If Washington decides to attack Syria, which of the four American destroyers will bombard Damascus? The USS Ramage, USS Mahan, USS Gravely or USS Barry?
The answer isn’t to be found in US statements alone, because those statements have been all over the place as the United States tried to justify a punitive strike by looking for signs implicating the Syrian regime in the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, Damascus.
The US confusion became apparent when the White House said one thing by declaring the inability of “US intelligence to find evidence on the use of chemical weapons,” and another by claiming that “the [US] government is almost certain that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against civilians.”
Some US officials went even further and reopened direct channels of communication with the Syrian regime. US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, and demanded that Syria facilitate “the experts' mission if the Syrian regime has nothing to hide, as it claims.”
The Americans may have already achieved several aims by conducting an intensive media campaign, led by the news of sending warships to the Syrian coast, without firing one missile.
In the past few hours, the Syrian army halted one of its biggest military operations, its goal to break the siege imposed by the opposition on Damascus for a year and a half.
At dawn last Wednesday, Aug. 21, the Shield of the Capital operation resulted in a retreat at the strategic Jobar entrance of opposition fighters belonging to the Liberating the Capital Front, which is led by Jabhat al-Nusra. The Jobar entrance leads to the heart of Damascus and is the last card that the opposition was still threatening the regime with. Jobar’s entrance is the route for reinforcements coming from the heart of the Ghouta and from the southern front, which is accessible via Jordan, where armed groups are being trained by the CIA and funded by Saudi Prince Salman bin Sultan, in coordination with Col. Ahmed al-Neimeh, the commander of the Military Council of the Southern Region and Horan.
Today, Aug. 26, there is an international military meeting in Amman. The meeting is part of a pressure campaign on the Syrian regime because it brings together the commanders of several Arab armies to an area close to the sensitive southern Syria front. In the Amman meeting, the attendees are expected to raise the subject of a safe zone and of a no-fly zone, both of which will change nothing in the course of the battle. Despite a year and a half of fighting, Neimeh’s units have achieved no breakthroughs in an area where five Syrian armored divisions are deployed.
The Saudis have in the Ghouta the Liwa’ al-Islam armed group, which has 25,000 fighters led by Zahran Alloush. He almost certainly receives his orders directly from the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Alloush once helped the Saudis weaken the Qataris’ groups in the region. He even went so far as to allow the opposition’s First Brigade and Liwa’ Jaish al-Muslimeen to be defeated by the Syrian army a month ago without extending them any help, all just to get rid of their influence.
In the last hours, the Syrian army had been able to storm Jabhat al-Nusra’s most important sites in the high-rises overlooking the Abbasid area. Yesterday morning, Aug. 25, the fighters had to use suicide bombers to stop the army’s advance, and they resorted to firing mortar shells and rockets on dense residential neighborhoods, such as al-Qassa’a, Bab Touma and Burj al-Rous.
The Shield of the Capital attack was halted to “facilitate the movement of experts and ensure their safety.” The Saudis and the Americans feared that, if the attack continued, it could lead to the expulsion of the Syrian opposition from the Damascus basin, especially as the next phase of the Syrian army’s plan included Zabadani, the Lebanese borders, Qalamun and the last remaining western weapons supply routes to the Damascus countryside toward the Yabrood crossings, Qara and Arsal. These areas represent the confluence of all the elements of the regional conflict in Syria.
Western sources say that Hezbollah and the Quds Brigade are playing a key role in the Ghouta battles and in protecting the west wing of the Syrian army’s 2nd Corps starting in Zabadani. This means that Hezbollah’s participation in the fighting in the region will be part of the concessions that the Americans will seek to obtain, according to Western sources.
Last June, the Americans sabotaged the Geneva II conference because Qusair’s fall tilted the power balance in the regime’s favor. So, before reviving the Geneva II conference, the Americans and the Saudis want to redress that imbalance in the opposition’s favor by granting it weapons and a few more months.
All attempts in the past two months to provide qualitative weapons, restructure the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and secularize an armed opposition that would face the jihadists have failed. It is likely that the Saudis themselves aren’t enthusiastic about arming the FSA, which the Saudis don’t really support, contrary to what they say to Western diplomats. It seems that the Saudis are still betting on the Salafist groups, which are more effective than the FSA and which received more weapons and help from Saudi intelligence.
The West was concerned that changing the power balance, as the Saudis want, will not be achieved, especially after what happened in the battle of Aleppo and when the Latakia countryside was stormed. And if it were achieved, it wouldn’t be in the Syrian National Coalition’s (SNC) interest. The SNC cannot translate victories achieved by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has become the main fighting party alongside other jihadist forces. It has become clear that the jihadists, if victorious, will not participate in any political process. Similarly, if the regime wins, it will not simply “hand over power to the opposition in Geneva,” as Foreign Minister al-Moallem said.
The West thinks that a US military strike on the Syrian regime would not serve the Syrian opposition because the latter is unable to cash in on a “victory.” Also, if the United States limits the strike to only the Syrian army’s leadership, command-and-control centers, airports and military concentrations, it would only delay the Syrian army’s operations and prolong the war. The US aim in deploying the warships is to reshuffle the deck regarding some of the contentious points that the Americans wish to discuss in Geneva II. The Americans’ goal is to return to Geneva under a more favorable climate, especially as The Hague preparatory meeting at the end of August is still on schedule.
The threat of a strike may be aimed at maintaining the current power balance and preventing more opposition defeats. It may also be aimed at improving the conditions for negotiations in Geneva regarding the contentious issue of the Syrian president’s fate by accusing him of ordering a chemical attack. It is clear that, having failed to achieve their goals militarily, the Americans are trying to achieve them using intimidating media campaigns, heavily arming their allies and supporting the armed opposition, which has allowed jihadist groups to control large parts of Syria to the point where they have started threatening Israel’s security.
There is no clear legal mechanism or international mandate to accuse the Syrian president of a crime. The Americans know, for example, that the experts’ mission in Arbin and Zamalka today is limited to merely breathing the area’s air. This is stipulated in the protocol signed by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad with the UN official responsible for disarmament, Angela Kane. Her work is only limited to declaring whether there was a toxic chemical compound in East Gouta. But all the medical reports and satellites have already confirmed that. The protocol bars the experts from identifying who used chemical weapons, which is what’s important. The Americans, however, are hoping that merely confirming that chemical weapons were used would be enough to accuse the regime by arguing that no one else has such weapons.
The second point worth noting is that the military council for Damascus and its countryside, led by FSA Col. Khaled al-Habbous, will have no role in the arrangements for securing the international experts team, according to what Secretary of State John Kerry said, because Liwa’ al-Islam’s commander Alloush has entrusted this task to his affiliate Liwa’ al-Bara’ in Zamalka. Thus, an American-Saudi decision has put the international experts team in the jihadists’ custody.
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