The activists were not surprised by the vote in the British Parliament or Barack Obama’s decision to delay. It was what they had expected: the Western leaders simply had not made a good enough case for military action in Syria.
Instead of charges which may have been expected, of betrayal by their supposed backers, they were of the view that highly-publicised but limited Tomahawk strikes may have symbolic value, but will change little on the ground.
“We can understand why things went the way they did. In Britain, in America there is the history, Iraq and Afghanistan, so they were influenced by that, they voted in their own interests” said Naji Al Jarf, who runs a magazine smuggled into the country. He fled Damascus after the publication’s offices there were raided and staff taken prisoner.
“The American and British government have had two and half years to show the people the terrible things that Bashar al-Assad had been doing, they have not done a good job in doing that. But we do need constructive help from the outside, especially those who are trying to bring about a democratic Syria, a lot of the money is going to the extremists.”
However, the opposition has noticed that since the threats international action began, Western warships began arriving in the Mediterranean, the level of activity by Assad’s forces has fallen.
This is largely due to the regime ordering the evacuation of key command and control centres, putting the more valuable aircraft under the best hardened shelters they have and dispersing the fleets of Russian made helicopter-gunships between bases.
“There are other ways of keeping pressure on the regime than just air-strikes which the politicians wanted to have, I suppose it looks good on TV” said a senior British military officer whose post involves liaising with the Americans.
“We have got to think on a strategic level; at the moment we are getting the regime’s land, air and sea components pretty well boxed up. They may now think that they have a little window until the [US] Congress talks, but they have to be wary of they do anything outrageous Obama might just decide to zap them. Anyway, we haven’t noticed people hurrying back to C2’s (command and control) we suspect some of them will never go back.”
The charge of government’s failure to look at the broader picture was echoed by former Royal Navy Rear Admiral Chris Perry who said stated that he had spoken to serving colleagues who thoroughly approved of the Commons vote. “They said they were being asked to deliver military means without any idea of the strategic outcome desired.”
He was one of several senior former personnel deployed to get out the voices of serving officers who had deep reservations about ‘mini shock and awe’. General Lord Dannatt, former head of the British Army, described the outcome as a “victory for common sense….The will of the people has been expressed through the House of Commons, that we don’t want to get involved in this, and that’s the right answer at the moment.”
Across the Atlantic, General Gregory S Newbold, who was director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the run-up to the Iraq War, declared “There’s a broad naivety in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve.”
However, keeping the threat on the table may get the Russians to persuade President Assad to the negotiating table. The projected but repeatedly delayed Geneva II talks are expected to feature prominently between Mr Obama and Mr Putin at the G20 summit in St Petersburg next week.
Even four months ago the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was an enthusiastic advocate of Geneva II. But President Assad is said to have become less biddable after a series of successes on the ground. “We don’t think he’ll feel emboldened by what has happened in the last week” said the senior British officer. “US military action may yet happen. On a different note, at the moment the West is stopping the opposition getting hold of manpads (surface-to-air missiles) if the controls are loosened on that Assad won’t have an air force left soon; remember Stingers and Afghanistan.”
Another activist, a Syrian army defector who wants to be known by his initials BA for safety reasons said “We all know at the end talks will have to be held, whether Assad is part of that is a matter for discussion. I am not so sure he’ll use chemical weapons again.”