Syria likely to avoid escalation if attacked, analysts believe

If a U.S.-led strike is limited in scope, Assad may see his best response as a passive one

This photo taken by mobile phone on June 2, 2013 shows Syrian army tanks making their way to the Dabaa military airfield, north of the Syrian city of Qusayr.
AFP/Getty Images

As the U.S. government readies armed forces for a possible attack on Syria, the media conversation has focused on what tactics President Barack Obama might authorize to punish the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly staging a chemical-weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians last week. Less attention has been devoted to the question of how the Syrian regime might respond to a Western strike.

Analysts suggest the Syrian response would likely be proportionate to the severity of an American attack -- and also proportionate to the apparent purpose of the U.S. strike.

"It depends on whether it's a punishment or an intervention," says Vali Nasr, Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Intervening would mean imposing "sustained damage" to the regime and could imply changing the course of the war. "That's not the policy of the U.S. in this war at all."

This careful distinction echoes statements by U.S. officials who have underscored that the Obama administration feels morally obliged to punish Assad for violating the Geneva conventions, but not to intervene in a war that it doesn't consider its own. 

International reluctance to step in has greatly benefited the Syrian regime, Nasr says. "They've been doing very well exactly because the U.S. wasn't involved."

As a result, argues Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, it's likely that Syrian forces "will take the hit" of a more limited strike, to prevent an international escalation that would impel Western powers to take more serious action against Assad.

"It's not in his interest to respond," Barnes-Dacey says. "If he retaliates he might provoke a greater willingness [to intervene]. At the moment it's still a regional war; the West believes it can still keep a distance from it."

Then there is the question of the extent of the Syrian regime's options. "I don't think Assad has the material capabilities or willingness to respond in force by attacking regional allies," says Barnes-Dacey. "I don't think there is any immediate risk of military responses. Assad will look to hunker down."

A passive response by Assad to any Western strike would parallel his previous responses to similar attacks from the air force of his more powerful neighbor, Israel. Israeli planes have fairly regularly attacked targets in Syria it deems threatening, including alleged arms transfers to Hezbollah and a suspected nuclear power station under construction in 2007.

Damascus typically doesn't respond to those strikes. Israel's leaders have vowed a fierce response to any perceived preparations for an attack from Syria, and the Israelis' capabilities and established willingness to strike targets in Syria may give Assad pause on responding to a Western strike by attacking Israel.

During a 2010 live-fire weapons exercise, the guided-missile destroyer USS Mahan fires its MK-45 5-inch/54-caliber lightweight gun.
Daniel Gay/US Navy

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Eye for an eye

But it may be possible that a regime that wasn't afraid of engaging in a civil war -- and is now alleged to have used chemical weapons against civilians -- might not show much restraint.

"It's an eye for an eye," says Joshua Landis, director of the center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "You don't want Americans to feel that they can hurt you for free."

Assad may even have taken his cue from the Egyptian military, Landis adds, which "stomped out the Muslim Brotherhood" without significant repercussions from Western powers. Assad may see that as a precedent for impunity.

"He's watching like a hawk how the international community responds," Landis said. "Americans gave Egyptians a pass."

If he did seek to hurt the U.S., Landis believes, "you hit America at their weak points" by "using a third party." That might mean targeting more vulnerable U.S. allies in Jordan and Lebanon. 

In Jordan, where nearly half a million refugees settled or are waiting to be registered since the beginning of the war, economic pressure could continue to destabilize the country. "Every Jordanian I know is just furious about Syrian refugees taking their jobs," Landis said, while stoking sectarian tensions has proven a valuable strategy in Lebanon. 

Lebanese officials believe Syria was responsible for the car bombs that killed at least 42 people outside a Sunni mosque in Tripoli last week.

Edward Djerejian, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and founding director of the Baker Institute at Rice University, says Damascus is expecting a Western military strike "limited in time and scope," and that its response will therefore be primarily focused on appealing to allies such as China, Iran and Russia, to rally international support.

Still, he grants, "once you lend to the fog of war anything can happen."

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