At Home, Assad Cheered for Canny Delaying Tactics

BEIRUT (Bloomberg) -

Osama Salloum was on the balcony of his Damascus apartment last week when a procession of honking cars celebrating President Bashar Assad’s birthday passed by.

The 34-year-old accountant joined the youths waving flags and singing patriotic songs not only because he wanted to mark Assad’s Sept. 11 birthday, “but also to express gratitude for the government’s wise policies that prevented a U.S. strike. Syrian diplomacy has borne the best of fruits.”

Assad’s agreement to the seizure and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons was his first significant political concession to Russia and the international community since the conflict started in 2011. Rather than weakness, supporters like Salloum are lauding the move as a diplomatic coup.

While averting a U.S.-led attack that might have tipped the balance in favor of his rebel opponents, Assad is buying time and extending his Alawite family’s 42-year rule of the majority Sunni Muslim country.

“His waiting game worked,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “This story was framed in the first year as tyranny versus freedom. Now the story is framed as al-Qaida versus a tyrannical dictator.”

At the heart of U.S. plans for a military strike against Assad was his alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people. United Nations inspectors found “clear and convincing evidence” that poisonous sarin gas was used in an attack near Damascus last month, according to a report Monday.

Under the accord to give up the chemical weapons arsenal the Syrian government must divulge the location, types, quantities and production sites by Sept. 21.

The deal has made Assad “weaker because it came at a serious cost, but not as weak as he would’ve been after a strike,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center. “In that sense, he did a clever move. Given his two bad options, he took the less bad one.”

The rebels, who had hoped that an American strike would open up opportunities on the ground they could capitalize on, have rejected the U.S.-Russian plan. Col. Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the Free Syrian Army’s high command, said he worries that Assad would use the next few months to prolong the life of the regime.

“For him, time is an advantage,” Saadeddine said. “He will use it to keep himself in power and protect himself from prosecution for using chemical weapons.”