Friday, August 23, 2013

Putting the cart before the horse: the need for a new international policy in Syria

Victims of Syrian chemical attacks
The United States and the international community have put the cart before the horse.  Rather than limiting their military policy to trying to help the Syrian Free Army defeat Bashar al-Asad's Ba'thist regime, they should follow a different policy.  What should that policy be and how might it help bring about a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria?

The strategy followed by anti-Syrian forces in the international community has obviously been ineffective.   The Syrian army still holds the upper hand and horrific human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated by the Asad regime.  On the rebel side, anti-democratic and anti-Western radicals, such as the Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham (Levant), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (Levant)
 has assumed an ever more prominent position among opposition forces.

Two days ago, reports emerged from the eastern suburbs of Damascus that as many as 1500 people, many of them non-combatants, women and children, may have been killed and many more wounded,  The Syrian army attacks were a prelude to a ground offensive against areas sympathetic to rebel forces.   While chemical weapons experts cannot ascertain with certainty what type of chemical weapons were used, some airborne agents, perhaps industrial chemicals, were dropped on a number of Damascus suburbs to the east of the city..

As the Asad regime ups the ante in its struggle with rebel forces, including using chemical weapons, the Obama administration's credibility continues to suffer in the Middle East.  After Presditn Obama asserted that the use of chemical weapons would constitue a "red line" for US policy towards the Syrian conflict, we now have had at least 2 attacks which seem almost certianly to have involved some type of chemical weapons which have been largely being ignored by the US and the international community.  What should be done?

First, the US, UN, EU and concerned states in the Middle East and elsewhere should begin a concerted publicity offensive to draw attention to the details of the Asad regime's use of chemical weapons.  This campaign should be designed in part to put Syria's main backer and military enabler, Russia, on the defensive as it continues to thwart the will of the international community in bringing the civil war in Syria to an end.

Second, the US should engage in a coordinated and massive attack using cruise missiles to destroy the runways of all major Syrian airforce bases.  Missile and drone strikes should be used to destroy as many helicopter gunships as possible.  The Syrian army is vastly over stretched in terms of manpower and cannot afford to lose large number of casualities.  Thus, by default, the army has resorted to air strikes, surface to surface missile attacks, and tank and artillery bombardment as its weapons of choice.

Third, missile strikes should also be directed at communications towers and intelligence headquarters throughout the country.  These attacks will send a message to the most thuggist elements of the Asad regime that they will continue to be exposed to attacks should they continue to pursue the brutal policies that have made the Syrian conflict the bloodiest in the Middle East.

Many US policy-makers and analysts wring their hands and cry out that the United States cannot afford to become involved in a protracted conflict in Syria.  Since when do missile attacks (such as those Israel recently used against rocket convoys purportedly headeed for Hizballah forces in Lebanon) constitute "protracted involvement"?

The attacks suggested here would send a message to the Asad regime that a military victory will not be possible and that, if it continues to refuse to go to the negotiating table, it will need to deploy large numbers of its forces and sustain massive casualties by continuing its current military policy.

In sum, US and international policy should be less focused on a rebel victory than degrading the Syrian army's military capabilities to the point where the Asad regime is forced to the negotiating table.  After a peaceful solution to the civil war has been put in place, even if that involves some de facto political division of the current Syrian state, e.g., Alawite and Kurdish dominated areas, then attention can be turned to radical forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham.

Continued words of support followed by inaction makes only the US and its European allies, as well as the UN, look like paper tigers.  Such inaction only encourages the Asad regime to engage in more horrific attacks such as occurred this week in the east Damascus suburbs. 

Once the Syrian military's capacities to attack rebel forces via air are degraded, the Asad regime will realize that a military victory is not within its reach.  Civilian casualties will immediately decline. At that point, Asad will be forced to engage in serious negotiations with the Syrian opposition and the power of the radical will be undercut.  The US and the international community only contribute to more deaths of innocent civilians, enabling the Asad regime to remain in power, and strengthening radical forces by not exercising the military options suggested here.

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