Assad is hearing the U.S. worry about his air defenses. The shooting down of a Turkish aircraft may be meant to amplify these fears.
Syria is apologizing to Turkey for shooting down one of its F-4 Phantoms that flew into its airspace. The Assad regime says it was an accident and that the aircraft was only identified as Turkish after the incident. The Turks are still furious and are talking about unspecified measures in response. President Gul says that it is not uncommon for fast-flying planes to violate the airspace of other countries and that the F-4 was unarmed. It is possible that Syrian military did make a mistake but what was Assad’s intention if it wasn’t?
Assad is acutely aware of U.S. concerns about Syria and has skillfully manipulated them to his advantage ever since he came into power in 2000. Speculation about international intervention in Syria is increasing as the massacres continue and France isn't ruling out U.N.-authorized military action. Obama Administration officials have pushed back by emphasizing the threat posed by Assad’s air defenses of Russian origin. Russia is sending more advanced missile systems to Syria.
Elliot Abrams recalls what Anthony Cordesman, a top military expert, said about Syria’s air defenses in 2007. He assessed that the numbers of Syria’s armaments were misleading and that Assad actually has “one of the least capable air forces” and his air defense system is “generally obsolete in weapons, sensors and command and control capability.” In September 2007, the Israeli air force flew deep into Syria and destroyed a secret nuclear site without a problem.
Assad has upgraded his systems since then. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey says Syria’s air defenses are five times as sophisticated as Libya’s were and are near civilian populations. Other experts say this threat is being purposely exaggerated.
The actual state of Syria’s defenses is another discussion. The point is that Assad is hearing the U.S. worry about his air defenses. The shooting down of a Turkish aircraft may be meant to amplify these fears.
There is precedent to believe that this is the case.
Assad, for example, has taken notice of U.S. concerns that any potential replacement for him would be worse. After the infamous cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed were published, the Assad regime instigated riots in his own country. A confidential document released by Wikileaks records that a U.S. source in Syria reported that Assad wanted to send a message. “This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule” is how the source described it.
Since 2000, Assad has worked to convince the West that he is the only alternative to the Islamists by allowing jihadists limited freedom to spew their ideology while silencing genuine proponents of a secular democracy. When the revolution began, Assad began releasing Islamist political prisoners. His regime painted its opposition as a monolithic entity consisting entirely of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda.
Assad has also heard Western concerns about the civil war turning into a sectarian bloodbath and Sunni Islamists massacring the minorities should he fall. He reacts by echoing the worry about sectarianism while fanning its flames.
Shooting down Turkey’s airplane as the West frets about Syria’s air defenses fits into this pattern.
The world is also justifiably worried about Syria’s armaments, including WMDs, falling into the hands of criminals and terrorists as the country destabilizes. How will the regime play upon this fear?
Ryan Mauro is RadicalIslam.org's National Security Analyst and a fellow with the Clarion Fund. He is the founder of WorldThreats.com and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.