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World backs attack on Syria, but may not stomach a quagmire

© Photo: AFP

Text by HAARETZ

Latest update : 2013-08-28

As world leaders rally in support of a US-led military intervention in Syria, Haaretz looks at the regional implications of the looming conflict and what options the Bashar al-Assad regime will be left with once the bombs begin to fall.

The United States could not have hoped for a better international coalition for the anticipated attack on Syria.

The Arab League has offered sweeping support, as has Turkey, and there are even voices in favor from Iran, which has been careful to avoid saying whether it will intervene in Syria’s defense. All these things have made it clear to Washington — and Damascus — that an attack will be received with understanding, if not near-total support. Perhaps the most visible proof of the acknowledgment that Syria has broken all the conventional rules of warfare is the response of Russia, whose foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, announced, “Russia will not go to war with any side if there should be an attack.”

The international legitimacy is based on the belief that an attack by the U.S. (perhaps together with British and French forces) will be measured, clean and with a low number of losses. But past experience has already proven that there is no such thing as a clean attack with no losses.

The American military has a bank of targets based partly on a list of 35 sites that the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army would like to bombard. The list includes the headquarters of the Fourth Armored Division near Damascus, the headquarters of the Presidential Guard, the stockpiles of chemical weapons and the headquarters of the First and Seventh Divisions, which control passage from Daraa to Damascus. The list also contains several army bases near Latakia so that troops from the Free Syrian Army will be able to take control over the coastal district and move relatively easily toward Damascus from the south.

The opposition hopes the American attack will not stop at a surgical punitive action against the chemical-weapons bases, but will give the Free Syrian Army the strategic advantage it needs to win the war. But that sort of ambitious attack could also be the breaking point of the international consensus, when Russia and Iran are liable to move from rhetoric regarding the red lines they have drawn to action.

The open preparations for an attack also give Syria time to prepare, reduce the damage it could suffer, and even sabotage the attack’s legitimacy. For example, Bashar Assad could concentrate civilians in targeted areas, as Saddam Hussein did, to increase the number of casualties and portray the attackers as war criminals.

The American administration has determined not only that chemical weapons were used, but that the Syrian army carried out the attack. It is less certain whether Assad gave the order, or whether high-ranking army officials decided on their own to carry out a chemical attack. If the latter possibility is the correct one, it would not be far-fetched to expect that the same officials would expand the use of chemical weapons to prove the non-validity of the attack on Syria.

The accepted belief is that Assad will not respond to an attack by firing missiles at its neighbors, particularly Israel, so as not to give it a pretext to join the fight against him. But a threat by Syria’s spokesmen to attack Jordan could turn out to be real, particularly since the Syrian regime sees Jordan as a base for Western and Arab military activity against it.

Turkey could be another Syrian target — particularly the encampments of Syrian refugees near the border. Turkey, which is about to declare a state of war with Syria, has a strong army that is preparing for an attack. Since Syria’s considerations about attacking Turkey are the same ones about attacking Israel, the current belief is that Turkey will not be part of the battle, either.

But beyond these tactical assessments, a Western attack will thrust Syria into the position of a country fighting for its life — not against rebels from within, but against the world. In this new position, the regime has several options: to surrender honorably to an enemy that is many times stronger, to fight everyone with all the means at its disposal to turn the local war into a multi-national one, or to lie low and wait for the attack to end so it can go back to its routine of war against the rebels. Syria’s choice will become clear when the American missiles start flying.

By Zvi Bar'el.

Read this article on Haaretz.com.

© Read premium content from leading Israeli daily Haaretz on FRANCE 24

Date created : 2013-08-28

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