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Analysis: Syrian regime can withstand limited strike

8:59 AM, Aug 27, 2013   |    comments
A general view shows a heavily damaged street in Syria's eastern town of Deir Ezzor on August 26, 2013. Syria's opposition accused pro-regime forces of opening fire at United Nations weapons inspectors on their way to a suspected chemical weapons site outside Damascus in a bid to hinder their investigation. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD ABOUD
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AMMAN, Jordan - A limited strike against Syria might convince the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons again, but it won't change the balance of power in Syria's civil war or bring about President Obama's stated goal of regime change, analysts and rebel leaders agree.

Syria's President Bashar Assad has behind him Russia's veto at the United Nations, Iran's military backing, Hezbollah's foreign fighters and a rebel adversary infiltrated by Islamist groups the United States worries about arming.

Breaking up this morass will likely take more than the cruise-missile strike Obama and Western allies are considering.

"The threats to our interests have only gotten worse, and our inaction has been quite harmful to our interests," said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

"There's no reason to think those consequences won't continue to worsen, and yet you don't see any momentum toward any kind of effective action by the United States and our allies to do anything about it," he said.

Assad "has used all kinds of weapons, chemical and cluster bombs, during massacres in Syria," said Abu Jaafar al-Mugarbel, an activist based in Homs, in western Syria.

"There is nothing that can stop the regime from doing that except military intervention. It is not the best way forward but there is nothing else after all that has happened," he said.

The White House says Obama is considering a range of military options against the Assad regime following reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians, including children, died last week in a rebel-held district outside the capital of Damascus.

Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian group based in France, says more than 350 people were killed in an apparent chemical weapons attack. The United Nations says more than100,000 people have died in more than two years of civil war.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has called for a "strong response" to the use of chemical weapons. His German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, said Germany would support any "consequences" of the Syria attack.

However, the White House appears wary of getting into a wider war and is suspicious of rebel aims.

"They do not want to create chaos and a vacuum that would either open the pathway to al-Qaeda or create such disorder that it might trigger the... 'you broke it, you own it' rule," said Jonah Blank, a political analyst at RAND Corp., a think tank.

U.S. Defense officials told the Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.

Navy ships are capable of a variety of military actions, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.

A limited strike would allow Obama to say he's following through on his warning a year ago that Assad would incur "game changing" action if he used chemical weapons, said Tony Badran, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. However, it would also allow Assad to continue prosecuting the war and spread violence into neighboring countries.

"The casualty toll, the ability of unsavory actors to further entrench themselves, the ability of Assad to consolidate a part of the country under his control and continuing to destabilize neighbors - all that stuff continues to play out" under a limited strike, Badran said.

It's not even clear whether a limited strike would prompt the Assad regime to refrain from using chemical weapons again, said Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and former Middle East expert at the National Security Council.

It's unclear who's making decisions and what the Syrian command structure is, and "that makes it really hard to structure a deterrence message or to know how it will be received," he said.

The administration hopes the regime remains unified, "that a group of reasonable people are at the top of the chain of command, and that they read the message the way we want them to," Pollack said.

When U.S. forces moved closer to Syria on Monday, it prompted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to warn that any military intervention without a U.N. mandate would be a violation of international law.

While the U.N. Security Council has discussed intervention, any decisions on action have been vetoed by Assad backers Russia and China. Russia continues to provide weapons to Assad and has refused pleas from the West to cease.

The U.S. has provided unspecified military aid to Syrian rebels since it concluded in June that the regime had used chemical weapons earlier this year, a "red line" Obama said would prompt U.S. action if crossed.

The rebels are now receiving light arms from the West and Gulf states, while Assad is getting fighters from Iran and Hezbollah, the U.S.-designated terror group based in neighboring Lebanon.

The rebels repeated Monday what they have been saying for more than a year: They need the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Syria to stop Assad's planes from bombing rebel safe havens, and to strike the Syrian tanks that are shelling cities.

"First, hit military locations to stop missile attacks and air raids, which kill thousands of civilians," said Abu Rami, a 32-year-old anti-Assad activist in Homs. "But I'm against ground intervention in Syria to avoid what happened in Iraq. It is unacceptable for all Syrians."

Rami is skeptical that the international community would take action needed to stop the violence. "For two years, we have been hearing about a no-fly zone but it still hasn't happened," he said.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the U.S. military can destroy the Syrian air force, but he warned that that could escalate hostilities and further commit the U.S. to the conflict.

The Obama administration has said it expanded military assistance to the armed opposition, but the Free Syrian Army and other rebels groups say there's no evidence of it arriving.

Secretary of State John Kerry says the administration wants the two sides to negotiate a resolution to the war in Geneva, but the planned conference has been delayed and the participants have yet to be set.

Pollack says the problem is the Obama administration hasn't articulated a clear policy or a clear strategy for how to accomplish a resolution.

"We have a stated goal of regime change, but in a practical matter it's just not clear what the White House is trying to do in Syria," he said. "Nothing the administration is thinking about is going to bring about its real goals."

Former administration officials, such as Defense secretary Leon Panetta, have warned that a collapse of Assad's regime will let his large arsenal of chemical weapons fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-linked militias fighting the regime and Hezbollah.

Badran says what Obama does now may determine whether Assad falls. "The question is whether your intervention will have the broader goal of removal of this regime," Badran said. "Based on how they're talking about it ... they're defining it very narrowly, as a slap on the wrist, don't do that again. If you do, there will be a more serious response."

Anna Boyd, deputy head of MENA forecasting at IHS defense and security analysts in London, doubts a limited strike will change anything. "There is apparently no international appetite for any kind of ground intervention and I think that is the only thing that would have a chance at changing the outcome of the war," she said.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said any U.S. operation in response to the recent atrocities is likely to fall far short of what rebel forces desire.

The administration could target the regime's chemical weapons directly, but that risks releasing toxic agents and causing mass casualties, Alterman said. It could also target elite military units, airstrips and missile batteries to damage the regime's ability to deliver its chemical weapons, he said.

It's clear the administration does not intend "to decisively tip the balance in favor of Syria's insurgency," Alterman said. "Everything the administration has done up to now has suggested they don't want to own the outcome of this and their most preferable outcome is some sort of negotiated solution."

Contributing: Jim Michaels from Washington; Louise Osborne and Victor Kotsev from Berlin; Dorell from McLean, Va.

Abdulrahman al-Masri and Oren Dorell , USA TODAY

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