It may be curtains for Bashar Assad


There was a distinct mood change in Washington Tuesday, as congressional leaders supported President Barack Obama’s proposal to retaliate against the regime of President Bashar Assad for its use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta area near Damascus.

Obama is likely to win Senate approval for military action, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has agreed to the wording of a resolution authorizing U.S. military force. The House of Representatives is a tougher nut to crack, but the president received a boost this week when the speaker, John Boehner, and the majority leader, Eric Cantor, both Republicans, backed him up. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader, and Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, are also on board.

More significantly, the language has changed compared to last week. Whereas Obama had diffidently spoken of a “limited” operation then, he went much further on Tuesday, stating that aside from degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities “we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition [and]allow Syria ultimately to free itself” from its civil war.

Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that [a chemical attack]did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen, and the Assad regime did it. … This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter.”

Across the board, members of Congress echoed this view, making the kind of moral case that usually precedes American military operations.

But what can America do specifically, given that Obama wants to avoid a war in Syria and will not deploy American soldiers? That remains unclear, but the most plausible assumption is that the U.S. will seek ways to coordinate its attacks, which may well include aircraft, with ground operations by the rebels, who have made significant gains in the areas around Damascus in recent weeks.

Indeed, there has been considerable speculation that Assad’s resort to chemical weapons came in the aftermath of a rebel advance into the northeastern quarters of the capital. And even then, pro-Syrian sources in Beirut are admitting that the Syrian army’s effort to reconquer the lost neighborhoods was exceptionally difficult.

Perhaps the Americans are gambling that the Free Syrian Army units with whom they are in contact can take Damascus, or at least make inroads that force Assad to step down or accept a political transition. This would give the FSA a decisive advantage over Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups concentrated in the north. Moreover, American officials may have realized that a U.S. bombing campaign will persuade many military units to defect, making Assad’s downfall all but inevitable.

Henri Barkey of Lehigh University perceptively tweeted: “I’ve always had sneaking suspicion that the delay had to do with the [aircraft carrier]Nimitz. It cannot launch aircraft from current location.” Indeed, there is now open talk about using aircraft, which was not the case last week. The value of aircraft in Syria would mainly be tactical, providing support to those fighting on the ground.

The mood is changing in Moscow as well. On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it were proven that Damascus had used chemical weapons against its own people. He also announced that he had stopped shipment of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, which Assad would need to defend against Western aircraft.

The U.S. had sought Russian help in preventing Assad from using chemical weapons, and the Russians may have been embarrassed when he did not listen. With international outrage rising, Putin has no choice but to alter his position, knowing that if he doesn’t he will be isolated if Assad is pushed out. He may prefer to position himself as a mediator in a transitional solution. Some have speculated that this may be discussed at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg this week.

Iran and Hezbollah will be watching carefully to see what happens. The options are limited. If their plan is to target Israel with rockets, this will do little good. Hezbollah would invite a devastating Israeli response if it fires from Lebanon, at a moment when its Syrian policy is unpopular at home and thousands of its combatants are in Syria. A war would also create hundreds of thousands of Shiite refugees, who would angrily wonder why they have to suffer to defend Assad.

Moreover, Hezbollah and Iran’s ability to absorb Shiite discontent is restricted. There will be no Arab money this time to rebuild; and Iran is too financially pressed – even as it is paying a hefty financial bill to prop up Assad rule in Syria – to rescue Lebanon’s Shiites.

If, as some have speculated, Hezbollah targets Israel from Syria, this may precipitate the very outcome that Iran and the party seek to avoid. It makes no sense to respond to an American attack against Syria through a mechanism that invites an Israeli attack against Syria, one bound to undermine Assad’s position further.

Obama’s last-minute decision to postpone an attack against Syria confused everybody. But Assad’s satisfaction with the delay was premature. The bully’s bluff has been called, an American attack is coming, and it will hit very hard – unless Russia can devise a political resolution before then that would force Assad from office. It’s not yet the end of the Assad regime, but it could well be the beginning of the end. And when nightmares end, there is only relief.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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