This article is a translation from September 2, and is a snapshot in time. Some of the information has changed since this has been published. For instance, there are more American warships heading to the Mediterranean, Congress now looks like it is closer to authorizing strikes, new public opinion polls show a shift in momentum in favor of intervention, and just today Kommersant reported that Russia is freezing its delivery of the S-300 missile system, a formidable air defense system, as well as a shipment of twelve MiG-29M/M2 jets, because Syria can’t afford to pay for them. Still, the article has merit as a window into what a popular liberal Russia newspaper is publishing on the Syrian issue. – Ed.
The prospects for a full-scale military operation in Syria are unlikely for now, but all possible participants in the conflict are seriously preparing for battle.
The planned 29 August bombing of Syria didn’t take place. The United Nations inspectors returned to Washington. Four American destroyers are still sitting in the Mediterranean Sea. The Western coalition is awaiting the aviation signal in Cyprus. The Middle East is preparing for war.
Early last week it seemed that the increased activity in the Mediterranean was leading to the denouement of Assad’s regime. War was beginning in the Middle East with unpredictable consequences. But the dictator lives. The battles with the opposition continue. Both military and civilians continue to die in the bloody civil war. People have long since stopped counting the number of killed and wounded. By aiming the Tomahawks at Damascus, the president of America for a day or two wanted to let us know “who is boss here,” with the aid of force, and correct the mistakes of Middle Eastern policy.
Sarin in Eastern Ghouta
On 21 August in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, between 300 to 1,300 people died as a result of a chemical attack, according to various reports. Among them are children. Photographs of the children’s bodies shocked the world community. Stacked in piles, wrapped in shrouds, frozen in convulsions, the bodies were a terrible illustration of what is happening now in the Middle East.
UN inspectors are already bringing from Syria samples of soil, blood, urine and hair from Syrians sickened by the poisonous gases. The scale and purpose of the suspended operation will depend on the results of these analyses.
The work of UN experts at the site of the tragedy was repeatedly disrupted. Twice, the mission was shot at. First, with mortar shells in their hotel, then with sniper fire on their vehicle convoy.
Why Does Assad Need Chemical Weapons?
Chemical weapons in the hands of a dictator is a means of blackmail of sorts and proof of power. It is the final argument and fear factor in the struggle with the indomitable opposition.
That is precisely why both the West and the Arab League, without any research, placed the responsibility for the attack in Upper Ghouta on the Assad regime. They had no doubts that the order was given personally by the dictator. Sources cite information from US intelligence. Obama was briefed about the crossing of the “red line.” The world recalled the fate of Qaddafi, and like a bookie’s office, began to place bets on the life of the former ophthalmologist, currently President Assad.
But unexpectedly, reports appeared that in fact, the order about the chemical weapons attack were accidentally given by the president’s younger brother, Maher Assad. He commands the Republican Guard and directs the elite 4th Armored Tank Division. Supposedly the order was his personal initiative and not a strategic decision by the head of state. And the reason people perished was due to the human factor and confusion in the ranks of government troops.
An even more convincing argument for Obama should have been the charges that the chemical weapons attack was organized by the Syrian opposition. Tehran insisted that shells with sarin wound up in the hands of the rebels and they don’t distinguish at all between their own and others. Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, stated: “An attack on Syria will blow up the entire Middle East and lead to a real catastrophe. The Middle Eastern region is sitting on a powder keg and you never know when a detonation will occur.”
Egypt reacted calmly, but promised to close the Suez Canal to the passage of transport and military ships.
The Price of Friendship
Russia holds dear its friendship with Assad out of mercantile interests. Several months ago, the intrigue with the S-300 systems forced the entire Middle East into a swarm of activity. The leaders of Israel went on bended knee to Putin. This, despite the fact that according to the assessments of military analysts, these in fact most powerful anti-missile defense installations have outmoded – by modern standards – electronic equipment and require a large number of qualified service personnel which Syria simply doesn’t have in its military. And not a single S-300 system has taken part in a single military operation…
The Syrian conflict is profitable for Russia also because in seeming to save Assad, they are quite selfishly influencing events in the Middle East. Along with China, Russia can block many UN decisions concerning the region. Which is what happened last week.
