During his interview with CBS' Charlie Rose this morning, Syria's president Bashar al-Assad ominously warned of unspecified retaliation in the event the U.S. strikes at his military assets. Bluff and bluster, or the equivalent of an Assad version of "shock and awe (shucks)"?
Memo to the nation: It's bluff and bluster (at least from Assad's military).
Just to set the stage here. For the western mind it must be extraordinarily difficult to imagine how Assad can deny and deny again that his forces never used chemical weapons in the conflict in the face of such compelling evidence to the contrary. But there he was, in a crucial "big lie" moment, mild-mannered, and ever so meekly presenting his counter-arguments in anticipation of President Obama's speech tomorrow evening, all the while feigning innocence from the brutality that is the Assad family motto that every Syrian life is expendable to retain ruthless power. The interview compellingly validated how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Nevertheless, Americans should not be fooled by Assad's protestations. His use of WMD has brought onto him a well-deserved American "one-two punch" (reserve the "three" and "four" punch if he deploys WMD again).
Even his father, Hafez al-Assad, did not stoop to such inhumane audacity and use chemical weapons against his own people when faced with an uprising from the Sunni-dominated Muslim Brotherhood that led to him mass-murdering 20,000 of his own citizens in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982.
What exactly can Syria do in retaliation?
Actually, it's not what Assad will do. His military can't even beat the ragtag rebels arrayed against him. Rather, it's what his proxies may do... and that is where we should be focused on. And whatever may come our way should the U.S. punish Assad for his use of WMD is really small potatoes compared to what would happen to the Syrian people if we did not respond.
The fear that he would use WMD again will drive millions more Syrians to flight.
SYRIA'S CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL STOCKPILES -- WHO IS IN CONTROL?
On May 1, 2013, I wrote a "field guide to Syria's WMD" and am taking the liberty of reposing it below.
Syria boasts the fourth largest stockpile of chemical and biological weapons in the world and for over a year intelligence reports have flared that some of the stockpiles have already fallen into the sticky fingers of Hezbollah and the Islamist terrorist group known as the Al Nusra Front. The New York Times also reported on November 12, 2012 that Hezbollah had already set up camps next to WMD stockpiles and have been training at a limited number of these sites.
Syria's preferred agent is sarin, not unwieldy canisters of chlorine or mustard gas. Sarin is deadly if inhaled even in the minutest of quantities, and there are no gas masks among Syria's population to protect them. Syria never signed the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention, and according to the Washington Post's report of August 28, 2011, the CIA had concluded that Syria was also working on developing VX -- a deadlier nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment.
According to a report published in July by the U.S. James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, there are five identifiable chemical agent manufacturing plants in Syria: At As-Safir, southeast of the destroyed second city of Aleppo, another near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, a third near Dumayr, 25 km northeast of Damascus, another at Khan Abu Shamat, 35 km east of Damascus and one at Al-Furqlus in Homs province. There are also said to be several dozen additional storage sites scattered around the country, some of them in hardened underground bunkers which cannot be seen by satellite photography.
Syria's Terrorism Capabilities - The Real Power-Makers in Syria
Let's put to rest who is really in charge in Syria... it is NOT Bashar al-Assad. He is the front man in the Assad family hierarchy. The man literally calling the shots is his younger brother, Maher al-Assad, who is the commander of the Republican Guard, and the Syrian Army's elite Fourth Armored Division. There have been a lot of rumors swirling around whether he died in a bomb blast, but the majority of media accounts assert he lost a leg. He is the principal liaison between the Assad dynasty and the Iran Revolutionary Guards supporting Assad, as well as the principal liaison to Hezbollah. His well-known savagery (think of Saddam's sons) finally resulted in having the U.S. in April 2011 place him on a list of persons to be sanctioned for human rights violations.
Maher and Bashar may be ruthless, but their sister, Bushra, takes the cake. She is known to be the most vociferous instigator of Assad's scorched-earth policies that have seen most of Syria's cities devastated. She was married to Asef Shawkat, the head of the dreaded Syrian military intelligence services, who was killed in a bomb blast in 2012 at national security headquarters in Damascus. Shawkat has been singled out as the person most responsible for organizing the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri.
Any planned retaliation by Bashar would likely be delegated to Maher and Bushra to coordinate with Assad's Shiite terrorism agents against U.S. soft targets in Lebanon, Jordan, or Baghdad.
Syria's Neighbors Add to the Terrorism Capabilities of Assad
As the U.S. pours foreign assistance into Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's coffers, let us not forget that Iraq is THE major conduit of arms, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard support into Syria.
But it gets even more complicated.
