If Bashar Assad thought issuing threats against America in his interview with Charlie Rose on CBS was his chance to convince Congress to reject President Obama’s plan to attack the Syrian regime, he has made a terrible miscalculation. There is no shortage of skeptics about the administration’s plan for an “unbelievably small” strike on Syria. But the notion that Assad can intimidate the United States into leaving him alone to use chemical weapons on his own people is risible.
That’s not just because Assad’s warnings that the U.S. “should expect everything” from both the Syrian government and its allies in response to an American strike is a largely empty threat. It’s that he might have been better off letting a chronically incompetent Obama remain the face of the argument about Syrian intervention rather than injecting his own criminal personality into the debate in Congress and the American public square. Indeed, the only way to change the momentum in the fight to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in favor of the administration might be if the argument switches from one pitting Obama against his critics to another that matches the Syrian dictator against the president. While one miscalculated interview by Assad might not be enough to turn the tide in a political battle in which both the right and the left seem unprepared to back the president—albeit for slightly different reasons—it is a break for a White House that appears to be running into a stone wall when it comes to appealing for congressional approval.
As for worries about Assad’s threats, it is probably unwise to completely discount the willingness of a man who has already gassed innocent civilians to commit mayhem. But the fact that the Syrian regime’s atrocities have been focused on civilians—including women and children—who are unable to defend themselves should tell us a lot about Assad’s capabilities when it comes to retaliating against the United States. After all, as we know, Israel has repeatedly struck at Syria’s missile arsenal and other weapon convoys in the last year without generating any kind of military response from Assad’s regime or his Iranian and Hezbollah allies. It also should be remembered that the Israelis took out Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 without a blow from Assad in return. The reason for the Syrian timidity in the face of repeated Israeli attacks to prevent the regime from gaining nuclear capability or transferring dangerous weapons to Hezbollah was obvious. Assad knew his already beleaguered forces didn’t stand a chance if pitted against the Israel Defense Forces. When that factor is weighed against Assad’s current bluster, does anyone seriously believe Syria’s military or its terrorist auxiliaries would be any more eager for a match-up against the far more formidable forces of the United States?
But the point here is that Assad would have been far better keeping quiet right now rather than giving the administration more talking points as it attempts to convince Congress that American credibility is on the line in the vote on Syria. If either the Senate or the House turns down a resolution on force against Assad, the dictator will not just be given a proverbial free get-out-of-jail Monopoly game card. He will also be able to boast to his people that the Americans quailed in the face of his threats of violence.
So long as the debate in Congress is about the war-weariness of the American people and their lack of interest in what happens in Syria no matter how beastly Assad might be, Obama loses. But if the argument can be refocused, as it should be, on the spectacle of a murderous dictator allied with Iran and Hezbollah given impunity to commit mass atrocities, then the president stands a chance.
The congressional vote will be probably far more influenced by polls showing overwhelming opposition by the American people to involvement in Syria as well as by Obama’s personal appeals than anything Assad can say. But by opening his mouth and making idiotic threats and transparent lies about his regime’s culpability, Assad has given the president a small opening which he might use to convince wavering members of Congress.