War or Horror Story
“No one seriously intends to overthrow Assad,” Kopel Shumach, a prominent Israeli military analyst believes. “Four American destroyers on a raid in the Mediterranean Sea with 200 winged Tomahawk rockets aimed at Syria is more a deterrence factor. But the unlimited power of Assad in Syria is advantageous to everyone, including Israel.”
According to Shumach, the military operation, if such a thing does occur in the coming days, will be of a punitive nature and entirely limited. It will last one or two days. Several missiles will be launched from the sea and will reinforce air strikes from the sky. With that, Obama’s mission will be fulfilled. No land operation is foreseen at all.
Retaliatory strikes from Assad against Israeli territory will hardly likely follow, as Assad and his allies in Iran are claiming. Israel can be used as a hostage in this conflict but not for long. Its participation in combat operations will create a completely different situation where the advantage could end up in favor of the rebels.
“Obama has a very complicated situation,” says Boris Koltsov, a political commentator in the US. “Public opinion surveys throughout the summer indicated that only 10 percent of Americans approve a military operation in Syria; 60 percent oppose it. Obama hurried to advance the Navy without getting approval of his actions from Congress. The president is being criticized. When Obama came to power, he promised to end the war in Iraq. Now he is winding it up, but is unleashing conflict in the Middle East. But there is Afghanistan as well, from which it is far more difficult to withdraw forces. If he does not consult with Congress properly now, that can complicate further negotiations on the budget. I think that the strike will be postponed indefinitely.”
In that sense, Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that the chemical weapons attack was conducted in fact by Assad’s regime was a diplomatic preparation to the decision which they wanted to make in circumvention of international norms and without any approval from the UN. The only way to attack Syria is to prove the fact of the violation of international conventions banning the use of chemical weapons.
All week, people were preparing for war.
António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called on the countries neighboring Syria to open their borders so that people could flee the combat zone.
But no one plans to open the border between Israel and Syria, where barriers were long ago constructed. Even so, today there are hundreds of wounded refugees from Syria in Israeli hospitals in the north. According to unofficial figures, a military field hospital has been deployed in the Golan Heights.
According to the estimates of Israeli exports, there are about 100,000 rockets in Assad’s arsenals which can reach practically any point on the territory of Israel. The likelihood of a rocket shelling in the event of an American attack are extremely low, and the likelihood of the use of missiles with chemical warheads are even lower. However, the Israeli authorities are taking measures in the event of rocket shelling from Syria. The Iron Dome anti-missile defense battery is deployed in the region of Tel Aviv. Two more Iron Domes and a battery of Patriot missile interceptors are deployed in the north of the country. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that Israel is prepared for any turn of events.
At 7:00 a.m. at the central post office in Haifa there is a crowd of people. The situation is typical these days in all cities of Israel. People are really frightened of a chemical attack. It turns out that in many families, there aren’t the elementary means for individual defense. The gas masks that have been kept on the shelves since the war in the Persian Gulf have already long ago passed their expiration date.
Last week, in lines to get gas masks, there were incidents of conflicts and fights. On Friday night, the distribution centers closed; whoever didn’t manage to get one was out of luck.
Syria Also Prepares
Syrians immediately moved into secret underground bunkers and into the bullet-proof buildings of the general staff, the communications center, the headquarters of military intelligence, political precincts and government agencies.
Russian planes took home their citizens who had still remained in Syria, personnel from the Russian naval base in the port of Taurus.
Last week the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reported that President Assad and members of his family had arrived in Teheran. Official sources did not confirm this report.
In the northern regions of the country which are almost entirely under the control of rebels, some leaders of the Islamists have gone into the mountains. Among them the rumor spread that for every winged missile launched by the Americans at Assad’s troops, there would be another one, aimed at his opponents.
The Fatah al-Islam group issued a special instruction with recommendations to keep moving around the area, hide in secret shelters and carefully camouflage oneself and also to refrain from the use of mobile telephones, as their location can be found by the signal.