Why after two years of conflict is intervention only now being considered?
Despite all the rhetoric by the US and the West, none of them have ever been serious about Basher al-Assad’s removal. Talks between some rebel groups and the West throughout the last 2 years weather Geneva 1 or Geneva 2 have centred on negotiations with the regime and accepting the continuation of the regime in different guises.
In effect these talks have given Basher al-Assad the necessary cover to end the uprising, using whatever tools necessary to achieve this. However al-Assad has lost the North of the country, the South of the country, the countryside and only recently won back the Homs governorate, which it is struggling to hold onto. The rebel groups have seized the East of Damascus from the regime – the countries capital and the seat of the regime. The intervention by Hizbullah only 6 months ago has failed to stem the advance of the rebel groups.
Likely intervention by the West comes as the rebel groups are close to overthrowing the regime.
Is chemical weapons use, really the reason for the imminent intervention?
Chemical weapons use although not a regular feature of the battle for Syria of late was becoming a regular feature. This is because al-Assad, in a desperate attempt to maintain his grip on power, has been forced into this desperate measure, as the rebels advance inside Damascus.
Britain’s dossier on regimes use of Chemical weapons noted their use on 14 different occasions, but not a whimper came from any nation in the West. The independent revealed on September 2nd that Britain itself was exporting Nerve gas to Syria, less then a year ago. Barack Obama’s ‘red line’ on chemical weapons has been more flexible then America’s debt. Therefore to use chemical weapons as a pretext, raises serious question of ‘why now?’
Chemical weapons use should also be put into perspective, whilst the recent chemical attack killed around 1,500 people, over 100,000 have been murdered with conventional weapons through state sieges on towns, indiscriminate air attacks and massacres by state militia. The West has consistently stood by be it weapons of mass destruction or conventional weapons.
All of this shows the motive to intervene now most certainly cannot be the recent chemical weapons attack.
Surely an attack on the al-Assad regime can only be a good thing?
Both the US and the UK have gone to great lengths to explain that any prospective attack on Syria will be limited and will not include regime change. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary told reporters on August 27: “I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change. They are about responding to clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.” David Cameron, prime minister of the UK, opened the country’s debate on intervention by making Britain’s aims very clear, he said: “It’s not about taking sides in the conflict, it’s not about invading, it’s not about regime change or indeed working more closely with the opposition. It’s about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.”
Hence western intervention is not about removing the al-Assad regime. The institute for the study of war in a tactical analysis commented: “US Navy warships are positioned for a strike against Syria using long range Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM). Such an attack could cause varying degrees of limited damage to the Assad regime’s ability to use more chemical weapons or continue effective operations against the opposition. It cannot eliminate the regime’s military or chemical weapons capabilities, however, nor cause more than a temporary degradation in regime operations. Such a strike will be ineffective.”
Can the Muslim armies not intervene?
Turkey and Egypt have more than enough military capability to remove the al-Assad regime. However, they have remained mere spectators, refusing to use their armies.
Basher al-Assad has resorted to using the republican guard and the 4th armoured division as the rest of the army is largely Sunni and cannot be trusted. Any Egyptian or Turkish intervention would be facing anything between 20,000 – 80,000 personnel. As Turkey shares a border with Syria it will not have long supply lines and could quickly resupply troops whenever needed. The sheer size of Turkish armed forces would quickly overwhelm al-Assad’s defences. Turkey makes its own Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and tanks, whilst Syria has no indigenous defence industry to speak about. Syria would suffer from huge resupply efforts as it is reliant on foreign supplies to replace destroyed equipment, Turkey’s production facilities can continue to roll out APC’s and tanks if required.
A ground assault combined with an air assault would disable Syria’s SAM batteries – which are surface to air missiles. Turkey has indigenously developed its own unmanned aerial vehicles, which could take out and overwhelm Syria’s missile defence system. Alongside this Turkey has 800 combat aircraft of which 350 are F15 falcon fighting jets Capable of 9g manoeuvres and speeds in excess of Mach 2, these would be no match for al-Assad’s Soviet era MiG’s made in the 1960’s.
A crucial difference between the air combat capability of Syria and Turkey is that Turkey has modern support systems in place for the planes it flies with the result that a high proportion of aircraft are available for operations at any given time.
All this shows that the military capability exists to end the crisis, the political will is however absent.
Who will replace Bashar al-Assad?
For the moment there are three positions on the post-Assad scenario. The US position is as much of the al-Assad regime should remain (including Basher al-Assad if possible) in place with some new faces in the leadership. Leon Panetta as secretary of defence admitted to this in 2012: “I think it’s important when Assad leaves – and he will leave – to try to preserve stability in that country. And the best way to preserve that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military, the police, as you can, along with the security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government. That’s a key.”
The European position on Syria’s future leadership has been for the complete removal of the Ba’athist regime and replacing it with new faces they have been negotiating with. In this endeavour both France and Britain established the ‘Friends of Syria group. This group has spent more time in London and Paris, than fighting in Syria. It established a transitional government and elected Ghassum Hitto as its interim leader, it however has no base in Syria currently.
The Muslims of Syria and the main rebel groups have stated they want no negotiations with the regime and that the groups the west are negotiating with do not represents the people of Syria as they have been in exile for decades. In the second and third weeks of June 2013, Al-Jazeera News aired a series of interviews (in Arabic) with leaders of the main armed groups fighting against Al-Assad’s regime in Syria. They all clearly stated Islam will play a central role after the fall of al-Assad.
What has been the progress of the rebel groups in overthrowing al-Assad?
After 2 years and six months the rebel groups control the north of the country and the al-Assad regime has given up trying to reclaim it. Much of the South is also under rebel control, but intense fighting continues. The centre of the country from the Homs governorate through Damascus to the coast is where the battle continues.
Hizbullah’s entrance into the conflict in the last 6 months and the intervention of Iran ensured the al-Assad regime didn’t collapse. However despite these gains by the regime in Damascus opposition forces have mounted a major offensive, entering many government-held areas and gaining new ground. Much of Eastern Damascus is under rebel control and the battle for South Damascus continues. With fighting taking place in the countries capitol, al-Assad in desperation resorted to his recent chemical attack which was targeted at Ghoutia, which is a Eastern Damascus suburb.
The rebel groups today control more territory than al-Assad, however critical territory remains in regime hands. It is ironic that as the rebels progress in Damascus, talk of western intervention intensifies when al-Assad is on his last legs.