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Among Syrian Opposition, Mixed Feelings About U.S. Missile Plan

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BEIRUT -- As the U.S. continues to ramp up its plans to target the Syrian military with cruise missile strikes, Syrian citizens and opposition figures have voiced a mix of optimism and deep concern about what may happen aftermath of a bombing raid.

The Obama administration has indicated that it is in the final stages of planning a limited strike, using cruise missiles, against a series of Syrian military targets in response to last Wednesday's apparent chemical weapons attack that the U.S. says left more than a thousand civilians dead. On Friday, the administration released an intelligence report that it said pointed to proof that chemical weapons had been deployed, and that the regime was culpable.

It is exactly the sort of intervention that many Syrian opposition groups have called for, but not everyone is so enthusiastic about the consequences.

Abdulkader al Dhon, a Syrian human rights activist who now lives in Turkey but travels regularly to his home country, said on Friday that many people he speaks with are worried that the U.S. war plan could spiral into a larger conflict.

"They are afraid," he told The Huffington Post by Skype. "They say that if this attack will be just for a few places in Damascus, maybe the big military bases, that's OK. But we don't want to open a new war for the next year. That would be terrible."

It's a view matched by a number of news reports in recent days, including a Tuesday Wall Street Journal article that quoted several skeptical rebel leaders along the Turkey-Syria border.

"The regime might use the attacks and say: 'we are victims,'" Col. Ahmed Hamada, a rebel military leader, said in the report. "They could grow more powerful."

In Beirut, a Syrian activist and analyst who stays in close contact with friends and allies in Damascus and elsewhere told HuffPost Friday that he was "surprised by the attitudes" of some of his friends in light of the U.S. plans.

"Even some of the ones who are extremely anti-regime, they were still anti-intervention," said the analyst, who asked to remain anonymous. "A lot of them see the whole thing as hypocritical: they feel like the West doesn't start thinking about a serious solution to their problem until it starts to see it as a threat to their own national security."

Free Syrian Army units, while welcoming the prospects of U.S. intervention, have also expressed worries that the attacks will not go far enough, or might target them in the process.

Abdelkader al Dhon, the Turkey-based activist, said that in recent conversations he's had with residents in North Syria and with defected military officers in Turkey, he's emerged with a sense that the U.S. strikes could help if they focus less on the chemical weapons, and more on diminishing the regime's capacity for future air raids.

"The main idea now, especially in the North, is they want to find a way to stop the aerial attacks as much as they can," al Dhon said. "If these kinds of attacks stop, then the rebels can move more freely, and take more ground."

That is also what will bring the most relief to civilians in the North, he added. "More than 100,000 people have been killed from shelling, from bombing -- it's only a few thousand from chemicals. What the people need is to see a few months with the airports destroyed, and no attacks from the sky."

Military experts say it is unlikely that the U.S. will attempt to dismantle or destroy Syria's copious chemical weapons stores, something that might risk releasing deadly toxins into the air and killing more civilians in the process.

But many rebel fighters and western policymakers also worry that the jihadi groups who have risen in prominence in the opposition might take advantage of the period of disarray after an American strike to take more ground, or even gain control of some of the chemical weapons stocks.

Last fall, the Pentagon assessed that it would take some 75,000 troops on the ground in Syria to properly secure those chemical weapons sites. Destroying them, experts assess, would be impossible.

Non-extremist rebel groups have complained that much of the promised military aid from the White House has not yet arrived, leaving them in an even weaker position to ward off advances by jihadist groups, including some linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Meanwhile, military analysts say, it remains unclear if the strikes would actually work, even by the stripped down standards of the White House. And by the time that question is resolved, the situation in Syria could already be much worse.

"It’s still not clear if that will necessarily have the desired impact of restraining the Syrian military’s willingness to employ brutal military tactics," said Charles Lister, a military analyst with IHS Janes in London who has been closely watching the Syria conflict. "This is where punitive strikes carry some element of political risk –- it’s not always clear that their objectives can always be achieved until sometime after the fact."

Even some top U.S. military officials have said they worry about the aftermath of a limited military engagement in Syria.

"Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next," warned Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, in a letter to lawmakers last month. "Deeper involvement is hard to avoid."

Also on HuffPost:

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