According to a fascinating report issued by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on June 27, 2013, one of the most significant international brigades currently fighting on the Assad regime's side is the Damascus-based Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), a collection of predominantly Iraqi Shiite fighters organized and supported by the Qods Force, an elite branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Though relatively small in size, LAFA. The IRGC's Quds Force conducts most of the terrorism by Iran against its adversaries, and has trained LAFA in the finer points of targeting U.S. assets in Iraq in the event of an attack by the U.S. on Syria.
These fighters are drawn almost exclusively from three Iraqi groups. The main contributor is Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), a 2,000-3,000-strong militant group that splintered from Muqtada al-Sadr's movement in 2006 with support from the IRGC Qods Force and Lebanese Hezbollah.
The second is Kataib Hezbollah (KH), an elite 400-man cadre of experienced Iraqi Shiite fighters reporting directly to the IRGC Qods Force leadership. The third is Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), a 200-man force led by Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani (a.k.a. Hamid al-Sheibani), an Iraqi Shiite who has worked under the Qods Force since the late 1980s. Reports also indicate the presence of Iraqi Shiites from the Badr Organization and Muqtada al-Sadr's Liwa al-Youm al-Mawud (Promised Day Brigades).
Regardless of its exact composition, LAFA appears to have soaked up a large proportion of the hardened, Iranian-supported militant cadres that harassed the U.S. military in Iraq.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
It's hard to find out the exact number of IRGC forces fighting alongside Assad's forces. But it numbers "in the thousands," according to U.S. officials.
The Wall Street Journal report further noted that U.S. officials believe the US embassies in Baghdad and Beirut are likely targets for Iranian-backed terror groups. On Sept. 6, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut announced it was drawing "down non-emergency personnel and family members from Embassy Beirut due to threats to U.S. Mission facilities and personnel." Similarly, a travel warning issued by the State Department on Sept. 5 warned "U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq."
The Associated Press quoted Wathiq al Batat, the head of the Iranian-backed Mukhtar Army, as saying that his group was coordinating "with Iran" on potential attacks in response to US strikes in Syria. In February, the AP reported that the Mukhtar Army was advised by the IRGC Qods Force.
Hezbollah (Party of God) has a long history of attacking U.S. interests and killing Americans. It was responsible for bombing the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983, and it has committed itself, lock, stock and barrel, to the so-called Axis of Resistance (Syria, Hezbollah and Iran). Hezbollah has suffered significant battlefield losses in Syria, but it is largely credited with reversing the order of battle in recent months, tipping the scales back to Assad's side.
I reported back in 2012 that Maher Assad had entered into a secret agreement with Hezbollah's leader Sheikh Nasrallah that provided Hezbollah and elements of the Qud's Force direct oversight of Syria's WMD stockpiles as insurance in case of a rebel attack, or even worse, defections that resulted in losing control of the WMD. Indeed, Hezbollah built training camps close to Syrian WMD depots according to U.S. officials.
Pro-Hezbollah Sheikh Afif Nabulsi warned that "any [U.S.] strike against Syria would be met by harsh responses against U.S. interests in the region and against Israel directly.
But a source close to Hezbollah told Beirut's Daily Star: "If the Western attack is limited to certain targets in Syria, then Hezbollah will not intervene," but, "in the event of a qualitative strike that aims to change the balance of power in Syria, Hezbollah will fight on various fronts," including "the inferno of a war with Israel," the source said, clearly referring to the possibility of the terror group firing rockets into Israel. Indeed, Hezbollah has reportedly mobilized troops in southern Lebanon.
At the end of the day, the likelihood of a reprisal attack by Syria, Iran or Hezbollah depends in large part on the scale, duration and impact of a Western strike. If the air campaign is seen as punishment for using chemical weapons and an attempt to deter their future use, reprisal attacks are, in my considered judgment, far less likely.
But in the shadowy Syrian war where Sunni Al Qaeda terrorists confront Shiite terrorists, the U.S. is the nation (other than Israel no doubt) by which they find common ground.
Hezbollah agents roam South America and Europe at will. The rebel anti-Assad al-Qaeda front in Syria (Al Nusra) considers the U.S. to be its secondary target after Assad. The sectarian strife in Iraq makes American targets more inviting. We recently evacuated most of our diplomatic personnel from Beirut because of concern that Americans in Lebanon are now in harms' way.
The risk of retaliation is real. Put Assad aside. He is a paper tiger.
But let's be frank.
The U.S. has had to live with Sunni- and Shiite-inspired terrorism against the U.S. for decades. What else is new? Assad needs a lesson in the obligations of being a signatory to the chemical weapons ban.
Mark my word, the Syrian people will flee their nation in such record numbers if we do not act for fear Assad will use his WMD again that today's unprecedented refugee crisis will pale in comparison creating a wave of human suffering unparalleled in modern Middle East history. In a bizarre way, failing to deter Assad will create far more human hardship for everyone involved than sending him an unmistakeable, convincing message.