Assad Unlikely to Compromise for US Coalition

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 25: Tanks of Assad forces are seen around the destroyed buildings during the clashes between Syri
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 25: Tanks of Assad forces are seen around the destroyed buildings during the clashes between Syrian opponents and Assad forces in Adra, Damascus, Syria, on September 25, 2014. (Photo by Kasm Ebu Muhammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Syrian government was quick to inform the world it was aware of US and Arab allied strikes hitting the Islamic State (IS). A statement released on Syrian state television hours after the first strikes early Sept. 23 said Syria was informed via Washington's UN envoy, which was confirmed shortly afterward by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

The regime is keen to present the image it is not being sidelined by military actions taking place on its soil, for it would constitute a violation of its self-perceived legitimacy as the sovereign ruler of Syria. Its two main sponsors, Russia and Iran, were quick to criticize the US-led strikes, urging Washington coordinate with the Syrian government in any action on its territory.

Although it may appear President Bashar al-Assad would stand to gain from US strikes against his enemies, there are concerns over the uncertainty of how far US military action in Syria will go. The US is reported to have assured Iran prior to the attack that it would not target Assad's forces, but it is unclear whether the Syrian government gave consent to the strikes, or whether the US requested it. If no consent was given, it would demonstrate a significant turning point in the Syrian conflict, whereby the US has decided to act without UN cover, opening the possibility for expanded military action in the future.

The strikes place the spotlight on the Syrian government, and its primary sponsor Iran, who have so far refused to compromise on a political settlement in the Syrian crisis to enable open cooperation with the US. Tuesday's attacks show that the US will conduct military action in Syria with or without an official arrangement with the Assad regime.

Failure to reach a compromise over the Syrian conflict will be a golden opportunity gone begging. There appears to be consensus on the need for a ground force in Syria to complement US air strikes to maximise the chances of defeating the Islamic State. Militarily, the best able ground force in Syria is the Syrian army, but Western powers are adamant that there will be no cooperation with the Assad regime.

The ideal scenario would be a political solution to the Syrian crisis that produces a unity government with pledges to reform the political system and economy, and reintegrates Syrian rebel forces into the Syrian army. This would then provide the troops on the ground the West needs to roll back advances by the Islamic State.

But such compromises do not appear forthcoming from the Assad regime, potentially jeopardizing a needed partnership with Washington to defeat IS. Rumours have been circulating among nationalist circles close to Damascus that Assad recently rejected an Iranian suggestion that he create a unity government with the Muslim Brotherhood, thus winning crucial endorsement from Turkey. Both a Syrian government official and a senior Syrian Muslim Brotherhood official denied these rumours when asked, but nationalist circles close to Damascus say the Iranians have long proposed this solution, given, as one informed Syrian source said, Tehran's ideological affinity to the Brotherhood.

Sources close to Damascus indicate that the Assad regime is still of the belief that it is in the advantageous position, and it is only a matter of time before Western powers come to Damascus seeking its aid, without the need to compromise.

Such a policy does not come without its roots. The Baathist regime's strategy to 'weather the storm' has largely defined its relations -- and proven successful -- with the West over the decades. The Assad regime has often sought to stave off Western attempts to dislodge it from power by raising the cost of its removal, thus proving its indispensability to regional stability.

In the 1980s, Israeli and US intervention in the Lebanese Civil War was seen as a direct threat to the Syrian regime, then under the rule of Hafez al-Assad. The regime fought to ensure Israel's attempts to bring Lebanon under its wing failed. It worked; it weathered the storm for 15 years, and by 1990, the Americans offered Lebanon on a silver platter to Assad in exchange for his support in the First Gulf War.

The second crisis faced by the Syrian regime came with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the turbulence that befell Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005. The Assad regime -- now under Bashar's rule -- again saw the dark clouds encircling, and manoeuvred to remind the West of its value in power.

By 2008, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Syria, and in 2010, the Obama administration reappointed an envoy to Damascus. The Assad regime again weathered the storm, without compromise, tactfully proving its value to the West.

The regime believes it can weather the storm for the third time, and just as in previous crises, the West will again be the first to blink. Assad's priority is to maintain control of the 'Syria core,' which consists of Damascus, regions adjacent to the Lebanese border, the central corridor to Homs and Hama, and the coast.

Controlling Syria's key urban centres in the regime's calculations is controlling most of Syria, ensuring it remains the main power in the country. Large swathes of desert and impoverished border regions -- where the Islamic State and other rebel groups are strong -- are of secondary importance, as far as the regime is concerned.

Assad is confident the Syrian army, backed by its current allies, can defend its 'core' from the Islamic State and the rebels without greater external support. What it can't do is commit to offensives to recapture desert territory currently under IS rule, particularly with rebels challenging in other parts of the country, such as Quneitra, Qalamoun and Ghouta. But the regime is betting it can survive in its 'Syria core' long enough until the West has explored all other options, and finally arrives at the realization that it has no other choice but to ask for its help -- without demanding the departure of Assad.

So far statements from Western leaders suggest that day may not be fast approaching, but the regime is content in playing the waiting game.