the interests best served by that attack in Turkey are those of the opposition forces.

      • That’s true. It’s always hard to say with the possibility of false flag things– the thing is they can be true of almost anything that happens, and its hard to gauge the lengths to which parties would be willing to go. But clearly the events in Beyda and Banias were not false flag events, which shows what we know some on Assad’s side are anyway capable of.

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