Syria crisis: warplanes spotted in Cyprus as tensions rise in Damascus

Signs of advanced readiness at likely hub of air campaign as UN inspection team comes under fire near site of alleged chemical attack

Warplanes and military transporters have begun arriving at Britain’s Akrotiri airbase on Cyprus, less than 100 miles from the Syrian coast, in a sign of increasing preparations for a military strike against the Assad regime in Syria.

Two commercial pilots who regularly fly from Larnaca on Monday told the Guardian that they had seen C-130 transport planes from their cockpit windows as well as small formations of fighter jets on their radar screens, which they believe had flown from Europe.

Residents near the British airfield, a sovereign base since 1960, also say activity there has been much higher than normal over the past 48 hours.

If an order to attack targets in Syria is given, Cyprus is likely to be a hub of the air campaign. The arrival of warplanes suggests that advanced readiness – at the very least – has been ordered by Whitehall as David Cameron, Barack Obama and European leaders step up their rhetoric against Bashar al-Assad, whose armed forces they accuse of carrying out the chemical weapons attack last Wednesday that killed many hundreds in eastern Damascus.

The US, Britain and their allies are likely to wait until the UN team has compiled its report and left Syria before carrying out any air strikes against the government. If the strikes go ahead, they are expected to focus on the strongest sinews of the Assad regime’s power.

Hitting stockpiles of chemical weapons could appear more proportionate but that would bring with it the risk of dispersing neurotoxins over a wide area, potentially causing even more harm than Wednesday’s gas attack.

For that reason, military experts think that if the western allies do decide to strike, they will aim to deliver a punishment and a deterrent against any further chemical weapons use.

To do so, they will probably concentrate their fire on the regime’s greatest strength – the elite units on which it relies militarily and which are most tied to its chemical weapons programme.

Foremost among these is the 4th armoured division, an overwhelmingly Alawite formation headed by the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad. It has its headquarters in the Mazzeh military complex in the southern suburbs of Damascus.

Another likely target is the regime’s Republican Guard, another Allawite diehard unit, which is deployed around the presidential palace and in the Qasioun military complex to the north of the Syrian capital.

Full article: Syria crisis: warplanes spotted in Cyprus as tensions rise in Damascus (The Guardian)

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