War drums over Syria

Ahmed Eleiba, Wednesday 4 Sep 2013

With pressure mounting for western military intervention in the Syrian conflict, the US has been assembling the largest force ever seen in eastern Mediterranean waters, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed in a toxic gas attack (Photo: Reuters)

The drums of war against Damascus were beating louder than ever this week, as the western military mobilisation reached its peak. Some twice as many warships have amassed in international and territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean than were deployed by the international coalition during the Libyan conflict.

The White House has stepped up its drive to persuade domestic US opinion of the importance of a strike against Syria, with US secretary of state John Kerry's campaign abroad meeting with some positive echoes among the country’s Middle Eastern allies.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, was instrumental in establishing a new basis for international relations at the Arab foreign ministers summit that was held on Tuesday, concluding that an intervention in defence of the Syrian people would not constitute a violation of international law. The resolution was meant as a vote of confidence in US president Barack Obama, who is currently wavering over a strike and has sought a mandate from the US Congress.

One of the themes of Obama’s original election campaign was the need to bring US troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq and to spare the American people further military adventures abroad. However, even as Obama was delivering his address at the weekend requesting a congressional mandate, the San Antonio was cleaving the waters of the Mediterranean on its way to becoming the sixth destroyer in the largest fleet ever seen off the Levantine coast.

The US has sought a large international coalition for its possible Syrian offensive, and it has received generally positive responses from its European allies. France's response was unreserved, and it had already taken the decision to participate in the strikes some time ago. Even Britain, presumably withdrawing from the field after the defeat suffered by UK prime minister David Cameron in a parliamentary vote last week, has dispatched three RAF Typhoon jets to Cyprus.

According to NATO rules, a member state must support the alliance in the event that it takes the decision to go to war, regardless of domestic opinion. A significant opinion in favour of strikes on Syria also came from NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who on Monday stated that NATO would continue to protect Turkey and that member states should intervene in Syria.

Turkey is the most important country in the military theatre and the one that is most prepared to undertake military action against Syria. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has much in common with Obama on the Syrian crisis, and according to experts both heads-of-state have invested heavily in the new Middle East project in which the Muslim Brotherhood is the key instrument.

In southern Anatolia, the Incirlik airbase is on the alert, and this week the Diyarbakir base was also put on the ready in anticipation of possible retaliatory strikes from Syrian aircraft targeting the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees inside Turkey. Several months ago, NATO interceptor missile batteries were deployed at strategic locations overlooking the Turkish border with Syria in order to prepare for such an eventuality.

According to Egyptian military experts, the theatre of operations prepared for a strike against Syria gives the impression that those involved are preparing for more than just a retaliatory strike or limited operation. The naval destroyers and submarines are positioned to strike strategic military and defence targets inside Syria, such as command and control centres, military facilities and military airports and aerial defence bases, as well as government buildings and the headquarters of the ruling Syrian Baath Party.

Syria has 26 military airports, 13 of which are controlled by the armed forces and six of which are major airports, the most important being located in Damascus, Latakia, Benyas and Al-Moza. Five others are situated in areas of hostilities between the government and opposition forces, six are under the control of the opposition Free Syrian Army, and the remainder are not functioning.

The experts believe that a first strike would require 200 to 250 Tomahawk missiles to destroy these strategic targets and their 105 runways. Each of the six US destroyers in the Mediterranean can carry up to 96 Tomahawks, while four of the eight submarines in the vicinity can carry up to a total of 154 of this type of missile. Other western naval craft have been deployed in strategic positions in Syria's territorial waters and have been placed in a state of readiness.

The forces of the Syrian regime, capable of securing their defensive positions to a range of 250 miles, are also in a state of readiness. These forces are equipped with the Russian-made Yakhont missile system, which is capable of confronting fixed targets but has difficulty handling mobile ones. Moreover, it is unlikely to be able to contend with simultaneous attacks from three fronts: the naval front, the Turkish front, supported by the bases at Incirlik and Diyarbakir and the defensive missile batteries, and the Golan, where Israel has deployed three additional interceptive missile batteries and mobilised its reserves.

But Syria can draw on support from Tehran and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. Last week, Iran tried to restore calm to the Syrian crisis by sending a message to Washington via UN under-secretary-general Jeffrey Feltman, who met with Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and Amir Hossein Abdel Lahyan, the Iranian official responsible for the Syrian question, on 25 August. The message reportedly stated that Iran could guarantee that the Syrian regime had not used chemical weapons and that it would ensure that any such weapons were removed from Syria.

According to a leaked report, Tehran also hinted that it could intervene in the conflict if Israel did so first. It is here that Hezbollah might also come into play, precisely by provoking the creation of an Israel front. Recent statements by Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah have left little doubt about such a scenario, and it may be that the gap between military preparations and diplomatic moves has now narrowed.

While the munitions poised for a strike are sufficient to destroy many strategic targets in Syria, US intelligence agencies are still identifying these and determining how to call other types of support into play from areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army. According to reports, the Syrian defence forces rely on 500 defence systems and 400 fighter planes located along the Lebanese border, the border of the Golan Heights, the Syrian Mediterranean coast and around the capital.

While these are all possible targets, reports anticipate that a focus might be on the headquarters of the fourth brigade of the 155th regiment, which is presumed to have been the location from which the chemical weapons attack on Al-Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus was launched. This regiment is commanded by Maher al-Assad, brother of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

In addition to the ballistic missiles and the Russian-made S-200 defence system that Syria is reported to possess, there have been speculations about the delivery of a Russian S-300 defence system. According to a report in the British newspaper The Independent, the financial problems that had deferred the delivery of this system have recently been resolved. Such systems, together with the Russian-made Yakhont missiles and missile batteries, have led military experts to believe that at least half of Syria's weapons have been supplied by Russia since the outbreak of the uprising against the al-Assad regime.

As the spectre of war looms, people on all sides, both supporters and opponents of a strike, have been asking what the price could be. All recall the aftermath of the US-led war on Iraq ten years ago, and they may also recall the previous war against Iraq in 1991, which saw the first use of the Tomahawk, the missile slated to star in the impending attack on Syria.

Ibrahim Nuwar, a political advisor to the UN mission in Iraq, told the Weekly that “we’re experiencing the same climate all over again. I predict that the US-led coalition that intends to strike Syria will leave a similar catastrophic situation in the region.”

Former Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan and current assistant foreign minister Hossein Haridi agreed. “Ten years after the Iraq war, an experiment is being repeated in a region that has undergone very significant strategic shifts since the 1973 October War and the hike in oil prices. What we are seeing is a scheme carried out by the US in alliance with global Zionism to impoverish us and to forestall the accumulation of wealth that can translate into influence.”

Nuwar said that the US had been the main supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and that Brotherhood supporters were part of the campaign to strike Syria. However, Haridi said that the US administration was not solely seeking to regain in Syria the ground it had lost by supporting the Islamist project in the region.

“There is a clear danger that extremist militant groups in Syria could obtain the chemical weapons there and use them against Israel or US forces in the region. It is for this reason that Obama warned last year against any use of these weapons and threatened to intervene in the event that they were used. Even Israel, which has no desire to remove the al-Assad regime, has determined that his continued presence after such a step would be a threat to it.”                        

This article was first published in Ahram Weekly          


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