A few missiles won't shake Syria's Bashar Al Assad. He is no Saddam or Gaddafi

Why is it so hard to deter Assad? The answer is simple: Russian President Vladimir Putin is firmly on his side.

Published: 15th April 2018 02:14 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th April 2018 12:20 AM   |  A+A-

Syrian President Bashar Assad (File | AP)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: On Saturday, the world woke up to the news that the Western powers, led by the United States, have attacked Syria in retaliation for Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the rebel-held town of Douma. For a world distraught by the grisly images of desperate Syrian children crying for help, Saturday’s attack was the need of the hour. Republican members of the US Congress, who are often at odds with Trump on policy matters, rallied around him and praised his resolve.

As the dust settles in Syria, one wonders what the West has actually accomplished from Saturday’s limited strikes. The coordinated offensive by the US, UK and France, hit three targets – mostly research labs and chemical weapons storage sites -- inside Syria in Homs and near Damascus.

READ | Syria airstrikes: UN Security Council rejects Russian attempt to condemn US aggression

The rationale for the attack was to deter Syrian president Bashar Al Assad from using chemical weapons again ever again. By using such weapons against civilians, Assad violated the international humanitarian law and hence should be punished, the Western leaders reasoned. The strikes on Syria would discourage other rogue actors from using chemical weapons against civilians, they claimed.

However, beyond its rhetorical value, the argument that a few airstrikes on low-key targets would discourage Assad from using chemical weapons again, appears weak.

At present, there is little sign that he is shaken. And there is little to hope that he would not use chemicals weapons again if indeed it were his forces that perpetrated the alleged attack in Douma (a claim not yet verified).

Far from being shaken, he appears vengeful. Soon after the US-led strikes on Syria ended, Assad told his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani via telephone that "This aggression will only make Syria and its people more determined to keep fighting and crushing terrorism in every inch of the country."

Assad is a strong leader, who, unlike other Arab dictators like Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi, enjoys genuine support from a sizable faction of Syrians. He commands the strong backing of the members of the country’s armed forces, despite numerous desertions over the past seven years.

His recent victory is Ghouta is yet another proof that his control over Syria is far from tenuous – thanks in large part to the generous Russian support, including the deployment of troops since 2015.

As a result of all these, Assad has been staunchly opposed to any kind of compromise. He does not even recognise his opponents as genuine. In fact, he calls them “terrorists” and has vowed not to give up an inch of the Syrian land to them.

Those who have been following the civil war closely for the past seven years would know that at no point did he appear weak or inclined to obey the Western diktats. Not even once did he show interest in negotiations. It is unlikely that he would put down his arms and come to the table anytime soon now that his forces are doing well.

At the moment, it is hard to imagine that a few missiles raining down over Damascus would deter Assad from using chemical weapons again, if he deems their use necessary. Last year, when the US fired 59 volleys of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria over reports that the regime forces had used chemical weapons, Assad remained unshaken.

In contrast, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein reportedly panicked when the US air force commenced the bombing of Baghdad in April 2003.

Why is it so hard to deter Assad? The answer is simple: Russian President Vladimir Putin is firmly on his side.

Syria is no Iraq or Libya. The Western intervention in these countries worked because there was no great-power opposition to their actions. In Syria, the West encounters Russia.

For Moscow, Syria is a prized strategic asset. Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is in Syria – in the town of Tartus. Putin is determined to not let Assad fail; because he fears it would unleash chaos on Russia’s doorsteps, and more importantly, may lead to the emergence of a pro-West puppet as the new Syrian president, who would then kick the Russians out.

But that’s not all. For Russia, defending Syria is also a matter of standing up to the West. In other, it’s a matter of national pride and Russians have enormous pride in their national power. If the West wins decisively in Syria, it’s a loss to Putin as much as it is to Assad. Thus, it is very unlikely that Russia will abandon Syria.

Forget about Russia ditching Assad, Moscow has in fact towed Damascus’s line so far during the seven-year-old civil war. If Assad had indeed used chemical weapons, there is no sign yet that Moscow is trying to discourage him from doing so again. Rather, Putin clearly sided with Assad and blamed the attack on London.

If we take the North Korean case for instance, of late, China has joined the Western powers in their efforts to pressure the Kim regime into abandoning its nuclear weapons. In the past, Beijing itself had urged Pyongyang to reconsider its nuclear weapons programme.

Of course! Things are different. China views peace on the Korean peninsula as suiting its interests. Yet for Kim Jong Il, his super-power patron is not as invested in his survival as Russia is with Assad.

This is one of the reasons why North Korea has come to the negotiating table and Assad will not.

So long as Russia has Assad’s back, there is no reason for him to feel fettered. He can safely go on and fulfill his mission of ridding his country of his opponents.

The West would not attack Syria like the way it did with Iraq or Libya. In fact, while carrying out Saturday’s strikes, the Western war planners took great pains to ensure that Russians military assets are not hit. They are scared. They know very well that if their missiles miss the mark and hit the Russian soldiers, then things would escalate to a point of no return.

Ridding Assad is a bad idea, if it means World War Three.

Had Syria not had the backing of Moscow, things would have very different on Saturday. The US would have carried out a much broader strike and may even have targeted Assad or the vital assets that sustain his government.

Assad knows this very well. When he is protected by a superpower that is as much invested in his security as he is, and when his enemies keep attacks low-key for the fear of provoking his patron, why would Assad ever feel deterred?

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