West moving military assets for punitive strikes on Syria?

Amid indications of an imminent US-led military action against Syria, reports say Western military assets are being moved into position to deliver punitive strikes on key installations that back embattled Bashar al-Assad`s regime.

Last Updated: Aug 28, 2013, 21:27 PM IST

Washington/London: Amid indications of an imminent US-led military action against Syria, reports say Western military assets are being moved into position to deliver punitive strikes on key installations that back embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad`s regime.

Missile strikes on Syrian military command bunkers, airfields or the artillery batteries and rocket launchers used to fire chemical projectiles are among the options US officials say are under consideration.

The advantage of this option is that it could be mounted quickly and with limited risk to the Western forces. The weapons of choice would be Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles launched from US Navy warships in the region and possibly British submarines.

The US Navy is re-positioning several vessels, including four cruise missile-carrying destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and probably a missile-firing submarine.

A British Trafalgar class submarine is also a potential launch platform.

If more firepower is needed, two US aircraft carriers could launch air strikes, and land bases in Turkey and Cyprus might also be used, the BBC reported.

However, any attack on Syria might encourage al-Assad to order more chemical attacks on rebel forces and civilians in opposition-held areas, said Amy Smithson, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies here.

"Not doing anything tells Assad he`s not going to get punished, go out and use the chemicals," said Smithson.

"Striking the chemical sites presents a very real risk of releasing toxic chemicals over nearby civilian populations. Not striking the chemical sites leaves Assad with potent weapons in his hands that he`s shown he`s willing to use," Smithson was quoted as saying by CNN.

Striking other military targets leaves "a very ticked-off despot that is now perhaps even more tempted to use his chemical arsenal," she said. "He`s already been punished for it." That might convince al-Assad to go out "in a blaze of glory -- or in this case, infamy."

Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, said the kind of intervention being discussed is not likely to affect the balance of power in the 2-year-old Syrian conflict beyond providing a psychological boost to the rebels, who have suffered setbacks recently.

"This is more about Washington saving face, it seems to me, than it is a consequential intervention in the Syrian conflict," Cole said, adding, "When you`re in a position where it is assumed that the United States must do something, a couple of Tomahawks make a statement."

The war "is being fought in alleyways and at close quarters, with artillery and tanks inside cities," he said.

Opponents of President al-Assad`s regime say more than 1,300 people died when his forces unleashed toxic gases on the two neighbourhoods in Damascus on August 21. The Syrian government strongly denies the claim.

PTI