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Dr Musa A Keilani: Air offensive sees no limit
June 20, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Faced with Russian and Chinese rejection of effective UN action against the Syrian regime, the administration of US 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 has ordered the US Navy and Air Force to accelerate preparations for a mission aimed at destroying the regime’s military command centre and restrict 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 personalised the conflict and will support the departure of President Bashar Al 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 could 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 and he is seeking to limit it. Under the reported plan, the US will seek to limit the Syrian regime’s military options while stepping up the flow of arms to the rebels and organising them as a professional force capable of taking on the military units loyal to Damascus.

The US will also influence senior Syrian military commanders, through different lucrative methods, to feel the pressure if the regime’s military options are curtailed, then the officer class will realise that Assad is tottering and they 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 its bloodbath against its people.

There are too many ifs and buts in the US 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 itself to be too resilient to be ousted in a hurry. It is determined to continue its brutal crackdown and could not care less if the entire international community condemned it.

Syrian activists say that more than 14,000 people have been killed and many more thousands maimed in 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 subject to torture.

The regime has polarised 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 colour to the conflict. Of course, the Alawites have to fear a regime change because whoever emerges as the 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 grassroot and peaceful movement demanding change has now been 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 and distorted the greatest threat to its survival.

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 it could never be business as usual and that Moscow and Beijing would come under too much pressure and would 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 US-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 the process could lead to.

But the Russian calculation is ill-founded. Having waged the rebellion for 15 months, the Syrian opposition movement has gathered such 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 UN 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 author, a former Jordanian ambassador, is the
chief editor of  Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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