A select group of 11 countries, advocating “regime change” in Syria may have been pushed on the back foot as the latest intelligence assessment in the United States reveals that the government of Syrian
President Bashar Al Assad continues to possess sufficient political cohesion and military firepower to take on the armed opposition.
The core element of the Friends of Syria grouping, held their meeting in Istanbul on Saturday, with the opposition still pitching for a military solution to the Syrian crisis. “There is no solution with this regime through negotiation. This (conflict) will not be settled other than by force,” said Brigadier Selim Idris, head of a military command on the sidelines of the meeting.
But hopes, if any, of a decisive military involvement in the conflict by the United States, or of President Assad’s early fall seemed illusionary. Bloomberg is citing a testimony by the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency Director, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn before it was delivered on Thursday that Mr. Assad’s government “maintains the military advantage -- particularly in firepower and air superiority,” and his inner circle “appears to be largely cohesive”.
Gen. Flynn told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Syria’s arsenal of conventional missiles is “mobile and can reach much of Israel and large portions of Iraq, Jordan and Turkey from sites well within the country”. He added that Syria has received from Russia, Yakhnot supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, which “poses a major threat to naval operations, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean,” because of its 300 kilometres range.
The U.S. official pointed out that no opposition group has been able to “unite the diverse groups behind a strategy for replacing the regime”. Nevertheless, the opposition has acquired control over territory in eastern Syria and along the northern border with Turkey.
Despite an improvement in the coordination between opposition groups “ties with external groups, including nominal Free Syrian Army leaders in Turkey are increasingly strained.”
A day earlier U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel also made it clear that Washington was disinclined to play a direct military role to support the opposition. He told lawmakers that supporting the opposition with U.S. military action was an “option of last resort” that could draw the U.S. in a lengthy conflict. In Istanbul, John Kerry, the visiting U.S. Secretary of State, stopped short of a U.S. pledge to supply weapons that the anti-Assad insurgents have sought, but committed fresh non-lethal aid to the opposition worth $123 million.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, also parried suggestions by some Senators that Patriot missile batteries should be positioned along the Turkish border with Syria so that “safe zones” inside Syrian territory could be established. Gen. Dempsey rejected the proposal on the ground that the deployment of missiles alone, without some boots on the ground, would not be sufficient to establish “safe zones”. He also dismissed the hawkish advocacy by some lawmakers of arming the opposition, pointing out that weapons could flow into wrong hands because the opposition was not well organised. Analysts point out the Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, which has publicly announced its affiliation with Al Qaeda, has been fast emerging as the dominant opposition force in the Syrian conflict.
Despite its animosity towards the Syrian government, Israel has also begun to strongly express its fears about the acquisition of powerful weapons by Islamic militants that could destabilise the region. In an interview with the BBC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:
"The main arms of concern to us are the arms that are already in Syria - these are anti-aircraft weapons, these are chemical weapons and other very, very dangerous weapons that could be game changers". He added that such an eventuality would “change the conditions, the balance of power in the Middle East”. “They could present a terrorist threat on a worldwide scale. It is definitely our interest to defend ourselves, but we also think it is in the interest of other countries."