Thursday,21 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)
Thursday,21 June, 2018
Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The third option

Within hours, it was said, the US would strike Syria. Reporting from Damascus, Bassel Oudat finds that US inaction was greeted with mixed feelings

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It was supposed to be sure fire. America, aided by assorted allies, was about to launch an attack on Syria. The bad guys were scurrying for cover and the good guys were cheering on, or so you would think. But the picture was more complex, and became more so once the Americans had an inexplicable change of heart.

For a few days at least, President Barack Obama and his top officials appeared determined to punish the Syrian president for using chemical weapons against his own people. The pieces were falling into place, with armies going on alert and military vessels sailing up and down the coasts, rockets on the ready.

Then suddenly, nothing.

The Americans started to backpedal, putting off the attack. Now we don’t know if anything is going to happen at all. And many in the Syrian opposition are crestfallen about it.

The first sign of an about face came not from Washington, but from London, where David Cameron, the UK prime minister, went to consult the House of Commons and got, instead of the approval he craved, a bit of a chiding.

Then Obama dithered, wanting to leave it all up to congress, which cannot even give an opinion before mid-September.

Francois Hollande, the French president, who was also all huff and puff about the strike, also cooled off all of a sudden. And some say he, too, will seek parliamentary approval — one that he may be denied.

Analysts were confused. If the Americans and their allies were planning to take their own sweet time, discussing the strike with hesitant legislatures, what was the fuss all about? Why were men and materiel committed into action that never was? Why was news leaked on the attacks so real — to the point where we were almost told what types of weapons were going to be used, how many rockets were going to hit, and what the likely targets were?

For some in Syria, the turnabout was heart breaking. Parts of the opposition were almost smelling the tomahawks and praying for them to hit their targets. Some were visualising a fall of the regime, followed by a victorious rise of the opposition to power. Now, they have only days and weeks of fighting, against greater odds, to look forward to.

It is time for a tantrum, at least in some sections of the Syrian opposition. You hear complaints that sound like, “Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is getting all the help it wants from Russia and Iran. And what do we get, aside from dashed hopes?”

Because Obama swallowed his words, Syrian members of the opposition say, Al-Assad’s regime will emerge more defiant than ever before.

What adds bitterness to their argument is that the timing was almost perfect. A chemical attack has taken place; Russia was almost resigned to inaction — it even pulled its ships out of Tartus; Iran was in no mood for shenanigans; and Hizbullah was too knee-deep in trouble back in Lebanon to care. Not to mention that the US and UK constitutions do not require leaders to take legislative consent before lobbing some rockets at a rogue regime.

So what exactly triggered the change of heart? Nobody is clear on that.

I will come back to this point in a minute, but let me first remind you that not all in Syria were in favour of an attack. Even in the ranks of the opposition, some viewed the move as too risky, and potentially disastrous.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), which is mostly made up of people who live abroad, was all for a strike. So was the Free Syrian Army (FSA). So were most of the armed revolutionary groups.

But the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC) strongly opposed the strike, going as far as branding it “foreign aggression”.

NCSROF leader Ahmed Al-Jarba called on Arab countries to support the military strike against the Syrian regime, noting that the battle in Syria aims to: stop Iran from meddling in the region; destroy the killing machine of the Al-Assad regime.

Al-Jarba claimed that the FSA was capable of taking full and immediate control of the country, once the strike is waged. He also blamed the current regime for committing “genocide” in Syria with the help of Iran and Hizbullah.

The Muslim Brotherhood agreed with this assessment. But it didn’t want the West to wage a small-scale strike. This would be too risky, it argued, for a wounded regime is likely to be more murderous once the warships have left the coast.

Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood advised a large-scale military attack, including targeted bombings and safe havens. It also wanted more and better weapons to be sent to the opposition to finish the job.

Colonel Ahmed Fahd Al-Nemah, leader of the Revolutionary Military Council in Daraa, was among those who were hoping for a Western strike. If the strike took place, he said, the FSA could finish the battle and control all the country within days.

