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AMMAN, Jordan — Last week’s alleged chemical attack in Syria has galvanized Western powers to consider military action against the Syrian government and has raised questions about whether President Bashar Assad is in firm control of his regime.

If chemical weapons indeed were used by the Assad regime, why were they, knowing the U.S. and its allies were likely to respond with a military strike? What would Assad have to gain, or would such an attack indicate he is not fully in control?

Two diplomats and a senior Arab intelligence official with extensive experience in Syria said Assad increasingly has asserted his authority over the country’s political and military structures since the outbreak of the armed rebellion 2½ years ago, but still rules as part of a collective leadership structure that includes his family, the security chiefs and the ruling Baath party.

They agreed that if Syrian government troops indeed had launched a chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus a week ago, the president likely would have had to sign off on it as part of a collective decision.

“Assad certainly is not a one-man show,” said Dr. Musa Shteiwi, head of the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. “He’s definitely not an unchallenged dictator like Saddam Hussein used to be in Iraq.”

Paradoxically, Assad’s pre-eminence in running the war was strengthened a year ago when a suicide bomber penetrated the heavily guarded national security headquarters in Damascus and killed or wounded a number of top security chiefs, Shteiwi said. The dead included Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Gen. Assef Shawkat — the deputy defense minister and the president’s brother-in-law.

Assad’s inner circle includes his younger brother, Maher, also a general and commander of the elite 4th Armored Division, regarded as the best and most loyal to the regime. It has been involved in fighting the rebels since the armed uprising began.

Media reports have speculated that Maher’s division was the unit that launched the bombardment of the eastern outskirts of the capital last Tuesday and Wednesday during which toxic gases were allegedly used against the rebel-held areas. Several hundred people are reported to have died in the assault, which a team of U.N. experts is currently investigating.

The Obama administration, as well as Britain, France and other NATO allies, all are considering military strikes against Syrian targets in retaliation for the alleged chemical attacks. All have said there is conclusive evidence that Syrian government forces carried out the bombardment of rebel areas,.

On Thursday, The Associated Press reported that intelligence linking Assad or his inner circle to the alleged attack is no sure thing, with questions remaining about who controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad ordered the strike.

Multiple U.S. intelligence officials, however, used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to describe the intelligence picture, the AP reported. That was a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk.” That intelligence turned out to be wrong.

Damascus vehemently has denied that its troops used the banned weapons, blaming the rebels for using toxic gases against government forces or supporters several times in the past. Russia also has pointed the finger at the rebels, saying it has yet to see any proof that the regime was responsible. Moscow says the constant talk of airstrikes was hampering the work of the U.N. inspectors and that any military action would only escalate violence in the region.

One diplomat and a senior security official from an Arab nation speculated that if Assad’s government actually had conducted the chemical strike, it may have been to make sure that the rebels were pushed back to the outskirts of town so that they would not be able to continue shelling the eastern, government-held neighborhoods.

The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it had proven difficult to dislodge the rebels from those positions by conventional means because they had been using underground tunnels to hide and then to strike from behind at the government forces. They said the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah had taught those tactics to the Palestinian Hamas fighters in order to fight Israel. But after Hamas sided with the opposition in Syria’s civil war, its members passed those tactics to the rebels.

In that case, a presidential decision would have been required for the use of toxic gases, they said.

Cast-iron evidence of who ordered the strikes, along with a precise sequence of events, could be difficult to come by, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar specializing in the Middle East at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington

“We simply don’t know, and there’s been so much chaos inside Syria that it’s always possible for a senior regime guy to go off the rails,” said Rubin, a Bush administration-era Pentagon policy official.

But Obama should not allow uncertainty — or Syrian efforts to establish plausible deniability — to prevent him from striking Assad to teach the Syrian president that weapons of mass destruction are off limits, Rubin said.

“Ultimately, I don’t think it matters,” he said. “I don’t know [who launched the chemical strikes] but the buck finally stops at the top.”

Shawn Brimley, vice president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, said the intelligence establishing culpability may not be entirely clear, but it’s probably clear enough.

Obama has made clear he’s not trying to topple Assad.

“They don’t need to present a lawyer’s case to the American people and declassify a lot of stuff — at some point it comes down to common sense,” Brimley said. “If we were going to invade the country and go down a path of regime change, it would be different, but it seems to me what they’re going to do is perform a series of limited strikes … not shape the outcome of the Syrian civil war.”

In recent months, Assad’s forces have scored a series of battlefield victories against the fractured rebel forces, which have received significant support in terms of weapons and funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf nations. The threat of bombing comes at a time when analysts agree that Islamic radicals are becoming increasingly dominant within the opposition forces, with the moderate, western-backed Free Syrian Army now taking a backseat in most operations.

The Damascus diplomats said the timing of the attack in the early hours of Aug. 21 remains suspicious because it came just after the arrival of the U.N. chemical weapons inspection team in the capital two days earlier. The hotel where the inspectors are staying is less than five miles from the area affected by toxic gases. One of the diplomats said it was difficult to believe Assad or his inner circle would have approved such a brazen act just after the team had arrived.

One of the envoys predicted that any Western strikes on the regime’s forces would serve only to embolden hard-line elements who oppose negotiations with the rebels and who believe a battlefield victory over the opposition forces is now in sight.

Hafez Assad, an air force general who seized power in a coup in 1970, relied on the security forces to quash any opposition to his personal rule. The Assad family belongs to Syria’s Allawite minority, and Hafez relied on the group’s members, along with officials from other minorities, including Christians and Druze, to rule the mainly Sunni nation.

Assad’s brother Bassel, whom Hafez was preparing to succeed him, was killed in a traffic accident in 1994. Hafez then picked Bashar, an opthalmologist, as his heir. Hafez died in 2000 and Bashar succeeded him, appointing Maher as his top security enforcer.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this


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