Rafik Hariri Center Senior Fellow Frederic Hof writes for the New Republic on how US intervention in Syria will affect President Assad’s calculus:
President Barack Obama’s decision to authorize aerial surveillance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions in Syria suggests that airstrikes employing manned and unmanned aircraft may not be far behind. All of this is right and proper. Yet danger lurks. The head of Syria’s preeminent crime family—President Bashar Al Assad—waits, crocodile-like, for the American angler to tumble out of the boat. For Assad, opportunity knocks. If he handles matters correctly he can, with an assist from American inaction, return to polite society while others do the anti-ISIS heavy lifting for him.
From the beginning of Syria’s 2011 popular uprising against a corrupt, incompetent, cynical, and brutal regime, Assad has pursued with singleminded discipline a very simple strategy: Sell oneself as the fire brigade to help hose the flames of one’s own arson. Determined to create an alternate opposition that would overwhelm peaceful protest, Assad emptied his jails of violent, Islamist prisoners and employed tactics of violent sectarianism to lure back to Syria the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorists his regime once escorted to Iraq from Damascus. As AQI in Syria morphed into ISIS and the Nusra Front, and as foreign fighters swelled their ranks, Assad’s message—amplified by Iran and Russia—has been unchanging: “I am the bulwark against terrorism. Sooner or later the West will have to crawl back into my good graces.”