28
Aug

Why dictators like Assad just can’t quit while they’re ahead.

By John Norris

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Not content to slowly exterminate his opposition and continue the massive depopulation of his country, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently felt compelled to launch a blatant chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds, if not thousands. If this sort of supervillain behavior sounds familiar, you’re paying attention. Assad is replicating the same strategic blunder committed by a long list of his fellow tyrants and strongmen.

What gives? Why would Assad do something so provocative, something so stupid, something so obviously designed to trigger an international military response?

The answer is simple. Assad — like former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and former Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi — got so used to poking the great slumbering bear that is the United States and the international community without any response that he assumed he had absolute impunity to do whatever he pleased on the ground.

After all, the United States did not seem inclined to dramatic action even after the U.N. announced that there were a million children refugees from the conflict. President Obama’s initial, forceful declaration that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” later proved to be rather squishy. Russia and China have maintained a united front in the U.N. Security Council against concerted action, and it is obvious that the United States couldn’t be less eager to engage in another Middle Eastern war on the heels of costly interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Like Milosevic, Taylor, and Qaddafi, Assad can be forgiven for thinking that there simply was no outrage which would force the United States to get involved. Hadn’t Milosevic successfully engineered ethnic cleansing in Bosnia? Hadn’t Charles Taylor pushed neighboring Sierra Leone into a hellish landscape were rebels cut off the hands of children for sport? Hadn’t Qaddafi engineered the downing of Pan-Am Flight 103 killing all 259 passengers aboard?

Yes, they had. Read more…

John Norris is executive director of the Sustainable Security program at the Center for American Progress.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on August 26, 2013.

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