A member of the Islamist Syrian opposition group Ahrar al-Sham fires against a position of the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG), a militia set up to protect Kurdish areas in Syria from opposing forces, during clashes in the countryside of the northern Syrian Raqqa province on August 25, 2013. (Photo credit should read ALICE Martins/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY)
-- Rebels fighting Bashar Assad's regime in Syria would almost certainly
try to capitalize on a Western attack aimed at Assad's military,
potentially giving a boost to radical groups among the opposition,
military analysts said.
The Obama administration hopes to limit
the objectives of an attack to send a message to Assad without toppling
the regime and plunging the country into chaos. Rebel reaction injects a
critical element of uncertainty into administration plans.
attack is going to weaken the regime," said Mustafa Alani, a security
analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. He said rebels
would be able to capitalize on a U.S. attack.
"The regime is already overstretched," Alani said. "They are fighting on a hundred fronts."
analysts and rebels point out that a limited attack at high-level
military and regime targets would not dramatically affect the balance of
power on the ground. Such an attack would probably not hit Syrian
military targets in the field but would be limited to high-level
A short attack would have limited benefit, said
Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for a coalition of opposition groups. "Free
Syrian Army commanders are trying to study all different possibilities,"
Rebel groups could capitalize on a sustained attack that significantly weakened Syrian military capabilities, Saleh said.
Assad's military defenses are seriously degraded, an opposition
breakthrough could follow," said Aron Lund, a Swedish researcher who
recently wrote about the opposition for a journal produced by the
Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. "But right now, President
Obama seems to be aiming for a more limited action."
One ray of hope for rebels is a strike could severely cripple Assad's 4th
Armored Division, a loyal unit around Damascus that rebels accused of a
chemical attack Aug. 21. "You could weaken the core of the regime's
military force," Alani said.
Saleh said the threat of a strike has
led to some defections among Syrian military officers. Alani said even a
symbolic strike would help move Syrian military officers who are are
hedging their bets.
"It is going to encourage dissent within the regime," Alani said. "A good part of the armed forces is sitting on the fences."
A danger for the United States is the hard-line groups among the opposition, who would benefit from any U.S. attack.
rebel progress on the battlefield has been the result of rebel forces
joining with hard-line Islamists, said Joshua Landis, director of the
Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
achieved a key victory this month when they captured Mannagh air base
near Allepo. The rebel breakthrough happened when opposition forces
linked up with a hard-line group and used a Saudi suicide bomber to
breach the gate, Landis said.
"This is a lesson in why the U.S. doesn't want to change the balance of power," Landis said.
Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed a
similar concern when he wrote a letter last month outlining possible
military options in Syria.
"Should the regime's institutions
collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently
empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to
control," Dempsey wrote.
International efforts to build a moderate
opposition have not worked, leaving the Pentagon without a reliable
partner capable of governing if Assad is ousted.
"Syria today is
not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among
many sides," Dempsey wrote in a separate letter to Rep. Eliot Engel,
The Pentagon estimates there are 800 to 1,200 rebel groups operating in Syria.
United States has provided aid to some of the groups, but analysts say
it will probably not attempt to coordinate with them during an attack.
don't think the administration is even thinking in that direction,"
said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer and senior fellow at
the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Jim Michaels, USA TODAY