Assad's survival as president is now a reason for his opponents to indefinitely fight the regime
The chemical weapons attack is a critical moment to push for a political settlement in Syria
When American airstrikes against the Syrian regime seemed imminent in September 2013, Damascus looked like it was on autopilot for a brief period of time. News emerged at the time that the army abandoned a number of bases, leaving minimum personnel and equipment. More notably, a well-placed regime insider later described to me how senior officials were nowhere to be found during those critical moments, not even in the secure lines that the military’s senior brass use during emergencies.
But that reality in the capital as described did not matter, not just because the then US president Barack Obama eventually backed out of the plan to punish the regime for the use of chemical weapons a month earlier. It would not have mattered last year either, when US President Donald Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, which were limited to a Syrian base in Homs after the regime used chemical weapons against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, because it was limited, caused no concrete loss and did not have a follow-up strategy to ensure lasting damage as a result of violating international norms.
The same goes for the latest episode surrounding the use of chemical weapons, as the US is reportedly preparing to launch a new round of punitive attacks against Syrian targets. Any such attack would be unlikely to threaten the regime, given the reality of the Syrian conflict today.
But, contrary to common analysis of the situation so far, it can be argued that a strong American response has a better opportunity to make a difference today than before, precisely because the Syrian regime is stronger today than in previous years. Both the situation on the ground and the recent signals made by Mr Trump could align to make Washington’s action against the regime matter.
To start off, the war in Syria is largely dormant at this moment. There are almost no active frontlines anywhere in the country. If the US and its allies strike and cripple the regime in multiple areas, it is unlikely power will be seized by the regime’s opponents. It would no doubt weaken the regime but would not destabilise it, under the current circumstances.
No rebel forces are capable or even willing to resume active fighting against the regime. More importantly, none of the countries involved in the Syrian conflict is interested in seeing that happen. Turkey is already tied to mutually beneficial deals with Russia throughout the north. The Gulf states have almost completely pulled out of the conflict at least since 2016. The US is also not interested in destabilising the regime, certainly not in a way that favours the rebels. American officials view the rebels as either too radical or too disorganised to ally with them. And the regime knows this all too well.
Which brings us to an intriguing argument shared by some fellow Syrians, including some who lean toward the return of the government and are critics of the opposition. Because the survival of the regime is more assured today than at any point in recent years, the argument goes, Bashar Al Assad is now more dispensable than when his symbolism was perceived as essential for his camp. Mr Al Assad can go and the Syrian government can still survive, a formula that the same Syrians would not have accepted a year ago.
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Proponents of this view make a reasonable point that considers the toxicity of continuing to have Mr Al Assad in power. As he was a symbol of the old order for the regime’s supporters and thus indispensable, his survival as president is now a reason for his opponents to indefinitely fight the regime.
The mindset of the regime camp in the past stipulated that any minor concession to the opposition would mark a slippery slope that would eventually lead to a regime change and the removal of the president. That was when the regime became embattled. The dynamic is different today because the regime is more stable and secure with more than half the country under government control.
From the perspective of countries like the US and its allies, this is also a critical moment as far as their position towards the regime is concerned. The regime has now retaken most of the Damascus suburbs, the most significant gain since December 2016, when it expelled the rebels from eastern Aleppo. The regime still has more than 40 per cent of the country to retake in order to win the war but it will be greatly emboldened after the areas directly outside Damascus are cleared, since its vital areas throughout the country will have become tightly secured.
Military attacks against the regime will not make a difference if they are divorced from this reality. The US and its allies can allow a situation whereby the regime, once it has weathered the possible storm, will be emboldened and the conflict continues. Or they can attach a purpose to the attacks – beyond punishing the regime for the use of chemical weapons, which is meaningless since the regime did use them and still survived, regardless of whether it now stops – and challenge the regime to push for a political settlement.
The objectives of the proposed action could be linked to the Syria strategy that the US administration has broadcast, which has so far been limited to eastern Syria and to the fight against ISIS. Part of the broader strategy, though, involves the use of chemical weapons and a political settlement that does not involve Mr Al Assad. These aspects can be connected and, if achieved, together they offer the US an exit strategy, a desire that Mr Trump expressed a fortnight ago.
A military action removed from the reality inside Syria would not otherwise matter. As paradoxical as it might sound, the US should take advantage of the relative stability of the regime to push for a political change in Syria.
At a minimum, Washington should simultaneously reaffirm its intention to remain in Syria and block the regime from the eastern region, which would no doubt be regarded as a setback by Damascus and its Iranian allies and probably a worse punishment than limited military action.
Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC