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US officials have let it be known that there has been a shift in US Syria policy away from trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis through the auspices of the United Nations, to an attempt to undermine and oust the Assad regime. The pressing nature of discussions by high level administration officials in recent days masks the fact that there really is very little that the US can do to assert control over post-Assad Syria. The vagaries of war makes any notion that we can direct events to our advantage, or mitigate some of the untoward consequences of sectarian strife, an illusion.
In truth, there are only subtle differences to be found in the new policy, with a change in emphasis rather than any dramatic alterations that would be noticeable. Instead of working through the UN where Russia has stymied efforts to put pressure on the Assad regime, the US will work more closely with regional allies like Turkey, the Gulf States, and Israel to try and manage what many observers now believe is the endgame for President Bashar Assad and his faltering regime. There will also be increased aid to the rebels — but no weapons, although the administration will beef up our intelligence presence on the Turkish border to facilitate the movement of arms to opposition forces. And there is now a “special urgency” to discussions at the highest levels of government about how to manage the post-Assad chaos that could degenerate into a sectarian civil war.
The shift comes as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is demonstrating an increased combat capability by attacking and briefly holding neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities. But the more than 100 FSA units rarely cooperate and have limited command and control capability. The problem was highlighted by the Syrian army’s rapid retaking of most of those neighborhoods in Damascus over the last 48 hours. As part of the incremental shift in policy, the US plans to sell the FSA more communications equipment and train the rebels to use it. There are still rivalries and enmities between rebel factions, however, and making the disparate forces into an effective fighting organization will be a major challenge and will take time.
While some press reports in the last few days have made it seem that the Assad regime was on its last legs, nothing could be further from the truth. While defections by Sunni conscripts appear to have increased, loyalist forces show no sign of turning on the government. The 4th Division, commanded by Assad’s brother Mahar, is made up largely of Alawite officers and troops. They have been deployed in the capital where they have driven the rebels from many of the neighborhoods they captured a few days ago. Their tactics include indiscriminate shelling and the use of helicopter gunships. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and thousands have fled their homes.
In addition, loyal troops possess most of the heavy weapons as well as Assad’s stockpile of WMD. The US has been particularly worried about Assad’s chemical weapons, which the regime admitted for the first time on Monday it had. Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said that they would only use WMD in the event of a foreign invasion. “All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression,” he said.
The New York Times reports that administration officials have had discussions with the Israelis about destroying Assad’s weapons facilities, but are not advocating such an attack. Apparently, if it was felt that the WMD would fall into the wrong hands, the Israelis would be prepared to destroy the stockpiles as a last resort.
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