Bashar Assad can relax. Barack Obama blinked, and entrusted the decision on whether to attack Syria to Congress.
It may be that this was a necessary step from Obama’s point of view. It may be that it was a wise decision politically, in an America traumatized by Iraq and Afghanistan. But the smiles on the faces of decision-makers in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, on hearing Obama’s Saturday speech, tell their own story.
Until Saturday, Obama’s Middle East policies were generally regarded by the Arab world as confused and incoherent. As of Saturday, he will be perceived as one of the weakest presidents in American history.
That scent of weakness has emphatically reached Iran. Amir Mousavi, the head of Tehran’s Center for Strategic Defense Studies, told Al-Jazeera in the immediate wake of the speech that Obama is uncertain and hesitant. At around the same time, Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari boasted that “the United States is mistaken if it thinks that the reaction to a strike on Syria will be limited to Syrian territory.” This was likely part of an effort to deter members of Congress from supporting military intervention against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. In an act of solidarity, meanwhile, an Iranian parliamentary delegation, led by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads the Security and Foreign Policy Committee and is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is currently on a visit to Damascus.
Drawing the connection between Syria and Iran is unavoidable. If after Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction to kill what Secretary of State John Kerry specified were 1,429 of his own people, Obama hesitates — when Assad has no real capacity to substantially harm American interests — what is he likely to do if Iran decides to develop nuclear weapons? Khamenei and his advisers recognize that the likelihood of this administration using military force against a country with Iran’s military capability are very low, if not nonexistent.
And they’re not the only ones who realize this. The same conclusions are being drawn by Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues, who will doubtless have been watching the Rose Garden speech, will have internalized what they had long suspected: that Washington will not be the place from which good news will emanate about thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive.
Meantime, Syria now returns to the routine of civil war. The Syrian army is fighting bitter battles against rebel forces across the country, and Assad is utilizing his air force to bomb residential neighborhoods — not, heaven forbid, with chemical weapons, merely with conventional weaponry.
It is clear to the Assad regime that an American response will ultimately come. But it will be limited and weak — of a scale that will enable Bashar Assad not merely to survive, but to hail victory.