A sigh of relief emanated from Damascus following the unexpected reprieve given by U.S. President Barack Obama to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The danger has still not completely subsided, but the immediate threat has, and it may even disappear if, for example, Congress refuses to grant Obama the green light to attack Syria.
The Syrians are adept at sensing weakness and vacillation, and these were exhibited Saturday night by Washington. Obama does not want to go to war and is essentially looking for any excuse that will prevent him from attacking the Syrians. Such excuses are plentiful. Maybe Assad does not understand the political dynamics in a democratic country, but he understands weakness and hesitation extremely well.
This time-out will be fully exploited by Assad's allies, particularly Russia, and perhaps by his new friends in Europe, the British for example, to try to concoct deals that can keep him in power. Someone raised the idea of holding early elections for the Syrian presidency scheduled for next year, as if a diplomatic solution to the conflict or advancing democracy in Syria is possible.
Throughout the Syrian civil war, Assad has revealed himself as an especially murderous dictator. One must admit, however, that he has exhibited personal fortitude and determination, even steely composure, when most believed he lacked these attributes. He is playing for time, and Obama has given him time more precious than gold. If his regime manages to survive the civil war, it will be a personal victory for Assad against all expectations and forecasts. Unlike Obama, Assad doesn't blink.
The nature of the war in Syria plays into the regime's hands. It is a fight between rebel groups bereft of heavy weapons and any form of air power, and an organized army equipped by Russian President Vladimir Putin from head to toe. Moreover, it is characterized by a series of specific battles, which most of the time involve small rebel and army contingents. Whoever wins this war will not do so by delivering one decisive knock-out punch; rather, the winner will be the side that shows the most endurance and bleeds less than its rival.
Obama needs to be careful that his clumsy hesitation, as well as the tiny blow he intends to eventually deliver Assad, do not actually strengthen the Syrian despot. Because if the rebels in Syria reach the conclusion that they cannot topple the regime and that no one in the world, including Obama, intends to help them, the rebellion will end in the regime's victory. After all, Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, also wanted to get rid of Assad. Now Bush is gone and Assad is still here.