BEIRUT: Expectations are low that limited airstrikes could tip the military balance in Syria in the opposition’s favor against President Bashar Assad’s forces, rebel leaders on the ground and analysts told The Daily Star Tuesday.
While the U.S. and its allies have ramped up war rhetoric, warning that they cannot let the alleged poison gas attack last week in a Damascus suburb go unpunished, rebels and analysts say they do not believe the strikes will serve any strategic purpose to force Assad from power.
Reluctant to be drawn into an unpopular military conflict, the U.S. is more likely to launch limited punitive strikes than a substantial “shock and awe” attack to wipe out Assad’s capabilities that could prompt Assad to strike out at Syria’s neighbors, according to Syrian opposition figure and history professor, Amr al-Azm.
“The best outcome is that the regime accepts that the game is up and Bashar agrees to go to Geneva and hand over power,” said Azm. “The worst case is that they launch retaliatory attacks against neighboring countries.”
Assad’s forces have made steady gains against rebels along a strategic belt linking the capital, Damascus, to Homs in the center of the country and to the northwest along the Lebanese border and the port cities of Tartous and Latakia.
Coupled with the regime’s superior firepower and disorganization among rebel forces, the gains have given Assad an upper hand ahead of proposed negotiations for a power transition in Geneva, supported by rival backers in the conflict, the U.S. and Russia.
The opposition has lobbied for more and heavier weapons to try to tip the balance of power in the rebels favor to give the opposition a greater degree of leverage at any talks.
Analysts and diplomats have suggested U.S. strikes against the regime could work to tip that balance, but say a limited approach will not be enough to either force Assad to the table or decisively constrain him militarily.
“The threat of force is 50 percent of the force,” said one Arab diplomat.
“But the threat has to be a real threat and [the U.S.] has to be prepared to actually follow through ... I don’t think it will change the calculus.”
Azm said he was not confident the threat would dent Assad’s capabilities: “The strike at the scale anticipated, or let’s say, being prepared for, will be more for demonstration purposes rather than to do any long-term damage to regime military capabilities.”
“If the message is not heard then we will see an escalation.”
On the ground in Syria, a senior rebel figure working closely with the Homs Military Council, which has acted as an intermediary between rebel forces and U.S. and Western political elements, said he was doubtful the strikes would knock out the regime.
He said while rebels and civilians in Homs, tired of war, welcomed the news of a potential U.S. strike, he believed their expectations were too high.
“The people are very tired and they hope that a U.S. strike will eliminate the regime, but we know the truth, that the strike is limited and just aimed at accelerating moves to Geneva.”
“We don’t expect it to mean the end of the regime.”
As evidence of his claim, he said usually regular communication with U.S. officials had stopped over recent days and he had seen no signs of moves to coordinate with rebel forces on the ground to bolster any concerted military strike. “They haven’t told us anything,” he said.
Multiple reports suggest that a massive influx of weapons has been delivered to rebel forces on the ground in recent weeks.
Asked if the U.S. would be prepared to try to tip the balance of power to the rebels, Azm was circumspect. “They can if they want, but they won’t.”