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Assad is defiant as U.S.-led strikes in Syria show no sign of threatening his hold on power

Government supporters wave Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against President Trump during demonstrations in Damascus on Saturday, following military strikes by U.S., British and French forces.
Government supporters wave Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against President Trump during demonstrations in Damascus on Saturday, following military strikes by U.S., British and French forces. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

BEIRUT — U.S.-led strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities prompted defiant celebrations in Damascus on Saturday as it became clear that the limited attack posed no immediate threat to President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power and would likely have no impact on the trajectory of the Syrian war.

Fears of a wider escalation faded after it emerged that the locations targeted by the United States, Britain and France had been confined to three sites associated with the Syrian chemical weapons program, had caused no serious casualties and had probably not destroyed Syria’s capacity to develop and deploy banned chemical substances.

There were expressions of anger from Syria’s allies, with Russia labeling the attack an “act of aggression” and Iran calling it “a war crime.” Syria described it as “barbarous.” President Trump called the attack an “enormous success,” tweeting that they represented a “Mission Accomplished.”

The Post's Anton Troianovski and Louisa Loveluck explain why the joint United States military strike against Syria on April 13 will likely have little effect. (Video: Anton Troianovski, Louisa Loveluck, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

But on the streets of Damascus, there was jubilation as government supporters realized that a more expansive assault would not materialize. Residents gathered in central squares and danced to patriotic songs, waving Syrian flags alongside those of Russia and Iran, Syria’s allies in the fight against the anti-
Assad rebellion.

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“The honorable cannot be humiliated,” the Twitter account maintained by Assad’s office said shortly after the attack. A few hours later, the account tweeted a video of him walking nonchalantly to work through the halls of the Syrian presidential palace.

Though the outcome appeared to have satisfied the conflicting agendas of the world powers competing for influence in Syria, it won’t make any difference to the war on the ground — which Assad is steadily winning, said Amr al-Azm, a professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

U.S. coalition strikes Syria with cruise missiles

The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land-attack missile at Syria as part of an allied strike. President Trump ordered a joint force strike on Syria with Britain and France in response to a recent suspected chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (U.S. Navy)

“This was more about the Western allies making sure their red lines were addressed rather than trying to seriously damage the Assad regime, prevent the further killing of civilians or reduce the capacity of the Assad regime to keep fighting,” he said.

“From Assad’s perspective, this was a big win. He must be thinking, this is good; I came out on top; I gained much more than I lost.”

It was unclear even whether there would be a long-term impact on Syria’s capacity to develop and use chemical weapons. Trump had telegraphed for days the likely response of the United States to the alleged chemical attack that killed civilians in a rebel stronghold last Saturday, giving the Syrian authorities and their Iranian and Russian allies time to vacate the facilities that were targeted — and perhaps remove vital equipment and stores.

Russia said the damage was minimal. According to the Syrian army command, three civilians were injured, in the vicinity of a strike outside the city of Homs.

“It remains to be seen whether the allied attack fulfilled all its intended goals,” said Karl Dewey of the defense consultancy Jane’s by IHS Markit.

This was the second strike against Syria in a little over a year. Last April, the United States bombed the Shayrat air base in the province of Homs in retaliation for a sarin nerve agent attack that killed about 70 people in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun.

On April 7, videos again emerged of men, women and children with foam on their mouths, after a bomb allegedly containing toxic gas was dropped in a residential neighborhood of the rebel-held town of Douma, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

A day later, the rebels in the town surrendered, making the use of chemical weapons in this instance, if confirmed, a successful tactic, Azm said.

The retaliatory airstrikes went further than last year’s attack, targeting production and research facilities as well as command centers from which attacks are launched. The Pentagon said the missiles hit a scientific research center in the Barzeh suburb of Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a command post, also near Homs.

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But although Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White said the strikes “set the Syrian chemical weapons program back for years,” Pentagon officials acknowledged that a “residual” capacity remained.

Seeking to tamp down the global tensions that soared after Trump’s tweet Wednesday that missiles are “coming, nice and new and ‘smart,’ ” the United States and its allies stressed the limited nature of their goals.

“This was not about interfering in a civil war, and it was not about regime change,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said at a news conference in London.

White echoed that comment, saying the attack “does not represent a change in U.S. policy, nor an attempt to depose the Syrian regime.”

In Damascus, residents jolted awake by explosions at 4 a.m. expressed relief that the attack was short-lived.

“Thank God this was less than we had feared. We were scared of a bigger assault that could be devastating, but we are happy it was limited and less powerful,” said Mayda Kumejian, a Damascus resident contacted by telephone. She described being wakened by explosions and jets roaring overhead, only to realize about an hour later that there would be no prolonged attack.

“This strike is only muscle-flexing by Trump to show his power,” she said. “Assad’s regime is much stronger now.”

The crowds that gathered in Damascus also expressed scorn, waving portraits of Assad and mocking Trump.

“We tell Trump, you can do nothing. Here we are celebrating to show that you are bankrupt,” said a woman interviewed on state television.

For Syrians who had welcomed the prospect of an American attack — and, in many cases, had called for strikes over many years — hopes that the U.S. threats might make a difference quickly soured into disappointment.

“We thought it would be much bigger than this,” said Ahmed Primo, a journalist and activist now living in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. “Assad might have used chemical weapons this time, but he’s been indiscriminately targeting civilians for years. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed; hundreds of thousands of people have been disappeared. After seven years of war, we don’t believe that anyone will come to help the Syrian people anymore.”

The strikes give Assad a green light to sustain his pursuit of a military solution against opposition areas in which many more civilians may die even if chemical weapons aren’t used, other rebel supporters said.

“According to the cowardly statements and the weak strike by the West, Assad is allowed to use all kinds of weapons to kill us except chemicals,” tweeted Syrian opposition journalist Hadi Abdallah. “The international community has set him free as a monster to annihilate the Syrian people.”

The United States and its allies said they hoped the attack would propel momentum toward the revival of peace talks in Geneva that have so far proved fruitless.

But there was no reason to believe these strikes would give any new incentive to Assad to cooperate with a peace process that Washington says should result in his removal from power, said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Assad has absorbed worse before, and he will absorb this,” he said.

Anton Troianovski in Moscow, Suzan Haidamous in Beirut and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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