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Assad exudes defiance despite possible U.S. action in Syria

President Assad denies the use of chemical weapons and appears to believe Western intervention may boost his image with loyalists.

August 30, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • President Bashar Assad and other Syrian officials are framing any U.S. assault as the inevitable outcome of what Assad has always called a "foreign-backed conspiracy" against his government, not an internal uprising.
President Bashar Assad and other Syrian officials are framing any U.S.… (Syrian Arab News Agency )

BEIRUT — After months of steady battlefield gains, the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad is bracing for a daunting new threat: a possible U.S. missile barrage in response to his military's alleged involvement in suspected poison-gas attacks outside Damascus.

The Syrian leader has dismissed the accusations as "completely politicized," while his aides called the Aug. 21 attack a rebel provocation meant to incriminate Assad and draw U.S. military action.

But more than two years into a grinding civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead, the Syrian government seems resigned to the likelihood that it will directly face U.S. military might, a specter long considered the one development that could turn the tide of battle.

In response, Assad appears to have made several calculations: He can survive a limited strike, it won't change the military balance in his fight with the rebels, and it may actually boost his prestige with loyalists.

In Damascus, still mostly a bastion of pro-Assad sentiment, residents have reported profound disquiet over the prospect of a U.S. attack. But there appear to be no signs of panic, such as mass abandonment of the capital.

Publicly, Assad is defiant. He has called the chemical weapons charges "preposterous," coming at an improbable moment — as a U.N. inspection team was in Damascus and his forces were making progress on several fronts against fragmented rebel brigades. Previously, some military analysts had suggested that the Syrian military was keeping its chemical arsenal in reserve should the government start losing ground in the fight.

Assad loyalists and others have repeatedly argued that it was the rebels, not the government, who had the most to gain from a chemical strike that crossed the U.S. "red line," and likely to trigger a Western response.

Still, Syrian officials, including the president, are framing any U.S. assault as the inevitable outcome of what Assad has always called a "foreign-backed conspiracy" against his government, not an internal uprising.

"Since the beginning of the crisis, we have been waiting for the moment that our real enemy rears his head and intervenes," Assad recently told senior military leaders, according to Al Akhbar, a Beirut daily deeply sourced in Damascus. "This is a historic confrontation in which we shall emerge victorious."

The Obama administration has for many months demanded that Assad step down as part of any agreement to end the fighting. Russia and China have thwarted several U.S.-backed attempts to punish Syria within the framework of a U.N. Security Council mandate.

The United States and its allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have long bank-rolled and outfitted the Syrian opposition. But the Obama administration has been reluctant to get involved directly, and increasingly worried about Islamic militants in the ranks of the rebels.

After declaring this summer that it had concluded Assad used chemical weapons on several previous occasions, the U.S. said it would start arming rebels. But the insurgents say they've received nothing yet from the Americans.

A campaign of missile strikes could open the door to a more robust U.S. role in the future, despite Obama's comments Friday that any intervention would be limited.

For now, a U.S. attack is likely to last no more than several days, a "message" reportedly not designed to topple Assad or even fundamentally alter the course of the 29-month conflict.

One worry for U.S. war planners is the possibility that Assad or one of his allies, such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement, could respond against Western or Israeli targets, either directly or through a terrorist attack.

But many analysts say such a move is unlikely, as long as the U.S. action does not threaten to bring down Assad. Syria has not attacked Israel despite as many as four Israeli bombardments in recent months, strikes that do not appear to have significantly degraded Syrian military capabilities.

"There's not much Assad can do in response to a U.S. strike," said Ramzy Mardini, a Jordan-based analyst. "A successful retaliation against U.S. interests or allies in the region will place his regime under more threat to its survival."

But war is nothing if not unpredictable, and Syrian officials have vowed a vigorous defense.

"Syria is not an easy target," Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said this week. "We have the means to defend ourselves, and we will surprise the other side with our means."

Already, Assad seems to be preparing the way for a propaganda victory. He may have the opportunity to boast of his rule having outlasted direct U.S. and Israeli attacks, no small accomplishment.

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