Louay Safi, a high-ranking official in NCSROF, was more cautious. His view was that the US strikes would make the regime more powerful, if these attacks were too timid.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Safi said that, “if the attacks are indecisive, they will backfire. Unless the attacks weaken the regime’s ability to use the air force and rockets against Syrian cities and villages, they wouldn’t succeed in punishing or deterring the regime.”

The NCCDC is adamantly against the strikes, calling it an aggression against Syria and its people, history and future. What Syria needs, the NCCDC believes, is not more bloodshed, but a political solution.

Haitham Manna, leader of the NCCDC abroad, voiced opposition to US intervention. In statements to the Weekly, Manna said that, “first of all, this would be a foreign aggression and invasion. Secondly, US preparations for the strike rely on out-dated information that the opposition had given the Americans and that data is of no military use now. Most likely, the Syrian president, his chiefs-of-staff and the top echelons of administrators would survive,” he said.

Manna added: “The main arms depots are in residential areas, so civilians would be the ones to suffer. The regime will bounce back after the American strike, and it will act as if it had defeated the US — it will become more belligerent.”

FSA spokesman Fahd Al-Masri denied that the opposition gave the Americans any list of targets. Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Masri said: “FSA leaders didn’t share with the US forces any intelligence on sites that should be attacked, nor has the US demanded any intelligence in this respect. Perhaps the Americans have such immense spying abilities they don’t need our input.

Al-Masri added: “Anything published about targets is mere speculation. The Americans cannot possibly be leaking such information.”

After the postponement of the strike, the Syrians were still divided on what to think. The government and its supporters said that they were ready to repel the attack, a claim that most Syrians deride as untrue. Some in the ranks of the resistance said that the strike was likely to weaken the regime enough to enrage it and make it more ferocious.

Then there are some, including the FSA and the armed groups, that were disappointed. Their position is that the regime is too weak to survive the strike, and that the country was ripe for change.

Now back to the reason for the postponement of the strike.

Much speculation has been made. The change of heart was all about America’s strategic interests. No, it was about the Russian and Chinese opposition. Actually, perhaps it is about German and Australian reservations. No, it can only be explained by Iranian and North Korean threats. So went the debate.

A more likely reason: the Americans were worried about a chaotic aftermath in case the regime actually falls apart.

Some analysts maintain that the US is worried that the regime may disintegrate too rapidly, before a post-regime arrangement can be put in place. Should this happen, nearly 250,000 rebels serving in 1,000 or so militias would have the run of the land.

Opposition member Walid Al-Benni is one of those who believe that the US cannot move forward without a game plan. Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Benni said: “The US is not going to help bring down Al-Assad’s regime without having an alternative game plan. What the Syrians think is not what matters, and the road to freedom is still long.”

Some analysts say that the US military strike carried an unacceptable risk; it is impossible to destroy the nerve gas stockpiles unless you send specialised troops to handle this delicate operation.

Also, the regime — infuriated by the assault — may blow up some of the chemical weapons depots and blame the Americans for it.

Any mishandling of the chemical weapons stockpiles can lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, analysts say. This is particularly true because the regime stores such materials close to major cities, including Damascus, Homs and Hama.

Should a tragedy of massive proportions occur, the military operation would be called off: the Americans would be blamed, and the regime would be left gloating, and still in power.

So what’s next?

One possibility is that the Obama administration may abandon the whole idea, citing potential congressional opposition.

Another is that the US may keep the pressure on, threatening to strike so as to force Damascus into accepting a handover of power at the upcoming Geneva II conference.

A third possibility would be to go on with the original plan and strike, perhaps even on a larger scale than was originally expected.

An FSA source, speaking anonymously, voiced hope for the third option. “The Americans will do it. They will deal a massive and painful blow to the regime. The US may also strike at militants groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the north while at it.”

For now, this seems to be wishful thinking. Then again, you never know.

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