A huge blow to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came on Wednesday when its “national security apparatus was basically decapitated,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Judith Miller tells Newsmax.TV.
“The president’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the brains of the security offensive against the rebels, the man who has implemented that offensive, was killed in a bombing as he met with other senior officials inside the national security building which is not very far from where the president himself lives,” Miller, a contributing editor to Newsmax Magazine, said in an exclusive interview.
“So the fact that the rebels were able to penetrate that building and stage that kind of bombing suggests that its reach is much greater than the regime was asserting it was – and also that the regime’s security was far weaker.”
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Other activities, Miller said, have “conspired over time” to weaken the al-Assad regime – including the ability of the Free Syrian Army to move within the country, make more aggressive strikes and use a stronger array of weapons in their attacks.
“You have that coupled with just losses on the part of the regime and the fact the regime is now spread so thin, because its forces, the only reliable forces, are those of Alawite origin and yet most of the army is about 70 percent Sunni. So those forces aren’t deemed to be ‘reliable,’ ” Miller said.
On Thursday, rebels attacked Syrian forces on two spots along the nation’s porus border with Iraq, killing 21 soldiers and seizing control of one of the four major border posts, a senior Iraqi army official said.
The assaults against Syria’s government unfolded throughout the day, putting the Iraqi army on high alert to prevent any violence from spilling across the border.
About a half-dozen rebels stormed the Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim early Thursday, the Iraqi army official said. The rebels forced the border guards from their posts but did not cross into Iraq, he said.
Qaim is located about 200 miles west of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, in the remote Sinjar mountain range, rebels attacked a Syrian army outpost hours later near the Iraqi border. Twenty soldiers and their commander were killed, the Iraqi army official said. The rebels then seized control of the outpost, he said.
The border between Iraq and Syria is 363 miles in length.
Further, reports have circulated that al-Assad himself has fled Damascus, the Syrian capital, but “we don’t know that,” Miller said, “and there is no indication at the moment that he has either decided to flee or is making plans to flee.”
Besides, “the problem for Bashar al-Assad right now would be who would take him, given the fact that he is almost certain to be charged with international war crimes or certainly with crimes of war that would fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court,” she added.
Al-Assad would need to seek asylum in a country that is not a member of the International Criminal Court, Miller said. The United States is among a handful of nations that is not a member.
“That leaves very few possibilities. There are a couple of other countries that are also not members, but almost no Arab states would take him at this point,” she said. “Perhaps, he could go to Russia, but I’m not sure that’s a very attractive prospect for him. The Iranians might take him, but that is not clear either.
“So the issue is, if he chose to flee, it’s not obvious that there are a lot of places that are willing to host him.”
On the diplomatic front, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution on Thursday that threatened Syria with sanctions if authorities did not stop using heavy weapons against the uprising that has lasted 16 months and withdraw troops from towns and cities.
It was the third time Russia, a key Syrian ally, and China have used their veto power to block U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to pressure Assad to step down and halt the violence.
“There’s really a kind of proxy war going on in Syria,” Miller explained. “There is not only fighting between the Alawite regime and the rebels, between the insurgents and Bashar al-Assad, but also a kind of alignment forces of people who have backed up the president.”
One side pits Russia, China and Iran versus the Sunni Arab States, Saudi Arabi, Qatar – and the United States and its Western allies.
“For Russia, Syria has been its only reliable Arab ally,” Miller said. “It’s also the place where it has its only warm water port. There are long-standing ties and connections between the Syrians in this regime and the Russians.
“The Russians also want to be players in the Middle East, and Syria was the one country that could dependently be assumed to be on the same strategic page as Russia.
“So the collapse of the al-Assad regime would be a terrible blow to Russian influence and aspirations in the region,” Miller concluded.
And with the fall of the regime would come far more violence and instability, she said. “This war could become far more sectarian than it has been to date.”
Miller, noting that International Red Cross has officially declared Syria to be in a civil war, likened the possibility to “the kind of thing you had in Iraq in its worst period, which is all-out sectarian warfare.”
“The situation, as bad as it is now – 17,000 deaths and counting – could be even worse, and that’s one of the great concerns that people have about this war spinning out of control,” she said.
The nation that is perhaps most troubled about the crisis is Israel, Miller said.
“First of all, there is no love lost between the al-Assad regime and the Israeli leadership. However, the border between them has been quiet since 1974. There is no peace treaty, but there is a kind of truce that both sides have observed.
“So, one, the Israelis are very concerned about anything that would disrupt the de facto truce that has been in place on that border.”
Further, Israel is concerned about Syria’s vast cache of chemical weapons stockpiles, which are believed to be stored in as many as three-dozen locations throughout the country. Some of these weapons have reportedly been moved in recent days, though Syria's intentions in moving them are unclear.
Israel isn’t concerned that Syria would use the weapons against them, Miller said, “but if the government were to collapse, they would fall into the hands of people who would be willing to use such weapons – both as terrorist’s weapons or to be sold or given to even more unsavory characters.”
Any U.S. involvement in Syria right now, Miller said, would worsen matters.
“The thinking in the Obama administration is that an American intervention, at this point, direct or even indirect, when it comes to military activity, would make the situation worse.”
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She noted that Arizona Sen. John McCain and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney support arming the rebels, “but we don’t know who all of these rebels are – and it’s very hard to distinguish among them.
“We do know that there are jihadi elements, within the Free Syrian Army and the other insurgents. We don’t want to be in a situation of arming the people who are then going to use those arms to move against American targets.
“Direct intervention, military intervention in Syria – either unilaterally or through multilateral organizations – is now deemed to be a non-starter,” Miller said. “Not only because it’s an American election year, but because memories are quite acute now about the Iraqi intervention, the Iraqi war.
“People don’t want to repeat that in Syria.”
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