Tensions have flared further in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Syrian military shot down a Turkish jet fighter that had briefly entered Syrian airspace. Damascus seems not to have followed engagement protocols, firing at the aircraft without warning and after it had reentered international airspace. The Syrian action was condemned in many capitals, with some portraying it as symptomatic of the reckless, almost suicidal, behavior of a desperate regime in its last throes. But Damascus views it differently, as a well-exploited opportunity with little risk and considerable reward. Measured against the background of its international and domestic considerations, this action serves the regime's overall strategy well.
The Bashar al-Assad regime's stated position is that the conspiracy to topple it has been contained, but will require some time to eradicate because of its concerns for civilian casualties. Western and regional co-conspirators have exhausted all means available to them because of the steadfastness of the regime's bases of support - the armed forces, security apparatus, popular committees, and the population as a whole - as well as the robust support of international actors who resist Western hegemony: the BRICS, Iran, and Asian and Latin American voices. The regime will prevail, and its enemies will return to an unshaken Damascus, once again seeking reconciliation. The regime's international standing will also be restored: the alleged atrocities, it would argue, were either committed by foreign-funded terrorists, were outright lies fabricated by outside media, or were unfortunate collateral damage in legitimate efforts to squash an illegal insurgency.
As far-fetched as this narrative may seem from the outside, it is an integral part of the approach used by the Syrian regime in its quest for survival. And it appears to be working: the fearful silent majority has been neutralized by uncertainty about the current balance of power, fear of the regime's continuing repression, and anxiety about an ill-defined future.
Turkey, as per the regime's narrative, is a co-conspirator that was whipped into abandoning its posture by the regime's determination. The bravado of Turkey's leadership prior to Syria's response - which included the activation of PKK operations - turned into silence while regime forces were leveling insurgency strongholds in Homs. The Syrian assessment is also that Turkey is no decision-maker: it lacks the power to initiate a war and has to defer to the United States. Damascus also believes that U.S. President Barack Obama is in no position to escalate, having been successfully contained by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shooting down a Turkish plane that has entered Syrian air space is, according to Damascus, not a breach of international law, and is a vindication of the Syrian lion overtaking the Turkish paper tiger. No surprise that the regime's propaganda apparatus trumpeted the incident as a clear victory.
A severe divide in terms of political culture cuts across much of the Middle East. It may be summed up as one between civility and virility: the desire to establish a commonwealth based on law, justice, and respect against the determination to prevail over and humiliate others. The Syrian regime's information tools are laced with the imagery of virility: even the Syrian president has referred to other regional leaders as "half-men." This imagery is not inconsequential. An authority that displays virility is expected to commit brutal actions, and it ought to be feared and placated by its subject population. The Ba'ath regimes in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and al-Assad's Syria both sought to perfect the Stalinist model of a republic of fear by injecting it with indigenous paternalism. As disparate as the Arab Spring uprisings were, one common element was their challenge to fear-induced submission. The Syrian regime understands well that its only path to ensuring its survival is through the restoration of its rule by fear and the demonstration of its virility.
Short of responding with an equal demonstration of kinetic force, Turkey has lost this contest in virility. The cautious, almost legalistic, language used by NATO in its response proves to the regime's audiences its impotence. To many observers outside of Syria, this incident may be excused as marginal or spun as a part of the case against the regime. But for the Syrian population fearing the regime's wrath, it comes as a just another reminder of its impunity.