Much depends on how threatened the Assad regime feels. If a strike does little to threaten Assad, it emboldens him. If Assad is threatened, it raises the stakes for retaliation as the very existence of the regime would then be at stake.
“I think that some of these scenarios for ‘unforeseen consequences’ are a bit alarmist. I think the threats emanating from Damascus and Tehran are meant to unsettle nervous populations in western countries,” said Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former deputy director of the State Department’s office in charge of Middle East intelligence.
By retaliating, Assad would invite even more foreign intervention in Syria’s conflict, White said.
“I frankly think he would rather hunker down, take the blow and get on with it, rather than inviting more damage,” he said, adding the retaliation could happen in spite of Syria’s restraint. “The one response that worries me more is Iran intervening to instigate a Hezbollah rocket barrage on Israel. But then again we have to consider that Hezbollah has its combatants heavily committed in Syria as well and does not want to take any heavy blows … right now.”
If there is a strike, both Assad and Obama must calibrate their responses with an eye toward an end goal. For Assad, it’s a basic one: outlasting the insurgents and surviving. For Obama, the matter is more complicated.
“You do ultimately want a negotiated outcome to this conflict because we certainly don’t want to see the regime win…but we don’t want to see a straight-up victory for the opposition,” said Michael Singh, a former top national security adviser during the administration of President George W. Bush.
A collapse of the Assad regime could leave parts of Syria ungovernable and strengthen jihadists who make up part of the opposition, he cautioned.
“Ideally you would want to see a degraded military convinced it can’t win, strengthen the parts of the secular opposition that you feel you can work with,” said Singh, now an analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, a security think tank.
Historically, Syria has responded to attacks by Israel or other foes with restraint and an eventual asymmetrical response. How Assad responds to any attack could depend on how much damage it inflicts.
“The bigger risk is it doesn’t accomplish much,” said Singh, fearing an emboldened Assad.