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It’s Business as Usual for Syria’s Assad After U.S.-Led Attacks

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gestures during an exclusive interview with AFP in the capital Damascus on Feb.11, 2016. JOSEPH EID AFP/Getty Images

Hours after a punishing U.S.-led missile strike, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, dressed in a dark suit and tie, strode through the gates of his palace to start his day as usual.

The televised image of Assad walking on gleaming marble floors toward his office, briefcase in hand, matched the rhetoric the Syrian government put out soon after the strike: the second U.S. attack in a year in response to suspected chemical weapons use has failed to rattle the regime and the president is in control.

Analysts and diplomats said that the attack was unlikely to lead to an escalation in hostilities or change the trajectory of the seven-year-old Syrian conflict.

“If the previous attack was a slap on the wrist, this is perhaps a slap on the face but nothing that destabilizes the Assad regime in any fundamental way,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Eurasia Group. “Its position in the Syrian conflict remains strong and the focus of the response to the U.S.-led strikes will be on regaining control of additional territories in the country.”

The U.S., Britain and France struck military positions and research facilities linked to chemical weapons in Damascus and Homs overnight to retaliate against their suspected use in an April 7 attack on a rebel-held suburb of the capital. The attack followed a similar, more limited, strike last year also meant to deter Assad from deploying chemicals.

Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Assad’s allies throughout the conflict, rallied around the regime, warning that the attack would have consequences but stopped short of threatening any retaliation. Russia said none of the more than 100 cruise missiles fired early on Saturday entered airspace covered by Russian air defense systems, easing worries of an escalation into wider conflict.

Syrians Celebrate

Syrians took to the streets of the capital in small impromptu rallies, waving Syrian, Russian and Iranian flags while chanting their support for Assad.

“Arrogant Trump wanted to vent to prove he’s a man,” Damascus resident Issam Dahi, who sells car parts, said by telephone. “This will have no impact on a government that has survived a war that lasted more than seven years.”

Sharif Shehadeh, a former Syrian lawmaker, said the attack had backfired. “Instead of weakening the government, it only made it stronger,” he said by telephone from Damascus.

The strike was never about regime change, said analysts and diplomats, but was meant to signal that U.S. President Donald Trump was working closely with European allies to set limits on Assad’s actions, weeks after saying it was time to withdraw U.S. troops from the country.

Sami Nader, head of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Beirut, said “the sustainable involvement of the U.S. in partnership with France and the U.K. will be a counterweight to Russia and Iran in Syria.”

“The Americans are telling them: Before, you were getting a huge advantage because of our absence, it’s no longer the case now,” he said.

Israel, which has watched the winding down of the war on its northern doorstep with trepidation as Assad’s allies consolidate their gains, has said it won’t let Iran entrench militarily in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Tehran not to test his country.

The “American attack is an important signal to the axis of evil – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – a signal that says the use of chemical weapons crosses the red line against humanity and will not be tolerated,’’ Israeli housing minister and security cabinet member Yoav Gallant, of the ruling coalition’s Kulanu party, said on Twitter.