After more than two years of civil war, tens of thousands of deaths, a refugee crisis, ethnic cleansing, religious strife, terrorism, chemical warfare, and an international conflict that has engulfed all of its neighbors, Syria is still in the hands of Bashar al-Assad. Just the way he planned it.
There's been a lot of talk the last few days about how the West should respond to the "red line" of chemical weapons—and how Israel has already taken action of its own—but this later chapter is just another in the playbook that has allowed Assad to lay waste his own nation without anyone effectively trying to stop him. It's strategy based on a few simple idea that he has executed almost to perfection.
A Massacre in Slow Motion
As military experts pointed out in Dexter Filkins's excellent (and lengthly) breakdown of the state of Syria in this week's New Yorker, the most effective part of Assad's strategy has been his ability to escalate the conflict gradually over time, never doing anything so drastic that it would force international intervention. At the same, Assad's moves have the effect of slowly numbing the international community to the level of violence on the ground. What started out as a few dead protesters in the Spring of 2011 slowly became street battles, then an air war, and finally a sectarian bloodbath. Violence has not ebbed as the war has dragged on and rebels have taken over more territory—it's gotten more vicious and less discriminatory. By introducing different levels of weaponry in stages, rather than all at once, the effect has been less noticable to outside observers. As one former officer put it:
"First it was artillery. Then it was bombing. Then it was Scuds. A year ago, he wasn’t killing a hundred people a day. He’s introducing chemical weapons gradually, so we get used to them."
Had Assad unleashed a massive chemical attack on a city like, say, Homs, killing thousands of people in one fell swoop, there would be no question of the U.S.'s responsibility to act. But the limited nature of the initial attacks has sown just enough doubt to stay the hand of the United Nations and NATO. He's given President Obama wiggle room to avoid confrontation, and give himself more leeway to continue the slaughter.
So two years down the road, there's no smoking gun footage of thousands of dead Syrians wiped out by some chemcial attack, like there were when Saddam Hussein attacked Kurdish villages in Iraq. But there are images of whole families lying dead in street, killed just this weekend in an attempt to wipe out entire Sunni communities. Except most people were too busy talking about sarin gas to notice.
Dividing Your Enemies
It's been standard procedure for the regime to blame all the worst atrocities on the rebels (who are always referred to as "terrorists" by the state media). Most Syrians stopped believing those claims a long time ago, but Assad has been helped by the fact that actual terrorists have joined in the fight against him. One of the strongest rebel groups in the war right now is the Al Nusra Front, which is actually the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
They have become more savvy and less reckless than they were in Iraq and thus have won over many of the native Syrians to their side. But their presence makes it that much more difficult for the Americans, the British, and the French to get involved, for fear that they might inadvertently give support to a terrorist organization. Or worse, put that organization in charge of a new Syria.
Blame it on Israel
(Syria's state media reported that Israeli missiles struck this military and scientific research center near Damascus. Photo by SANA via the Associated Press)
While most of the world debates, Israel took action, as Assad probably could have predicted. Yet, even if he doesn't relish the idea of going to war with Israel, it's not hard to spin bombings by their warplanes into his favor. There are plenty of Syrians (and some Israelis) who aren't comfortable with Israel striking inside their borders, as they've done in the past. Even if they are theoretically on the same side against Assad, old hatred dies hard.
Plus, deeper Israeli involvement will only strengthen the resolve of Assad's allies. Iran and Hezbollah are certainly not going to back down from a fight with Israel, so involvement from the IDF only drags them in deeper too.
Although the Americans are probably fine with letting Israel do the heavy lifting, Israel's attack also threatens to undermine the idea that battling Syria's air defenses or rounding up their chemical weapons facilities would be too costly and complicated. Syria may slowly be turning into a proxy war with Iran, but if Israel inadvertently proves that limited air strikes can contain a nation's "weapons of mass destruction," the U.S. position on both Syria and Iran becomes a lot more complicated.
Of course, for all of Assad's strategies to work, he had to completely disregard the welfare of the nation he is supposed be leading. In the best case scenario for Assad, the rebels would give in, but he would be the leader of a broken and shattered country, ruling over cities reduced to rubble.
In the scenario many are starting picture, Assad and his Alawite allies hunker down in a small (but strategically important) corner of the Syria they still control. Even if the rebels take over Damascus and install a new government, they have a difficult time bring Assad (who would continue to be backed by Iran) to justice. From his isolated, but secure position, he can turn the tables, using his non-uniformed militas as the pesky insurgent force making life miserable for the ruling parties. Or they can wait it out, as the rebels struggle to rebuild and fragile and tear themselves apart in the process.
As another military expert described it to Filkins:
"What does that sound like? Lebanon. But it’s Lebanon on steroids.” He walked back to his desk and sat down. “The Syria I have just drawn for you—I call it the Sinkhole,’’