Syrian president Bashar Assad is caught in a cleft stick over whether or not to retaliate for Israel’s air attack on a WMD research facility in his country on Sept. 6. Gathering signs indicate that he may be forced to, for the following reasons:
1. The further the raid recedes into the past, the greater the US and Israeli military pressure on his regime (described in separate articles in this issue) and the louder the voices from the public and army urging him to fight back.
2. Arab rulers, popular opinion in their countries and Arab media have more or less deserted the Syrian ruler. Not a single important Arab or Muslim leader outside Tehran has expressed solidarity with the Syrian people and its government – or even condemned the US and Israeli for their attack.
At first, Assad had hoped to use the episode to mend his fences with the Saudi royal house after being cold-shouldered for months. Sources close to the presidential palace in Damascus put out reports that foreign minister Walid Mualem was about to travel to Jeddah to meet King Abdullah. They hoped to prod the Saudis into sending out an invitation. But there was no response.
Inside Syria, the sense of their president’s isolation in the Arab world is so profound that even an American or Israeli attack made no difference. The average Syrian feels that his country is ostracized and snubbed by fellow Arabs because of Assad’s policies.
3. The presidential decree to political and military officials to hold silent on the nature of the Israeli air raid, similar to the orders issued in Jerusalem and Washington, acted as a boomerang against the Assad regime. The people take it as a symptom of a confused leadership at its wits’ end on how to handle the crisis.
Presidential hesitations are beginning to be lampooned by some media, egged on by opposition elements operating in the country and outside. Until the Sept. 6 air raid, most Syrian opposition groups spoke out against war with Israel, on the grounds that it would serve as a stratagem for shoring up the faltering regime. Now, they are making a mockery of the official statements that the Israeli attack caused no casualties or damage, when Damascus should own up to the facts and prepare the country for appropriate reprisal.
All these elements are pushing Assad to a hazardous juncture.
He cannot ignore the circumstances piling up to induce a military coup to depose him.
The last thing Bashar Assad wishes for is to be the last president of the dynasty founded by his father.
Weighing the cards stacked within his regime for and against lashing out against Israel, he sees the war party headed by his brother-in-law, military intelligence chief Gen. Asaf Shawqat gaining since the watershed date of Sept. 6.
In contrast, the ageing advisers in his palace are urging him to stay cool and wait for a better opportunity to retaliate. But they are being pushed aside.
Assad’s vacillations between the two factions now present the greatest peril to his rule.