Michel Moutot (AFP) – Expected Western strikes on Syria will target the military, intelligence services and possibly sites with symbolic regime links, but will not alter the balance of power in the country, experts say.
The raids, if they go ahead, would be aimed at punishing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and sending him a message rather than wiping out his military capacity and handing the rebels a decisive advantage, they say.
“Specific targets should include the Damascus-area headquarters, barracks and support facilities of the fourth and Republican Guard armoured divisions, two units heavily involved in the bombardment of civilian areas,” said Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.
“Allied forces should also strike higher-level military and intelligence headquarters and command-and-control facilities associated with military operations around the capital.”
The Republican Guard, reputed to be one of the best armed and best trained units in the country, is commanded by the Syrian president’s brother, Maher al-Assad. Highly feared, it has special responsibility for defending the capital.
Washington and its allies are pressing for military action against Assad’s regime over deadly suspected chemical attacks, despite stern warnings against intervention from key Damascus supporters Russia and Iran.
Analysts expect to see cruise missiles launched from US and allied submarines, ships and possibly warplanes from outside Syria’s territorial waters and airspace.
French General Vincent Desportes, former director of the Ecole de Guerre military training academy, told AFP any strikes would be “more symbolic than military”.
“It is a question of reestablishing the West’s credibility by doing something. The declared ‘red line’ cannot be crossed to this degree without something being done, otherwise all US credibility would be lost, particularly where Iran is concerned.”
“But it should not be too much, because if President Assad dies or if the regime collapses, that would lead to a terrible bloodbath, chaos on a national scale. It would be another strategic failure, the like of what was seen in Libya,” he added.
Desportes agreed that any strikes would be brief, with symbolic targets that could include government buildings, military command centres, air force bases and even the presidential palace — as long as it could be ascertained that Assad was not inside.
Strategic leaks from the capitals concerned have already indicated that any strikes will be limited in time and space.
They will not be powerful enough to weaken the state’s military capacity and tilt the balance of power in favour of the rebels, analysts say — even if, as White believes, they could “encourage fissures within the regime, increase defections and bolster the armed and political opposition”.
Christopher Harmer, a naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said a Tomahawk attack would not have the capacity to eliminate the regime’s military or chemical weapons capabilities, “nor cause more than a temporary degradation in regime operations”.
“Targets chosen to simply punish the Assad regime will have little impact on the strategic outcome,” he said.
The US fleet currently has around 200 Tomahawk missiles on four ships in the Mediterranean, an arsenal that Harmer said would be more than enough to carry out a series of medium-intensity strikes on various targets.
But with the countdown practically in public, and the Western powers clearly stating their intentions, experts believe the missiles are likely to destroy only buildings evacuated days earlier, deserted command posts or runways that can quickly be repaired.
“Targets chosen to simply punish the Assad regime will have little impact on the strategic outcome,” Harmer said.