Western leaders have devoted great efforts over the last week to explaining why the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria justifies military intervention. What they haven’t explained is the purpose of the operation they are planning.
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Is it to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad? If so, for what? For using chemical weapons, or for killing tens of thousands of people with conventional weapons? Or perhaps the goal is to seriously degrade Assad’s military capabilities, thereby preparing the ground for an offensive by the Free Syrian Army? If so, what will happen afterward? And either way, how many Syrian civilians will be killed in this attack?
Syrian opposition websites have been rife with reports that the West plans to attack not only military bases, missile launching sites and chemical weapons storehouses, but also airfields and places where troops are amassed, to make it easier for the rebels to defeat the regime decisively. Some reports also claim the West plans to place the son of former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, Manaf Tlass, at the helm of the opposition’s ground forces.
There are likewise numerous reports of the Syrian military’s preparations for the impending attack, which include evacuating bases it thinks will be targeted and ordering brigade and division commanders to operate independently if communication with the high command are severed.
A senior Syrian official told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai the regime has prepared two responses, depending on whether the West launches a merely symbolic attack or a broader, sustained one. In the case of the former, the regime plans keep its head down, wait out the attack and then resume its onslaught against the rebels. But in the latter case, it is liable to use all the weapons at its disposal to “set the region ablaze.” The main concern in that event would be Syria’s long-range missiles, which it could use to hit adjacent countries – primarily Jordan and Lebanon, but also Turkey.
Other sources said that if the West launches a comprehensive assault, a significant portion of the Syrian military’s mid and top-level officers would try to flee abroad. Some have already opened bank accounts in Europe and Asia.
A Western diplomat said Assad is projecting a “business as usual” attitude. But whether his senior officers would continue obeying his orders in the event of a major attack remains unknown.
Another critical question is what the Syrian rebels will do during and after the Western attack. The infighting among the numerous opposition militias is well-known. Up to now, each faction has fought the regime independently, with little tactical coordination, making rebel-held territory a patchwork of fiefdoms.
Both the West and the Arab states would like to set up a new, truly national force, under the command, apparently, of Manaf Tlass, who participated in last week’s meeting of senior Western and Arab military officers in Jordan. They have a long way to go, however.
As far as most of the Syrian opposition is concerned Tlass is an unacceptable choice because of his past as an officer in Assad’s military and because of his father’s longtime service as defense minister under both Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez. Moreover, the Western attack is expected to start within days, so there’s no time to build up a new military force even if Tlass were the right man for the job.
Rebel leaders insist that they will be able to follow up Western air or remote missile strikes with a ground offensive. But it’s hard to imagine them overcoming their internal divisions to do so. Even if they could muster the unity necessary, they face serious munition shortages, especially in the realm of heavy weaponry.
Both in terms of unity and armament, the Syrian rebels differ significantly from their Libyan counterparts. The latter succeeded in building a unified military command (at least as long as the fighting lasted) and in obtaining heavy weaponry. They were able to launch an effective ground campaign to complement NATO’s air strikes, and this ultimately enabled them to oust Muammar Gadhafi.
The expected Western assault is more likely a punishment for Assad and a salve for Western consciences rather than the start of a plan to topple the Assad regime. Even a limited assault would have strategic significance: It would free the Western powers from their fears over a Russian and Chinese response and set a precedent for military action taken without UN Security Council approval - and possibly laying the groundwork for no-fly zones in Syria. According to some views, a strike would also send a clear message to Iran.
The biggest question still stands. Will the Assad regime survive, and if not, what will replace it?