By Nicolas Nassif
Everyone is waiting for the US military strike on Syria, including Damascus. No one can yet predict its exact time, or the impact it will have on the current superiority enjoyed by the Syrian army and regime over their armed opponents. The targets of the strike are also the subject of varying estimates, but there is little doubt that its goal will be to degrade the capabilities of the regime and alter the balance of power between the government and the opposition.
The presidential palace may not be one of the targets, as long as assassinating the Syrian president is not on the table. Meanwhile, bombing the Syrian army headquarters, security services headquarters, and the barracks of the Syrian army’s strike groups may not substantially undermine the army’s superiority, as all these have no direct bearing on the war machine deployed on the field.
The Americans never said that they want to destroy the army, but only that they want to separate it from the regime and President Bashar al-Assad. They did not equate it with the regime either, despite the army’s role in striking the armed opposition and preventing it from seizing power.
To the Americans, the army is but an instrument in Assad’s hands, but not itself a culprit. Therefore, the looming strike is not expected to eliminate the army, but only to weaken some aspects of its advantage over the opposition.
Therefore, it is likely that the Syrian air force would be the direct target, being the key source of the regime’s superiority in the battle. Military airfields, specifically their runways, are likely to be at the top of the list of targets for a US-led strike, with a view to stop Syrian warplanes from taking off and landing, whether the planes themselves are bombed or not.
In all likelihood, neutralizing the air force could be the best way to achieve military parity between the president and his opponents since the start of the Syrian conflict in mid-March 2011.
Assad relies on the army and the militias known as the Popular Defense Committees, in addition to Iraqi militias, Hezbollah, and Iranian military assistance, against tens of thousands of militants and extremist Salafi groups consisting of fighters from dozens of foreign and Arab nationalities.
In truth, the latter factions now dominate the Free Syrian Army, and they are equipped with nearly the same kind of weapons as the regime. Both sides also have access to heavy weaponry, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery batteries, supplied by their respective allies in generous quantities.
Clearly, sharp international polarization between the supporters and opponents of military action in Syria has assigned greater importance to the proposed strike – one that goes beyond its initial purpose set out by President Barack Obama. Now, it seems that the goal of the strike has been upgraded to alter the military balance of power in the armed conflict. While it might be a painful strike, it will not be a fatal one.
On the other side of the Western war footing, Damascus is behaving as though it has prepared itself, sending out messages to its enemies that a strike would not only fully implicate Washington in the Syrian conflict, but would also embroil the entire region in a similar kind of war. However, the threats coming from Damascus and its allies have yet to be taken seriously.
Some in the West believe the other side is exaggerating the regime’s ability to absorb the repercussions of a strike, and mitigate its impact on the Syrian army’s advantage, with the regime showing a lot of confidence in that it would be able to endure the strike.
These Western impressions are the result of diplomatic reports conveying certain observations from inside Syria, and identifying the “strengths” that the Syrian president reportedly is still confident he and his regime can rely on. These are summarized as follows:
First, Assad seems to be reassured by the functioning of the state apparatus and the discipline of the army and the security services that to a certain extent are still operating normally, albeit the regime has lost control of certain parts of Syria in full or in part. Indeed, the regime continues to function as a central government, issuing orders and managing the armed conflict against the opposition.
Second, the regime believes it has something that sets it apart from the armed opposition, namely, that it has the ability to rebuild the regions it recovers after expelling militants, run the affairs of the population, and provide basic services, all areas where the armed opposition is lacking, though the opposition is more able to rally around it certain segments of the population hostile to the regime.
The regime has had difficulties dealing with these segments in a number of regions that it retook from the opposition. By contrast, the opposition was able to entrench itself in the areas it controls, benefiting from the support of the Sunnis after the opposition invoked sectarian and religious slogans.
Third, despite being certain of the loyalty of the army and the security agencies to his regime and their steadfastness in his war against the armed opposition, Assad has been notified of important developments, prompting him to rush to address another aspect of the war, namely, certain social manifestations that might impact unity in the areas the regime controls.
Furthermore, there are certain elements in the opposition that can be enticed to defect to the regime, following two approaches: highlighting the threat of extremist Salafi groups; and showing official lenience all the way to offering amnesty.
Lastly, the regime has dispatched official reports to international organizations, raising questions about the armed opposition’s tampering with the scene where the alleged chemical weapons attack took place. These reports include details on the opposition pulling bodies and burying them before UN inspectors arrived to investigate, as well as affirmations by Syrian officials that the opposition had deliberately misled the media by claiming Ghouta was the scene of the chemical attack, when it was never established where exactly the chemical weapons had been deployed.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.