April 29, 2013 | NOW Lebanon

Assad Reading the Signs

The Syrian president has "no other choice but to win."
April 29, 2013 | NOW Lebanon

Assad Reading the Signs

The Syrian president has "no other choice but to win."

On Monday, the pro-Assad regime Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad hosted a large delegation of loyalist Lebanese parties in Damascus. During the meeting, As-Safir relayed, Assad shared with his guests his reading of the US position on Syria. “The Americans have been pragmatic since the beginning of the crisis,” the report quoted Assad as saying. “They will not go all the way. In the end, they will go with the winner. And we have no other choice but to win.” The embattled dictator, in other words, is rather comfortable with Washington’s policy.

It would be easy to dismiss Assad as a deranged despot, and to disregard his reported statements to a bunch of Lebanese sycophants as mere propaganda by Beirut’s pro-regime media. However, another way to look at it is to consider how Assad himself has been reading the US posture toward him for the last two years. From Assad’s vantage point, he has successfully steered US policy, as the White House has been echoing the main points he has put forward concerning the situation in Syria.

To be sure, the most obvious confirmation for Assad that the US is not “going all the way” is President Obama’s clear abandonment of the 'red line' he drew on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Even as three US allies – France, Britain, and Israel – have all concluded that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, the White House is refusing to back their conclusions. As The New York Times noted, such a step “could force Mr. Obama’s hand.” In order to avoid this, President Obama’s aides have 'amended' his 'red line.' For Assad, this is as good a proof of US 'pragmatism' as any. What’s more, as he has strived to shape the narrative of the war in Syria, Assad has found in the administration’s public posture what he clearly considers a receptive ear.

Over the past two years, Assad has put out a number of talking points he felt would resonate in Washington. The most consistent line has been the contention, which he has maintained from day one, that his regime’s war against the popular uprising was a battle against foreign terrorists. Long before Islamist groups became the focal point in the narrative, Assad saw the Obama administration pick up that line for purposes of its own.

“We know al-Qaeda [leader Ayman al-]Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria,” Clinton told CBS News in February 2012. “Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?” Back then, jihadi groups were small players in the uprising – Jabhat al-Nusra had just announced its existence in January of that year. Yet Clinton had no qualms about painting the entire opposition with the al-Qaeda brush – exactly as Assad had done.

Whether or not the administration actually shared Assad’s public assessment of the nature of the uprising is immaterial. The White House saw this line as an effective excuse to fend off calls for more involvement in Syria. Assad understood that he could exploit Washington’s political calculations to engage with it in a cynical two-step geared toward the same objective: keeping the US out of Syria. The designation of Jabhat al-Nusra in December 2012 only opened more avenues for regime propaganda to shape the information environment.

But even earlier still, Assad saw in the administration’s preemptive excuses a window he could exploit further. Take for example the initial insinuations, going back to the first months of the uprising, that the administration’s policy was actually driven out of concern for Israel and as a result of Israeli reservations. The regime saw an early opportunity to drive that message home. They granted an exclusive interview to The New York Times with Assad’s powerful cousin, Rami Makhlouf. He proceeded to drive home the message that a push against the regime would mean bad news for Israel – “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime,” Makhlouf warned.

In the months that followed, Assad continued to see in the administration’s statements a willingness to indulge his propaganda lines. For instance, he read the administration’s insistence on “preserving state institutions” or not letting chemical weapons “fall in the wrong hands” as an acknowledgment that the US fears what would come should the regime fall, and that it still considered the regime a guarantor of stability.

Or consider what Assad surely interpreted as another point of convergence between US statements and regime propaganda: the fate of Syrian minorities. A pillar of Assad’s propaganda is that he is the safeguard for Syrian minorities against the hordes of Sunnis who oppose the regime. He must’ve read favorably the administration’s hesitancy to legally recognize the Syrian opposition, especially as US officials have repeatedly cited the opposition’s “lack of inclusiveness” and insufficient “outreach to minorities” as a reason for this reservation.

Similarly, Assad surely views the administration’s continued adherence to a “political solution” through “dialogue” with his regime as another valuable convergence of talking points with Washington. Indeed, pro-regime media in Lebanon has persistently played up that angle.

Assad likely read numerous other elements of the administration’s posture as proof, as he put it to his Lebanese cheerleaders, that Washington wasn’t willing to “go all the way” against him. Examples include when the US backed his regime’s story against Turkey at the time of the downing of the Turkish jet off the Syrian coast. And then there’s Washington’s continued backing of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, even as he has clearly supported the Syrian regime.

When viewed from Assad’s vantage point, it would appear that the US administration has been receptive to every talking point his regime has chalked up. There could be only one explanation, as far as Assad is concerned: the US is pragmatic. It’s willing to play ball.

If this were confined to Assad, perhaps it wouldn’t be much to be concerned about. However, when this perception of a convergence between the US position and Assad’s talking points extends to Washington’s regional allies, it becomes a matter that affects the US position and credibility in the region. These allies have been waiting for a sign from the White House that it will, in fact, go all the way in Syria. Unfortunately, Assad’s reading is proving to be correct: the Obama administration will do no such thing.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.