Yesterday Syrian president Bashar al-Assad commemorated Syria’s independence day with a television interview where he described the Syrian civil war as a colonial plot. Western powers, said Assad, “never accepted the idea of other nations having their independence. They want those nations to submit to them.”
Assad is surely aware that 67 years after Damascus won its independence from France, the Western powers, and the United States above all, are wary of direct involvement in a Middle East conflict that may drag on for many years to come. Some may still hold out hope for a diplomatic or political solution, but yesterday Assad dispelled those dreams of a bloodless exit strategy. “The truth is there is a war,” said Assad, “And I repeat: no to surrender, no to submission.”
One purpose of Assad’s speech then was to inspire his loyalists by reframing the conflict in terms that are most favorable to those that are fighting and dying on his behalf. This is not a sectarian conflict, he said. Indeed sectarianism, he contended “is less pronounced in Syria now than at the beginning of this conflict.” Rather, it is the continuation of a long war of liberation fought against the colonial occupiers and their local stooges. Accordingly, the other purpose of Assad’s speech was to threaten those arrayed against him—if you bring war to me, this is the kind of war I shall bring to you.
He singled out neighboring Jordan for a specific threat: "We would wish that our Jordanian neighbors realize that... the fire will not stop at our borders; all the world knows Jordan is just as exposed [to the crisis] as Syria." Likely alluding to the various terrorist attacks that the Syrian regime engineered against Iraq in the summer of 2009, Assad warned the Jordanians, “I hope they learn the lessons that the Iraqi authorities learned.”
Jordan has earned Assad’s ire by reportedly serving as a training base for rebel fighters. It appears that Jordan’s King Abdullah, after long deliberating the pluses and minuses, has finally come down in favor of ousting Assad. If the Hashemite kingdom is worried that a victory over Assad led by Islamists might inspire Jordan’s own Islamists, a graver concern is that Assad will make good on his threats and start targeting Jordan. Therefore, the sooner he’s gone the better. The Pentagon is sending 200 U.S. troops to Jordan in order to soothe Amman’s anxieties and promises that as many as 20,000 troops could be available to protect Jordan’s borders against spillover, or secure Syria’s chemical weapons.
However, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said yesterday he’s not sure the United States could secure Assad’s stockpile of unconventional weapons. "They’ve been moving [the stockpile] and the number of sites is quite numerous,” said Dempsey. Previously, the White House has warned the Syrian regime against moving its unconventional arsenal, but it seems that this time the administration is giving Assad a pass.
After more than two years now that the Syrian uprising began, the White House’s policy is still in disarray. Testifying before congress yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the need to step up pressure on Assad, while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Dempsey counseled caution. “It’s actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago,” said Dempsey, who three months ago acknowledged that he’d backed then CIA Director David Petraeus’ plan to arm the opposition. Dempsey explained yesterday that he’d reconsidered his position since then. Now he is not sure the U.S. “could clearly identify the right people” to arm. That is to say, in spite of the billions of dollars that the American intelligence community spends each year, the United States is still virtually blind in Syria.
To keep the White House in check, Assad described his domestic foes as those very terrorists that the United States should be most worried about. "The West has paid heavily for funding Al-Qaeda in its early stages,” said Assad. “Today it is doing the same in Syria, Libya and other places.”
The United States of course is not backing al-Qaeda. In December, it designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization, which last week pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Assad means to reinforce the conviction, expressed by Dempsey and others, that the White House would be foolhardy to support a rebel army composed of American adversaries. But in claiming that the West would “pay a heavy price in the heart of Europe and the United States,” Assad was also leveling a threat.
After all, until Sunni jihadist groups picked up arms against Assad, the regime used these same groups for many purposes, among them to kill American forces in Iraq. There is no telling which Islamist groups may still be manipulated in part by the regime, or to what extent the regime is capable of using the cover provided by jihadist outfits. In any case, the message is clear: Bring war to my borders, says Assad, and I will take the war to your shores.
As Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains in an article today in NOW Lebanon, the conflict in Syria pitting Assad, Iran and Hezbollah against what many have described as an al-Qaeda army is reminiscent to many of the Iran-Iraq war.
“Rather than back one side to win,” Badran writes, “the US would prefer, to paraphrase former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, both sides lose.
“This argument rests on a few contentions, which can be summarized as follows: a protracted war of attrition would bleed both sides and limit their ability to project power elsewhere or harm US interests. With neither side having won, both would emerge severely weakened from the stalemated conflict—just as Iran and Iraq did.”
The problem with the analogy, as Badran writes, is that both Iraq and Iran came out of the conflict more dangerous than ever to American interests. Saddam, bankrupted by a decade of war, invaded Kuwait and compelled the US to land its own troops to stop him. As for Iran, Badran explains, “it is precisely this period in the 1980’s that we associate most with Iranian terrorism against the U.S. and its allies.”
It was also this period during which American policymakers showed the Iranians and their allies that they would do nothing in response to operations that targeted Americans, most notably servicemen and diplomats in Lebanon and Kuwait. The Obama administration wants to keep its hands clean of the Syrian conflict, but yesterday Assad warned that he and his allies may have an interest in expanding their war well outside their borders.