Thursday, 11 July 2013

Syria - Homs offensive and greater security

al-Qaeda Iraq (State of Iraq and the Levant) has declared its affiliation with the Jabhat al-Nusra Front
With the Syrian regime forces expelling the Rebels from the Qusair region and eradicating key sector strongholds, the Syrian regime will now focus on neutralizing rebel activity and presence in the city of Homs itself. Homs is seen as an area of key strategic value to the government forces as they attempt to separation opposition-held areas and establish links between the capital and coastal strongholds. Meanwhile, the fragmented state and intense fighting has allowed transnational, non-state jihadist actors to slip into the power vacuum with concerns as to the possibility of attaining chemical weapons and their possible usage against the international community.

The situation from the rebels perspective looks bleak. With a shortage of ammunition and supplies, there are reports that the rebels have resorted to suicide attacks to slow the rate of advancement of pro-regime forces into the city. Since taking Qusair last month, the rebel forces have been the back-foot with stretched lines and lack of supplies. However, the inevitable fall of Homs for the rebels forces will mean they will be able to focus their attention in the north where they have a stronger footing than their presence in the south. Whilst the solidification of the north is vital for the durability of the rebel campaign, fears for the opposition will arise when the pro-regime forces have the dexterity to launch a new, fresh and most importantly, well supplied offensive into the north.

When journalists, politicians and strategists refer to the "rebels", it is worth to mention that the word "rebel" is an umbrella term to define a group of groups whom are defined primarily by their opposition to the Syrian regime. There are differences and disputes in the rebel unity which are predominantly political and ideological. Most notably, the rebels - generally referring to the two most dominant forces in the rebellion ranks as the Free Syrian Army and the Al-Tawhid Brigade. The other main force on the battlefield is the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, consisting of Salafist jihadists and are more extremist in their discourse. The fractionalization of the inter-group rebellion intensified by fighting between them and al-Qaeda. For al-Qaeda, the chaos and power vacuum of Syria presents an opportunity to expand its influence and scope on a wider-regional level. With this, however, there are obvious points of anxiety in the minds of many intelligence directors in the international community. al-Qaeda's declaration of affiliation with al-Nusra gives al-Qaeda greater agility in the region and there are concerns as to the seizure of these weapons by extremists entities.

Syria's chemical weapons 

The UK's foreign intelligence organization, MI6, has detailed its fears as to the possibility of al-Qaeda acquiring Syria's chemical weapons. Syria have an abundant chemical weapons programme, among the chemical weapons, the Syrian regime are reported to have Sarin, VX, Tabun and Mustard gas in their arsenal. These production facilities are in al-Safira, Hama, Homs, Latakia and Palmyra according to a report on the Special Weapons Facilities. Their location and the rebels presence in and around these regions give the plausible assertion that al-Qaeda may have these weapons. However, there are logistical problems associated with this. Firstly, al-Qaeda have an enemy on two fronts - the pro-regime forces and factions of the rebellion who want al-Qaeda to play no part in the conflict because they may undermine the population that they are pledging to liberate. Secondly, there's the actual transportation of such materials. Turkey has a heightened military presence on its borders, Jordan has dedicated security efforts  to minimizing conflict on its borders. The only viable would be to transport chemical weapons into the Anbar province in Iraq where there is an established militia presence of al-Qaeda Iraq entities. However, this leads onto the third issue and that is chemical engineers and deployability. Many comment that al-Qaeda are exploiting "lone" actors, something al-Qaeda exploit as it decreases the chances of detectability. However, many security analysts find that "lone" actors are not strictly lone. The communications, training and expertise require a network. This network is what allows security services to intercept possible terrorist actors and something as substantial as chemical weapons and transporting them continentally will inevitably lead to higher chances of detection.

Nevertheless, the international community will not take any chances in purely intercepting potential actors who have weapons of mass destruction. It is not known as to the methodology for seizing or destroying chemical stockpiles. A precision strike into a chemical weapons factory runs the risk of allowing the chemicals stored to fall-out into general populace resulting in a potential substantial loss of civilian life. Coordination with the rebel entities who wish to be seen as potential, legitimate governors of the population see the value in restricting chemical weapons as the prevention of civilian life would result in them being seen as freedom fighters by the civilian population. With this in mind, even if al-Qaeda possess chemical weapons (and they had the capability in the past), there's another thing to deploy it. As the case with Aum Shinrikyo, despite having access to first-world facilities and unlimited budget to create chemical weapons, their deployment was ineffective and lacks the spectacularity that al-Qaeda wish to achieve.

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