BEIRUT, Lebanon — A potential military strike against the Syrian government by international actors like the United States and Britain could hit valuable regime targets that Syria’s ill-equipped rebels can only dream of capturing or destroying.
Many Free Syrian Army fighters have called for foreign intervention since the conflict started more than two years ago. But today, some rebels are questioning the motives behind the Western push for a strike — and whether or not it will even be effective.
“It’s good and not good, because the strike would not be lethal to the Syrian regime,” said Captain Fadi, an FSA officer with the Jabhat al-Umma al-Islamiya Brigade, an Islamist rebel unit operating in and around Aleppo. Like other rebels interviewed, he declined to give his full name because of security concerns.
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Following an apparent chemical weapons attack outside Damascus Aug. 21, the US has led the move toward some sort of Western military action. Both the US and UK governments have blamed the assault, which is reported to have killed hundreds, on the Syrian regime.
But US officials have said that any strikes on Syria would be limited, aimed at sending a message to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.
It’s unlikely, at least initially, that targeted airstrikes would be deliberately designed to give the rebels an upper hand in the civil war.
“I don’t have a lot of hope about this strike,” said Omar al-Homsi, an FSA fighter involved in special operations. He is based in Yabroud, a town near the Lebanese border. “It will not do anything — nothing will change.”
At times earlier this week, it appeared as if the operation would begin within days. Unnamed US officials told reporters that action was imminent, while Britain sponsored a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council.
But while the US and UK have moved military assets into place in the Eastern Mediterranean, the missiles have not yet been launched.
In an interview with PBS NewsHour Wednesday night, President Barack Obama said he has not made a decision on whether to take action.
Some rebels say the delay is giving the Assad regime ample time to prepare for an attack, rearrange forces and vacate targets. These moves will likely limit the military benefits the opposition fighters could gain from a strike, they say.
Though when asked what they might do when the operation kicks off, the rebels had few answers.
“It gives more time for Assad to be careful about the strikes — this is the problem,” said Abu Mohammed, a spokesman for the same Islamist rebel unit as Captain Fadi.
Advance warning could diminish the military effectiveness of the strikes — both for the US and the rebels.
But the decision to involve itself militarily in the Syrian civil war is “not sort of a push-button decision” for the US, said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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With US public opinion strongly against intervening, and the ghost of the Iraq war haunting policymakers, diplomacy is crucial before launching an air campaign, White said.
“They will do it just to avoid being shamed in front of the world,” al-Homsi said.
Last year, Obama said the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would be a “red line” for his administration. Now rebels say he’s seeking to strike Assad in order to maintain US credibility.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the war, the United Nations says.
“There is no help, only talking” from world leaders, Abu Mohammed, the Islamist fighter in Aleppo, said.
The FSA leadership says it supports foreign military strikes.
Louay al-Mokdad, the FSA’s political and media coordinator, said that Western powers had confirmed there would be a military reaction to the chemical weapons attack. And it would be welcome, he said.
“We encourage any reaction against Bashar al-Assad’s regime to stop him from killing the Syrian people,” he said.
Captain Fadi said he too welcomed help from the US and international community, but also warned that in general, “America’s policies are not good with the Arabs.”
Weapons for Fadi and his fellow opposition fighters would be of more use, he added.