Faced with Russian and Chinese rejection of effective U.N. action against the Syrian regime, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is said to be moving towards a limited air offensive against the Damascus regime and the imposition of no-fly zones over Syria to protect villages from the attacks of helicopter gunships.
Reports say that Obama ordered the U.S. navy and air force to accelerate preparations for a mission aimed at destroying the regime’s military command center and restricting Syrian army and air force activity against rebels and civilian populations.
Apparently, Obama opted for the move encouraged by Russian officials’ statements that Moscow has not personalized the conflict and will support the departure of President Bashar Assad “if Syrians agreed to it”.
Obama tried to get Russia and Iran involved in the effort to end the crisis in Syria, but Moscow and Tehran dumped the problem right back in Washington’s lap.
Russia and Iran know well — like the rest of the international community — that there can be no negotiated end to the conflict in Syria because the regime is fighting to save itself and will not accept any compromise that involves a scaling down of its absolute grip on power.
The opposition, which is weak because of differences among the different groups, will not settle for anything less than regime change in Damascus.
Apparently, Obama is faced with no option but to resort to military action. Under the reported plan, the U.S. will seek to limit the Syrian regime’s military options while stepping up the flow of arms to the rebels and organizing them as a professional force capable of taking on the military units loyal to Damascus.
The U.S. will also influence senior Syrian military commanders, through different lucrative methods; if the regime’s military options are curtailed, then the officer class will realize that Assad is tottering and will be ready to stage a military coup.
Well, this seems to be the only way ahead, given that the Syrian regime remains as strong as ever and is continuing the bloodbath against its people.
There are too many ifs and buts in the U.S. approach to the conflict in Syria.
The Obama administration knew well from the outset of the rebellion that it would be a protracted process since the Assad regime will fight to its last.
Among Washington’s many considerations was the staunch Iranian support for the Damascus regime, Tehran’s strongest ally in the Arab world. An ouster of the Syrian regime will be a heavy blow to Iran and will also weaken Tehran’s influence in Iraq and Lebanon.
That was and is the ideal solution, but the Syrian regime has proved too resilient to be ousted in a hurry. It is determined to continue its brutal crackdown and does not care if the entire international community condemns it.
Syrian activists say that more than 14,000 people have been killed and many more thousands maimed during the regime’s crackdown against rebel areas. The regime appears ready to kill as many more despite the world outcry. Tens of thousands remain in detention and are subjected to torture.
The regime has polarized the population by portraying the rebels as foreign-influenced thugs, and Islamists. It has played on the fears of the Alawites — who represent some 10 per cent of the population — and gave a heavy sectarian color to the conflict.
Of course, the Alawites fear a regime change because whoever emerges as a victor could turn to be vengeful for the decades of oppression by the Alawite rulers, and this could find them at the receiving end of violence.
What started out as a grassroots and peaceful movement demanding change has now turned into a violent conflict. Ironically, it could be described as the regime’s success since the use of weapons by the rebels justified its violent response.
In the process, however, the regime also finds itself confronting an international coalition that it cannot take on.
The rulers of Damascus and all the Syrians know that things cannot continue as they are and that Moscow and Beijing will come under too much pressure and will have to scale down their support for the Assad regime sooner than later.
Obviously, Russia sees the conflict in Syria as a key contest with the U.S.-led West. Somehow it seems to believe that the Assad regime will survive the crisis and resume control over the country, forcing the opposition to settle for negotiations, whatever way the process leads to.
But the Russian calculation is ill-founded. Having waged the rebellion for 15 months, the Syrian opposition has gathered a momentum that the regime will never be able to counter.
The international community has not been able to get its act together to put an end to the bloodbath in Syria. The initiative put together by Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general who also represents the Arab League entrusted with solving the crisis, is not getting anywhere. Annan himself has admitted as much.
It is against this backdrop that Obama is reported to be moving towards a “limited” offensive to clip the wings of the Syrian military. It is a high-risk game because a military confrontation with Syria cannot be limited by any definition. The Syrian regime has many options that could destabilize Iraq and Lebanon, but it could not shake the entire region nor could it trigger another war.
(The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Jordan Times on June 16, 2012)