- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Assad dynasty significantly militarized Syria over the past few decades, thus providing the Obama administration a rich list of targets should it order punitive airstrikes against the regime.

It could get personal, with as many as five Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean aiming cruise missiles at President Bashar Assad’s palace on Mount Mazzeh overlooking Damascus’ southern neighborhoods.

The U.S. also could go after what are deemed command-and-control sites in Damascus, the capital. The Defense Ministry and its feared intelligence wing are in Umayyad Square, and the Interior Ministry stands nearby in Merjeh Square. In hitting those sites, President Obama would be taking the war to downtown Damascus.

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U.S. military commanders may decide to target the forces Mr. Assad holds most dear — those who protect the regime in Damascus and are deployed to fight insurgents in various cities in the nearly 2-year-old civil war.

On the capital’s northern end sits Mount Qasioun, home to the country’s largest collection of military sites as well as commercial shops and restaurants.

In May, the Israeli air force bombed Qasioun’s Jamraya military research center, a complex thought to be involved in receiving and transporting rockets from Iran to Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group in Lebanon.

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Hezbollah fighters began going to Syria last year to fight alongside Mr. Assad’s army against tens of thousands of rebels representing Islamic and secular groups — some Syrian, some from outside the country.

Like his late father, Hafez, Mr. Assad has paid close attention to protecting Damascus and has used the 220,000-member army to fight off invaders and internal threats.

On Qasioun is a web of military installations for commandos, the Republican Guard and the elite 4th Armored Division that comprise career soldiers thought to be the most loyal to Mr. Assad’s regime.

“The 4th Armored Division has performed as Bashar al-Assad’s indispensable elite unit since the outset of the 2011 uprising,” Joseph Holliday said in a report by the Institute for the Study of War on Mr. Assad’s array of military tools. Mr. Holliday’s research for “The Syrian Army Doctrinal Order of Battle” included interviews with army officers who defected.

The armored division also keeps forces around the presidential palace at Mount Mezzeh. Nearby is an air base stocked with Russian-made attack and fighter jets.

The city of Homs, 100 miles north of Damascus, has emerged as the second-largest host for army forces. Elements of several divisions, including the 4th, have showed up there.

Significant air attacks on Qasioun and Mezzeh could degrade Mr. Assad’s best ground troops and deprive him of his most loyal fighters.

“In order to hedge against defections, Bashar al-Assad has deployed only the most loyal elements of the Army,” Mr. Holliday said in his book. “Within the conventional divisions, this loyal core has been limited to small detachments selectively deployed, while the regime’s praetorian, majority-Alawite divisions have been deployed in full.”

Mr. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which is practiced by Iran’s theocracy and Hezbollah.

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