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Is Assad Goading Obama?

The new Syrian atrocities may have been a miscalculation. But America's rhetoric encouraged them.

AFP/Getty Images

Syria’s Assad regime, along with Iran and Russia, long ago took the measure of the Obama administration and the West and concluded that a military victory over Syrian rebels is not only essential, but possible. This makes it all the more astounding that Bashar al Assad would roll the dice and use Barack Obama’s nose in an effort to erase the president’s chemical weapons red line. Why take such a brazen risk now in the wake of what appears to have been a recent momentum shift in the regime’s favor?

One word comes readily to mind: miscalculation. It is a word that Saddam Hussein’s Foreign Minister applied to his boss, when asked by a senior Jordanian official in 1991 why Saddam thought he could get away with the invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Saddam misjudged what George H. W. Bush and James Baker were made of. Has Bashar al-Assad made a similar fatal mistake?

We will know soon enough. Yet it is astounding that Mr. Assad, after having gotten away with low-level chemical attacks while running up a prodigious civilian body account through conventional shelling and bombing, would be so fearless. Could he have imagined single-handedly wrecking the credibly of the United States around the world, emerging perhaps as the successor to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez as the preeminent anti-American superstar, tapping into what he assumes to be a bottomless reservoir of anti-Americanism in Syria?

Had he read General Martin Dempsey’s August 19, 2013 letter to Representative Eliot Engel before or after authorizing the atrocity, Assad may well have concluded he had nothing to worry about. Focusing on the idea that US assaults could indeed (for example) destroy the regime’s air force “as a cost on them for unacceptable behavior,” Dempsey described – for the edification of Assad and his supporters – the downsides of any such US military gesture: it would not be militarily decisive, it would not resolve “underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues,” and it would not solve the problem of the fractious state of the Syrian opposition. Would it have been illogical for Assad to conclude he was on terra firma?  That there was no way the US would do anything militarily given Dempsey’s downsides?  That he could proceed to stick a fork into American credibility?  That he could terrorize, in a manner more exotic than usual, his opponents into submission? 

What could have reassured Assad the most was a phrase in the Dempsey letter that the General may have thought memorable: a U.S. military strike on Syrian targets “would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict.” What further proof would the Syrian need of the proposition that presidential words about Assad stepping aside, chemical red lines, game changers, and significantly upgraded assistance to the mainstream armed opposition were the emptiest of gestures; that there is in fact no decisive American commitment in connection with the struggle for Syria. And what is one to make of Dempsey’s suggestion that “We could, if asked to do so, significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition?” In December, 2012 the U.S. recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. Only now, and only if asked, would we work harder? What has been happening since last December?

The administration is now faced squarely with the consequences of pursuing a Syria policy long on rhetoric and short on action. Yes, the U.S. contribution to ameliorating the humanitarian crisis has been decent, generous, effective, and honorable. Yes, substantial help has gone to unarmed opposition local committees inside Syria. Yes, the Supreme Military Council does believe it is seeing some U.S. assistance. And yet the Syrian regime thinks it can commit any manner of atrocity and engage systematically in what the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has described as “war crimes and crimes against humanity” without any fear of Western military interference, a point repeatedly and gratuitously confirmed by NATO’s Secretary-General Rasmussen. Now the president finds himself in a corner: do something on a spectrum from nothing to “check the box” and watch his credibility, around the world, vanish; or take powerful military action without the blessing of the UN Security Council and in the face of Russian and Iranian opposition. Inaction is a choice. It has consequences.

There are well over 100,000 dead Syrians at this point. There are over two million refugees and a multiple of that number internally displaced from their homes. The Assad regime has mercilessly targeted population centers beyond its control with artillery shelling, aircraft bombing, and missile strikes. It is a massive campaign of terror, and it would be so had not a single chemical shell impacted. A relatively brief, but intense aerial campaign, featuring stand-off weaponry, could obliterate regime artillery formations, destroy military aircraft and airfields, and pulverize missile storage facilities. The military mission would be to destroy or significantly degrade the regime’s ability to bring massed fires to bear on civilian populations: an operation that would mitigate the horrible humanitarian situation staring us in the face and help our allies and friends in the region being overwhelmed with traumatized Syrian refugees, while stopping well short of an open-ended military campaign.

If the regime wishes to observe a unilateral ceasefire and take the de-escalatory steps recommended by Kofi Annan over 18 months ago, a U.S. military operation might be avoided. Yet the regime smells blood. The Obama administration, meanwhile, faces two mortal dangers from Assad’s in-your-face chemical brazenness: doing nothing, for the edification of actors in Pyongyang and elsewhere; or checking-the-box militarily in a manner that permits Bashar al-Assad to proclaim victory and achieve the stardom he apparently seeks. For a president who has tried to hold Syria at arms-length, hoping it would just go away, the moment of truth has arrived.

Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.  He served as Senior Advisor on Transition in Syria to Secretary Clinton until September 2012.