Why Assad Isn't Worried about Obama

Washington's tough talk fell upon deaf ears. Damascus is not afraid of taking on the White House (again).

Realizing that neither serious political reform nor a cessation of the brutal crackdown on Syrian revolutionaries are being considered by the Syrian regime, President Obama, after much hesitation and frustration, issued his call for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step aside. Simultaneously, the leaders of Germany, France and Britain issued a joint statement calling on President Assad to resign. These calls, undoubtedly, painted the Syrian regime into a corner internationally. They also injected a fresh breath of defiance and hope into the ranks of the Syrian opposition. Nevertheless, they made a whimper rather than a bang in the corridors of power in the Middle East, especially in Damascus. The calls, broadly speaking, failed even to elicit strong reactions from the so-called rejectionists of the Middle East. Only three days later President Assad, in an interview with Syria's public television station, commented on the Western leaders' calls by stating that "I am not worried, and I soothe the worried people." He asserted that "sanctions will not starve Syria . . . and any military action against Syria will have ramifications far greater than they can handle."

How can one explain this nonchalant attitude? One needs only to picture himself or herself in Damascus, far from the politicking of Washington, to understand the stance of the Ba'thist regime and its radical Islamist and nationalist allies. The immediate explanation rests with the notion that Assad and his allies from Tehran to Beirut had not only weathered the American storm of change ushered into the region by the U.S. invasion of Iraq; they had also scuttled Washington’s plan for a new Middle East. In fact, the regime believes that it has overcome the vulnerability it experienced in 2003 when Washington destroyed the regional order. Gripped by the feelings of its initial pyrrhic victory in Iraq, Washington arrogantly bungled the opportunities it created—but never exploited—to promote change in Syria. In response, Damascus immediately turned to its time-honored terror policy to covertly dispatch Jihadists to kill American soldiers in Iraq. This secret initiative turned into overtly arrogant confidence when Israel failed to deal Hezbollah a severe blow during the 2006 conflict. The Assad regime rode the victory that Hezbollah's general secretary Hassan Nasrallah described as divine. At the same time, it prepared for future conflict with the United States, firmly aligning itself with the Iranian camp against Washington and its Arab allies. As such, Obama's statement made no news, for the regime has been operating under the pretext of a conspiratorial threat to its survival since 2003.

On closer observation, however, the nonchalant reaction of the Syrian regime has its roots in the conflicted Syrian-U.S. relationship. Initially, the strident pan-Arab Ba'thist discourse overlooked Washington's support for Syrian independence in 1946, turning spitefully bitter against the United States as the Arab world went through what Malcolm Kerr called the Middle East Cold War. Then Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi who was considered heterodox by Sunni orthodoxy and seeking social mobility for his pauperized and servile community, advanced a Ba'thist ideology that in principle transcended sectarianism but in practice championed regime security at all costs. His policies encouraged a bloody confrontation between Hezbollah—backed by Khomeini's Islamic Revolution's confrontation—and Washington in Lebanon in the early 1980s whereby 241 marines were killed and clashed with American policy when the United States, backing its diplomacy with the threat of force in support of the Christian government of Amin Gemayel in 1983, fired the battleship New Jersey's guns on Syrian-dominated Lebanese positions. Relatively weaker than Washington, Damascus fired back and shot down two American warplanes. This marked the first direct confrontation between America and Syria. What stiffened Assad's determination to take on a superpower? Certainly Assad did not believe that the United States was a paper tiger; rather he held the conviction that Washington had a weak grasp of the complexities and treacherous realities of the region, in general, and of Lebanon, in particular. And thus, he felt that with the right dose of manipulation Washington would fall into the duplicitous trap of Middle Eastern politics.

Assad was shrewd enough to understand and manipulate an illusory Arab socio-political order laid bare by the inconsistencies between sectarianism and pan-Arabism; ideology and governance; and patriotism (Qawmiyah) and nationalism (Wataniyah). He turned George Orwell's famous quotation that nationalism "is the worst enemy to peace" into "the best friend of dictators." State terrorism in the name of Arab nationalism was his special tool of manipulation and survival. This is the political patrimony Hafiz left for his son. Apparently, the Bashar regime is arrogantly confident that Washington will not match its words with actions and is still blissfully ignorant of the region's treacherous realities, but it has miscalculated the unbending determination with which Syrians seek change. And yet this Arab revolt, as with all revolutions, is fraught with risks, ranging from civil to regional strife, which the regime will undoubtedly exacerbate to its own advantage. Herein lies the challenge for the Obama administration: How to reconcile its policy statement on the Syrian regime with an informed strategy far from Washington's sophistry. Certainly, the battle will be won; but when and at what cost?