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Assad is defiant as U.S.-led strikes in Syria show no sign of threatening his hold on power

By: Liz Sly and Louisa Loveluck, The Washington Post
April 14, 2018 Updated: April 14, 2018 at 9:06 pm
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Government supporters wave Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against President Trump during demonstrations in Damascus on Saturday, following military strikes by U.S., British and French forces. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

BEIRUT — U.S.-led strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities prompted defiant celebrations in Damascus on Saturday as it became clear that the limited attack posed no threat to President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power and would likely have no impact on the trajectory of the Syrian war.

Fears of a wider escalation faded after it emerged that the locations targeted by the United States, Britain and France had been confined to three sites associated with the Syrian chemical weapons program, had caused no serious casualties and had probably not destroyed Syria’s capacity to develop and deploy banned chemical substances.

There were expressions of anger from Syria’s allies, with Russia labeling the attack an “act of aggression,” Iran calling it “a war crime” and Syria describing it as “barbarous.” President Trump called the attacks an “enormous success,” tweeting that they represented a “Mission Accomplished.”

But on the streets of Damascus, there was jubilation as government supporters realized a more expansive assault would not materialize. Residents gathered in central squares and danced to patriotic songs, waving Syrian flags alongside those of Russia and Iran, Syria’s allies in the fight against the anti-Assad rebellion.

“The honorable cannot be humiliated,” said a tweet by the Twitter account maintained by Assad’s office shortly after the attack. A few hours later, the account tweeted a video of him walking nonchalantly to work through the halls of the Syrian presidential palace.

Though the strikes appeared to have satisfied the conflicting agendas of the world powers competing for influence in Syria, they won’t make any difference to the war on the ground — which Assad is steadily winning, said Amr al-Azm, a professor of history at Shawnee University in Ohio.

“This was more about the Western allies making sure their red lines were addressed rather than trying to seriously damage the Assad regime, prevent the further killing of civilians or reduce the capacity of the Assad regime to keep fighting,” he said.

“From Assad’s perspective, this was a big win. He must be thinking, this is good, I came out on top, I gained much more than I lost.”

It was unclear even whether there would be a long-term impact on Syria’s capacity to develop and use chemical weapons. Trump had telegraphed for days the likely response of the United States to the alleged chemical attack that killed civilians in a rebel stronghold last Saturday, giving the Syrian authorities and their Iranian and Russian allies time to vacate the facilities that were targeted — and perhaps also to remove vital equipment and stores.

Russia said that the damage had been minimal. According to the Syrian army command, three civilians were injured, in the vicinity of one of the strikes against Homs.

“It remains to be seen whether the allied attack fulfilled all its intended goals,” said Karl Dewey of Jane’s by I.H.S. Markit defense consultancy.

This was the second strike against Syria in a little over a year, in response to the second alleged use by the government of a poison gas against its citizens. Last April, the United States bombed the Shayrat air base in the province of Homs in retaliation for a sarin gas attack that killed around 70 people in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun.

On April 7, videos again emerged of men, women and children with foam on their mouths, after a bomb allegedly containing toxic gas was dropped in a residential neighborhood of the rebel-held town of Douma, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

A day later, the rebels in the town surrendered, making the use of chemical weapons in this instance, if confirmed, a successful tactic, Azm said.

The retaliatory airstrikes went further than last year’s attack, targeting production and research facilities as well as command centers from which attacks are launched. The Pentagon said the locations hit were a scientific research center in the Barzeh suburb of Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a command post, also near Homs.

But although Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White said the strikes had “set the Syrian chemical weapons program back for years,” Pentagon officials acknowledged that a “residual” capacity remained.

Seeking to tamp down the global tensions that soared after Trump’s tweet last week that missiles are “coming, nice and new and smart,” the United States and its allies stressed the limited nature of their goals.

“This was not about interfering in a civil war, and it was not about regime change,” British Prime Minister Theresa May told a news conference in London.

White echoed that comment, saying the attack “does not represent a change in U.S. policy, nor an attempt to depose the Syrian regime.”

In Damascus, residents jolted awake by explosions at 4 a.m. expressed relief that the attack was short-lived.

“Thank God this was less than we had feared. We were scared of a bigger assault that could be devastating, but we are happy it was limited and less powerful,” said Mayda Kumejian, a Damascus resident contacted by telephone. She described being wakened by explosions and jets roaring overhead, only to realize about an hour later that there would be no prolonged attack.

“This strike is only muscle flexing by Trump to show his power,” she said. “Assad’s regime is much stronger now.”

The crowds that gathered in Damascus also expressed scorn, waving portraits of Assad and mocking Trump.

“We tell Trump, you can do nothing. Here we are celebrating to show that you are bankrupt,” said a woman interviewed on state television.

For Syrians who had welcomed the prospect of an American attack — and in many cases, called for them over many years — hopes that the U.S. threats might make a difference quickly soured into disappointment.

“We thought it would be much bigger than this,” said Ahmed Primo, a journalist and activist now living in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. “Assad might have used chemical weapons this time, but he’s been indiscriminately targeting civilians for years. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed; hundreds of thousands of people have been disappeared. After seven years of war, we don’t believe that anyone will come to help the Syrian people anymore.”

The strikes give Assad a green light to sustain his pursuit of a military solution against opposition areas in which many more civilians may die even if chemical weapons aren’t used, other rebel supporters said.

“According to the cowardly statements and the weak strike by the West, Assad is allowed to use all kinds of weapons to kill us except chemicals,” tweeted Syrian opposition journalist Hadi Abdallah. “The international community has set him free as a monster to annihilate the Syrian people.”

The United States and its allies said they hoped the attack would propel momentum toward the revival of peace talks in Geneva that have so far proved fruitless.

But there was no reason to believe these strikes would give any new incentive to Assad to cooperate with a peace process that Washington says should result in his removal from power, said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Assad has absorbed worse before, and he will absorb this,” he said.

Read this story at The Washington Post.

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