By Donna Abu-Nasr
As U.S.-led air strikes targeted militants in Syria, the country’s Tourism Ministry was busy organizing fireworks, songs and poetry.
Away from the efforts to dislodge Islamic State extremists, the government is sponsoring a festival in the city of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, to mark international tourism day this week. In Damascus, students made their way to school. Like on most days, Syrian warplanes carried out a couple of attacks against rebel strongholds on the outskirts of the city.
President Bashar al-Assad has maintained a facade of normality during more than three years of civil war, depicting anti-government rebels as Sunni terrorists who are also the enemy of his Western critics. Assad’s supporters say he’s being vindicated after the U.S. and its Arab allies started assaults against Islamic State extremists, a year after President Barack Obama threatened to do the same to Syria’s government.
The attacks “prove the credibility” of the government’s narrative on the conflict, said Syrian lawmaker Khaldoun Qassem. “We are now without doubt stronger because the whole world backs our position that the war on terror is the first enemy of the government and the region.”
The Syrian Foreign Ministry was quick to reiterate a readiness to cooperate with the offensive. Assad said yesterday that Syria “supports any international counter-terrorism effort,” according to state-run SANA news agency.
The U.S. has dismissed any idea of bringing Assad’s forces into a coalition against Islamic State and still considers that his government has lost legitimacy. Assad meanwhile is trying to exploit events to rehabilitate himself, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar.
“Whilst Assad is obviously looking for greater cooperation, it’s not much of an opportunity just yet,” Shaikh said by telephone. “The attitude of the Americans as well as the Arab backers of this coalition is very much not for Assad, despite all the efforts that are being made by him to present himself as a relevant partner.”
Assad’s forces had engaged less with Islamic State, previously known as ISIS or ISIL, than other rebels. The group’s brand of Islamic extremism supported the government argument that terrorists, not activists seeking democracy, were behind the insurgency against it.
After the group set up a base in northern Iraq this year and started taking over cities in the country with new financial backing and military firepower, Syria changed tactics.
The Syrian air force has stepped up attacks against the militants, and state media have run more reports on atrocities committed by the group.
“Striking terrorism is a good step,” said Kateeba al-Rifai, a 35-year-old computer engineer in Damascus, where stores were open yesterday and traffic clogged streets. “But there’s no trust in America’s intentions.”
The Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition, said the attack on Islamic State will only help rehabilitate Assad if his government is spared military strikes. It underlines how the U.S. is only interested in justice for its own people following the murder by Islamic extremists of journalist James Foley.
“The Syrian people cannot accept watching the international coalition’s warplanes avenging the killing of journalist James Foley while failing to do justice” to hundreds of thousands of Syrians “subjected to the terror of the Assad regime and its allies,” Nasr al-Hariri, secretary-general of the coalition, said in a statement.
President Barack Obama ordered strikes against Islamic State extremists in Iraq last month and expanded the offensive this week to include the group’s positions in Syria.
It comes a year after he threatened to attack Syria over the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Assad avoided the attack by agreeing to give up his chemical arsenal.
U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world, most of which are opposed to Assad’s government, have joined the coalition against Islamic State. The group has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. British opposition leader Ed Miliband said in a television interview today that it’s possible the U.K. Parliament will be recalled on Sept. 26 for Prime Minister David Cameron to seek approval for joining airstrikes.
While Kurdish and Iraqi forces complement U.S. strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq on the ground, it’s not yet clear who will do that in Syria.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to host training for some Syrian opposition forces. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week that as those rebels vetted by the U.S. prove “their effectiveness on the battlefield,” the U.S. would be “prepared to provide increasingly sophisticated types of assistance to the most trusted commanders and capable forces.”
Building a military opposition with the capability to take on both the Islamic State and later the Assad regime may take years rather than months, Firas Abi Ali, head of Middle East analysis at IHS Country Risk, said by e-mail.
“It is not clear to what extent there is a moderate opposition left that can be relied on to take the ground war to the Islamic State and fulfill the aspiration of defeating both the Islamic State and Assad,” said Abi Ali.
As the U.S.-led strikes began, tensions spread to another front when Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet after it flew over the Golan Heights, the first such incident in almost 30 years.
Amid the conflicts, festivities will start tomorrow in Tartus. They follow events in other areas, including Idlib in the north, as part of efforts to encourage domestic tourism in the absence of foreign visitors.
“Syria is coming back, more beautiful” is the slogan on the Tourism Ministry’s Facebook page.
For Assad, it’s another way of showing the world his country is intact and he’s not going anywhere.
The Syrian leader won’t emerge as a winner from the strikes even if Islamic State is defeated, partly because he doesn’t have the resources to expand into areas the militants would vacate, Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut, said in an interview.
At the same time, Sayigh said he didn’t expect that Assad, a close Iranian ally, will be dislodged the way Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki was last month. It would be hard to remove Assad without risking the collapse of the regime and Iran was more directly threatened in Iraq, he said.
“All he can do is survive,” said Sayigh. “Which is what he is doing.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at [email protected] Rodney Jefferson, Ben Holland