Ever since Hezbollah, Iran and Russia doubled down on their commitment to Assad’s survival in Fall 2012, the strategic environment for the Syrian regime has fundamentally been characterized by the same dynamic. Between the professionalism and discipline of Hezbollah and the military supplies from Iran and Russia, the fractured Syrian rebels do not by themselves stand a chance of defeating Assad militarily. As such, the one real danger for the Syrian regime has been to provoke the Western powers into taking action, either by intervening directly or providing the rebels with game-changing support.
So far, this threat to Assad’s survival has failed to materialize. At least until recently, Assad has been careful to escalate his military efforts in a measured way, slowly introducing the use of aircraft, surface-to-surface missiles, and more recently, perhaps, chemical weapons. This has given the West a chance to preoccupy itself mostly with worries about supporting any form of Sunni fundamentalism. But with recent reports of the US considering further action on Syria, we should wonder whether this element in the Syrian war is changing.
This question is particularly salient given the recent ostentatious military victories on the part of Assad regime. In this regard, Assad is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Assad desperately needs the PR of military victories as a means of stemming defections, creating a sense among the Syrian people that Assad is still their inevitable ruler, and assuring powerful allies such as Russia that their aid is tipping the balance in favor of the regime, so as to prevent them from taking a more neutral stance. On the other hand, however, the more Assad (and the ‘Axis of Resistace’ generally) celebrate their victories, the more they are likely to remind the West of the strategic defeat it would suffer in seeing the rebellion defeated, and as a consequence, the more likely Western intervention becomes. In this regard Assad’s position is somewhat reminiscent of Khaddafi’s prior to the Western intervention in Libya. Worried that the Benghazi uprising would expose his popular support as limited at best, Khaddafi responded to the rebellion with a quick and highly succesful military campaign down the Libyan coast. Unfortunately for him, however, this lightning offensive had the unintended consequence of alarming the West at such naked oppression, ultimately causing Khaddafi’s downfall.
So today we should wonder whether Assad and his allies are in a similar position, and are running a similar risk of overplaying their hand. There are a few elements of provocative behavior that would seem risky in this regard:
a) Assad’s quick and total victory in the strategic town of Qusayr
b) Assad’s immediate announcement of further offensives after Qusayr, intended to permanently alter the balance of power in critical areas such as Aleppo and Damascus
c) Hezbollah’s increased openness about its continued involvement in the Syrian theater, and its threats against Israel to start a new front on the Syrian Golan border
d) Russia’s increasingly blatant Cold War posture in Syria, ranging from the delivery of advanced weapons to Assad to efforts to itself become involved in the Syria as in, e.g., its offer to replace UN troops on the Golan.
All these elements carry the danger of shifting Western attention from worries about terrorism and human rights to the geopolitical dimensions of the Syrian conflict, and the defeat it would suffer in this regard if Syria’s rebellion were to be snuffed out. As such, we should wonder whether it would not be a safer strategy for Assad to push his military advantange more cautiously, leaving, for example, pockets of resistance in areas like Qusayr to be dealt with later. After all, while the West has so far been of little consequence in Syria, this is purely due to its own posture; should the West decide to produce a victory for the rebellion, it has the power to do so. For Assad and his supporters, then, it should seem best to let sleeping dogs lie, and stop poking at the giant.
[Update: one further element of note here is Obama’s appointment of liberal interventionists Susan Rice and Samantha Power to important positions in his cabinet; this, too, is likely to increase the risk Assad runs of Western intervention]
[Update: writers recently seem to be picking up on the idea (here, here) that Assad’s recent victories may turn out Pyrrhic. They also note the idea that part of the reason for Obama’s delaying strategy might be to force the Syrian rebellion into more a more favorable posture].