U.S. President Donald Trump declared “mission accomplished” in the wake of Friday’s strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad − but if anyone emerged as a winner it was Mr. al-Assad.
In a video posted on Twitter by his office Saturday morning, Mr. al-Assad was shown walking calmly to work just hours after the cruise-missile strikes ended. Later in the day, the Syrian military announced it was in full control of Douma, the town on the outskirts of Damascus where Mr. al-Assad’s forces are alleged to have used chlorine gas and perhaps other chemical agents in an April 7 attack.
“All the terrorists have left Douma city,” the Syrian army said in its own “mission accomplished” statement, declaring an end to the five-year siege of the wider area known as East Ghouta. The Army of Islam militia that held Douma until the weekend said that it was forced to withdraw after the attack that killed dozens.
Retaking East Ghouta is a key win for the regime. The area, which had been in the hands of anti-Assad forces since November, 2012, was the last significant pocket of resistance near Damascus. With the threat to his capital largely eliminated, Mr. al-Assad and his allies can focus their forces on the remaining rebel-held areas of Idlib, in the northwest of the country, and Daraa, in the south.
Beyond the military gains, many in the Middle East see Mr. al-Assad as having been politically strengthened by his showdown with the United States. The widely reviled leader − who has seen his country torn apart by a brutal civil war that has left upward of 500,000 people dead − was allowed to briefly play the underdog who defied the superpower, and largely got away with it.
“The popularity of President Assad will be much larger after this. This will work in his favour because the Syrian people will never agree to any foreign troops or missiles,” said Hassan Sakr, head of foreign affairs for the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which has an armed wing that has fought on Mr. al-Assad’s side in the civil war.
The 102 cruise missiles launched by the United States, Britain and France were never meant to topple the Syrian regime. The stated intention of the strikes was to punish Mr. al-Assad for his army’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and to damage his ability to use them again.
It’s too early to determine whether that goal was achieved by the destruction of a military research centre in Damascus, plus two storage facilities near the city of Homs that were believed to be part of Syria’s chemical-weapons program.
What was clear on the weekend, however, is that Mr. al-Assad and his allies had been bracing for a larger U.S. response.
“The damage done to the regime was minimal. The reception from the Assad regime was that they got off scot-free, basically,” said Jasmine el-Gamal, a Beirut-based senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who was a Pentagon adviser on Syria during the Obama administration. “The fact that they would announce [the retaking of Douma] the day after the strikes sends the message that they feel they came out of this victorious.”
While the war for Syria is far from over, the limited U.S.-led strikes again demonstrated that Washington has no desire to wade into Syria’s civil war. Mr. al-Assad − whose regime appeared on the verge of collapse early in the conflict − now has the upper hand in most of the country, in large part due to the on-the-ground military support his forces have received from Russia and Iran.
On Sunday, Mr. al-Assad thanked a group of visiting Russian lawmakers for the backing he got from Moscow during the latest crisis. One of the reasons the U.S.-led strikes were so limited was to avoid provoking Russia, which had said it would retaliate if any of its forces in Syria were threatened.
The Kremlin has also vetoed a string of UN Security Council resolutions critical of Mr. al-Assad. The Russian and Syrian governments say there is no proof that any chemical weapons were used in Douma, claiming the online videos of dead and dying children with foam around their mouths were fabricated by an anti-Assad group.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, announced Sunday that the United States would introduce new economic sanctions to punish Moscow for its role in the chemical-weapons crisis.
Rami Khouri, a professor and senior public policy fellow at the American University in Beirut, said the cruise-missiles strikes − which were intended to show Western resolve − instead highlighted the lack of a cogent Western policy toward Syria. The cruise missiles made for dramatic television, he said, but did little to change the equation on the ground in Syria. “Russia and Iran are going to keep doing what they’ve been doing for the last seven years, which is continuously expanding their power and influence in Syria.”
Despite the victory in Douma, large swaths of the country remain outside Mr. al-Assad’s grasp, and will likely remain that way for a long time to come. In addition to Idlib and Daraa − where the anti-regime uprising began more than seven years ago − much of the east of the country is controlled by a Kurdish-led militia supported by U.S. special-forces troops that Mr. al-Assad’s forces are unlikely to confront (although Mr. Trump declared just before the recent crisis that he intended to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country).
The Turkish army, meanwhile, has invaded northern Syria, pursuing its own conflict against the same Kurdish group, known as the YPG, which Ankara says is linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.
In other words, Mr. al-Assad may feel that he won the weekend, but Syria’s war will carry on for a long time to come.