Analysis |

More Questions Than Answers as Attack on Syria Looms

Who will take the reins of government if a strike leads to Assad's downfall? No one knows the answer to that - neither the United States, Israel, Europe nor even within Syria.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” says Eli Wallach’s character in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” But he also says, “If you miss, you had better miss very well.” It seems that the fear of missing is the dilemma now facing the United States and Europe over Syria.

The countries are still talking. Even the signs of preparations for military action, bringing warships armed with missiles nearer to the Syrian border, urgent consultations at the White House and coordination of positions with European countries, do not take the safety catch off just yet. That’s because it’s not tactically missing the target that is the concern, since the location of the Syrian army’s chemical weapons sites are known. The concern is over diplomatically missing it.

The decision makers have before them a few versions, each pointing a finger in different directions following last week’s reported use of chemical weapons east of Damascus.

One version is that of the Free Syrian Army and the political opposition, whose spokesmen explaine at a news conference Saturday that the chemical missiles were fired by the Syrian army’s Brigade 115 from its Mount Kalamun missile base and that, during the attack, the head of the Syrian missile directorate, Taher Hamed Khalil, was present at the base.

Another version is that of Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq, relying on a source in the Free Syrian Army who claims that soldiers of the Fourth Elite Unit, commanded by Maher Assad - the Syrian president’s brother - raided the Scientific Studies and Research Center and captured quantities of the chemical weapons after killing a Syrian officer who refused to let them in.

A third version comes from the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah, through an Iraqi source close to the separatist Muktada al-Sadr, who says that fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in charge of some of the chemical weapons stores, fired the chemical weapons at the town of al-Ghouta, despite opposition by the Syrian army brass.

Yet another version, published on the Syrian opposition website al-Hakika, reported that the chemicals were smuggled from Turkey by activists of the Turkmen uprising and that these activists were the ones who fired the missiles to spark an international provocation.

The website, which published reports on the smuggling of the chemicals about a week before the attack - as well as after it - raises questions about the way the dead were found, plus the fact that the weather conditions on the day of the attack could not ensure that Syrian soldiers would not also be killed.

The Syrian regime has its own version, in which five Syrian soldiers were killed and others rushed to the hospital after they were injured by the chemicals.

In this abundance of versions, it seems that, at least in one matter, the fog has been lifted.

Chemical weapons, whose makeup is still not known for sure, were indeed used. Even Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on Saturday that Syrian citizens had been killed by chemical weapons - without, of course, saying who fired them.

The foot-dragging in the West stems from a lack of clear-cut proof about who fired the weapons. The United States wants to find the smoking gun in President Bashar Assad’s palace so the attack on Syria will not be restricted to aiming cruise missiles at some weapons stores, but rather, will lead to a strategic change that will decide the battle in Syria.

In contrast, the destruction of those stores is no assurance that quantities of chemical weapons have not already been distributed among Syrian army units, or have not made their way to rebel groups that do not answer to the Free Syrian Army - such as Islamic groups affiliated with Al-Qaida.

One worrisome scenario is that after the aerial bombardment of the chemical weapons depots, such weapons will continue to be used, but then there will no longer be a clearly responsible target to be attacked.

Beyond tactical considerations, such an attack could cross the strategic boundary that has so far prevented military involvement in Syria. The immediate fear is of a Russian and Iranian response. But even if we assume that the Russians will make do with sharp condemnations and won’t send troops to defend the Syrian regime nor bring its warships closer to the Syrian port of Tartus (the site of a Russian naval facility), the question will still remain of what happens “the day after.”

Who exactly will reap the fruits of the attack? Who will take the reins of government in Syria if the strike leads to Assad’s downfall? No one knows the answer to that - neither the United States, Israel or Europe, nor even within Syria itself.

U.S. President Barack Obama can do himself a political favor and attack a few targets in Syria, showing his insistence on the “red line” he defined a year ago. That, of course, is an important consideration for a president whose popularity continues to slip. But when a superpower is made to strike another country or bring down a regime, the pretext and the outcome should be superpower-sized.

Chemical weapons have killed more than 1,200 people, and conventional weapons have killed more than 100,000. That is a good enough reason to bring down the regime.

Syrian army tanks being deployed in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus on August 24, 2013.Credit: AFP

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