Bashar al Assad claims to have driven his own Honda Accord into East Ghouta on Sunday, with the Syrian government posting video of him behind the wheel during the trip to the horrifically brutal and bloody combat zone located on the eastern outskirts of Damascus. The stunt is a propaganda play but a somewhat familiar one, and we still don't know how authentic the little road trip actually was.
Assad supposedly took the drive so that he could visit regime troops that are fighting in the area, some of which have made notable advances in recent days. Rebel fighters have been largely split off into three separated pockets. Reuters reports that the regime has tried to sow division among rebels forces fighting in each of the three pockets by entering secretive talks with some but not others. Military pressure has been strategically applied to help with the regime's divisive plan, and that pressure has continued to be catastrophic to civilians trapped in the area.
Below are four clips of Assad driving into East Ghouta posted by the official Youtube channel of the Syrian President, you can see all eight here. The fifth video is of Assad visiting with his forces. It is a chaotic scene, but his plain clothes body guards are in tow along with his uniformed guards with their CAR-15s. Still the scene looks risky to say the least with a lot of small arms on all sides, although we don't know exactly how staged it actually is. Finally, there is a video of Assad meeting with his command staff in a nearby command post.
There is no doubt that Assad has become very emboldened as a result of his recent spate of military success as of late—which only came via backing by Russian forces and Iranian proxies. But even if Assad did drive into the edge East Ghouta, he unquestionably would have had a detail of bodyguards in tow.
The choice of vehicle is also logical, not just because it makes him look like a down to earth dictator, but because a Honda Accord isn't a huge rolling target like a heavily armored SUV or S550 Mercedes. Not only is Assad cognizant of the possibility of an attack from opposition forces, but he is also well aware of aerial capabilities Israel and the U.S. have in the region. It is impossible to think that Assad isn't paranoid of being taken out from above, regardless of the geopolitical realities surrounding such an action.
It is known that the Syrian strongman does like to drive himself, but he usually doesn't do so directly onto or very near a battlefield. In the last year he has also made appearances driving a black Kia Sportage (below), and it seems most of his solo appearances behind the wheel occur deep in uncontested territory, usually near Syria's coast.
This video from 2013 shows him driving a far more conspicuous 2014 Porsche Panamera:
Assad's propensity to drive himself around aside, the humanitarian situation in East Ghouta remains dire in many areas. Although some wounded and innocent civilians have been able to evacuate, many remain. The onslaught has been so brutal that it now has the possibility of touching off a much wider conflict.
France has threatened to strike Assad's forces if they do not deescalate, and Russian claims the U.S. is gearing up to do the same, especially among accusations of continued use of chemical weapons by Assad on his own people. Russia says it will respond in kind against U.S. interests if Washington launches an attack. France has also warned its journalists to leave the country immediately, and to not plan future trips. French President Emmanuel Macron stated the following on Friday:
"The day we, particularly in tandem with our American partners, have irrefutable proof that the red line has been crossed—namely, through the use of chemical weapons to lethal—we will do what the Americans did more than a few months ago now; we would put ourselves in a position to proceed with targeted strikes."
Secretary of Defense Mattis also warned Syria to not use gas, or suffer the consequences.
If the whole of East Ghouta falls to Assad's forces it will be the largest rebel loss since Aleppo, but at this point the momentum seems on the regime's side.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com