The question surrounding Syria, concerning whether Bashar Assad and his Baathist regime will be allowed to remain in power for long, or taken down by US pressure, and involvement, has been a hot topic issue. There are those who believe that since the US is at great odds with the Netanyahu government, the US could reasonably be expected to repeat another Libya operation over Syrian airspace, because it couldn’t care less presently what the Israelis think (who are by the way, loathe to have yet another Islamonazi regime set up shop on their borders).
I don’t believe however, that such an operation would be as easy to pull off, let alone to coalesce, as in the NATO (US led) operation against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime. There are just too many crucial differences existing between Assad’s and the late Libyan dictator’s former regime, in the way of international backers. While it’s true that Gadaffi had decades old relations with the Soviet/Russians and Chinese, his regime never enjoyed their umbrella of protection as did the Syrians, nor did it have the fanatical Iranians in their corner either.
Proof of Gaddafi’s vulnerability was in US president Ronald Reagan’s cruise missile attacks against Libya, and the US’s lack of response against both Syria or Iran in the wake of the Heznazi suicide attack against the US marines barracks in 1983 where 241 American servicemen were killed. Though the Soviet Union is no longer, and Russia is a softer shell of its former self, I doubt seriously that the US would want to openly confront them in what they (the Russians) perceive as their own back yard.
Libya on the other hand, has always been a soft target, look how quickly they divested themselves from WMD technology in wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in comparison to Syria becoming both a safe haven and transit station to tens of thousands of jihadis coming to fight against the American military in Iraq.
Then there are the Chinese and Iranian elements, as well as the Assad regime and its military already having plenty of experience in blood letting of its own people. Assad and his regime know that they alone hold the keys to their own fate, it’s up to them to destroy their opposition or implode through a series disastrous tactical mistakes. So watch for the violence to continue, as they unleash cruelty in spasms, to ensure that their Russian protectors aren’t pressured to jump ship.
NOTE: It could go either way, but don’t expect Assad’s regime to unravel as Gaddafi’s did.
Syria: US reconnaissance drones, Iranian warships
We’ll get to the Iranian warships. The drones – according to Pentagon officials, a “good number” of them – are reportedly being used to collect information on Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on his people. They will provide supporting evidence to justify an international intervention in Syria. The US officials say the intelligence collection is not a precursor to military operations in Syria.
The US has actually done this before. During the gruesome internal conflict in Rwanda (back in the Clinton administration), when Hutus were massacring Tutsis, the US dispatched military reconnaissance aircraft to collect intelligence on the fighting. We have also, of course, operated drones over Somalia and Yemen at various times in the last decade, both to collect intelligence and to target terrorists. But in Syria, the interested parties include Russia, Iran, China, and a collection of Islamist groups.
The US administration’s interlocutors are not wrong to wonder if sending in the drones is a preparatory measure for sending in troops to intervene: the intelligence collected by tactical drones is more immediate, dynamic, and ephemeral than that gathered by standoff collection assets. If you want to know what Assad’s overall posture is, you use the standoff assets; if you want to know what his forces are doing on a moment-to-moment basis, you use operational-level (e.g., Predator) or tactical drones. (If there are a “good number” of drones being used, most of them have to be operational or tactical drones – and are probably Predator operational-level drones, with good range and altitude.)
Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Iranian warships that stopped in Jeddah earlier this month have transited the Suez Canal – without any prior brouhaha in the press – and arrived in Syria. They are in Syria exactly a year after their last visit, and presumably will offload weapons and/or ammunition from the supply ship Kharg, which is accompanying the Iranian destroyer. Reporting from a Syrian defector (see last link) indicated that last year’s Iranian naval task force delivered weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime.
The ships’ arrival makes Iran the third foreign government that has been able, without hindrance, to enter a Syrian port and offload whatever it wants, in spite of the sanctions being imposed on the Assad regime. Hugo Chavez has delivered diesel fuel to Syria since the sanctions were imposed, and Russia, besides sending her carrier task force to Syria during its recent deployment, used a commercial cargo ship to deliver arms to Syria in January. The sanctions thus look pretty perfunctory (not to mention perforable).
Could a US drone be shot down over Syria? Yes, the capability is there. I don’t assess that Assad wants to do anything so provocative, and Russia – the supplier (and very possibly the current operator) of anti-air missiles in Syria – will want to keep things calm as long as possible. But drones watching Syria will inevitably end up watching Russian forces there, and at a certain point Russia may well find that intolerable. If a combination of Assad’s and Moscow’s preferences should cause them to want to exclude the drones, the question will really be whether anyone thinks President Obama would retaliate for a drone shoot-down or two.
There are too many variables in this situation to predict narrowly which direction things will go. The reason for that is largely that the Obama administration’s policy is to avoid securing an outcome with the use of US power. If the US will not seek a particular outcome, we will be consigned to waiting on others to do so. There are many players, and numerous potential reactions. The permutations of hostility and resistance along the way are endless.
What should the US do? Our first principle should be that Assad must go, but that principle can’t stand on its own. It would not be better to have a new government of Islamist radicals than to have Assad in power. It matters who takes over, and how.