Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
This is the landscape President Obama confronts as he considers how to respond to growing evidence that Syrian officials have used chemical weapons, crossing a red line he had set…
“My sense is that there are no seculars,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War who has made numerous trips to Syria in recent months to interview rebel commanders.
New questions have emerged over the source of the soil and other samples from Syria which, it is claimed, have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, amid apparent inconsistencies between eyewitness accounts describing one of the attacks and textbook descriptions of the weapon…
According the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, “sarin is a nerve agent that is one of the most toxic of the known chemical warfare agents. It is a clear colourless liquid … generally odourless and tasteless”.
But eyewitness accounts of that attack, in which six rebels died and which were reported at the time by the Associated Press described “white smoke” pouring from shells that “smell[ed] … like hydrochloric acid”.
As the Obama administration weighs how to respond to the use of poison gas, intelligence officials say they are confident that sophisticated tests of tissue and soil samples and other evidence point to sarin. But reactions in the U.S. intelligence community have varied because of the possibility — however small — that the exposure was accidental or caused by rebel fighters or others outside the Syrian government’s control, officials said.
Releases of poison gas could have occurred when soldiers loyal to the regime, which has been trying to secure and consolidate its dozens of chemical weapons sites, moved part of its stockpile, a U.S. Defense official said. Another possibility is that disloyal Syrian weapons scientists supplied chemicals to rebel fighters…
“The Iraq WMD is looming over this, as it ought to be,” a senior congressional official said. “How can you be more confident in the assessment here? These are questions we are all asking.”
Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi rejected US and British allegations Damascus had used chemical weapons against opposition fighters, and instead accused Turkey of allowing rebels to transfer chemical weapons across the border into Syria, the Syrian SANA new agency reported…
The Americans “want to manipulate the issue, to let whoever used the chemical weapons … get away (with it), and to repeat the Iraq example,” Al-Zoubi said.
“The reason to push the evidentiary basis is to have a better chance of convincing the Russians that an international red line has been crossed,” and that appropriate action should be taken, said one knowledgeable official. “That’s the best outcome.”…
U.S. military planners are developing detailed options for how the U.S. could take action once decisive evidence of Syrian chemical weapons use has been found. There are a range of targets, including facilities associated with the chemical weapons program, the command and control nodes of Assad’s army and special units that have been involved in the bloodiest fighting. But these would be major operations requiring a very heavy investment of money, troops and hardware, and the administration much prefers the alternative of a negotiated political settlement, if it can be achieved with Russian help.
One thing that Obama has made very clear in his approach to war and peace: He abhors the prospect of uncontrolled escalation. (In this sense, he bears similarities to John F. Kennedy.) And, as he no doubt knows well, Syria isn’t Libya, where an embattled, isolated dictator was hanging on to power only with the aid of foreign mercenaries. Assad has the Syrian army fighting for him (minus a few high-ranking defectors); he has the support of several factions of the Syrian population, including Christians, who fear what might happen if the Muslim rebels—some of them radical Islamists—take power; and he receives aid, to varying degrees, from Russia, China, and Iran. Toppling Assad might mark not the end but merely a new chapter of a bourgeoning civil war…
But any president who’s apprehensive about escalation—and any president who’s read the history of the Vietnam War, as Obama has—must be concerned that one step inexorably leads to another. What happens after the first step? What happens when the Syrians escalate in response? Who cleans up the mess after it’s over? How much will this venture, however well intentioned, cost in lives and dollars? Obama probably also knows that the senators urging him to take military action will shirk responsibility, and blame him for all the troubles, if Syria collapses or goes up in flames in the aftermath.
“Once you set up a military no-fly zone or safe zone, you’re on a slippery slope, mission creep and before you know it, you have boots on the ground,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.
“Or you end up like Libya where you don’t really have a control mechanism for the end-game, should you end up with chaos.”
The U.S. military has also completed planning for going into Syria and securing its chemical weapons under different scenarios, including one in which Assad falls from power and his forces disintegrate, leaving weapons sites vulnerable to pillaging…
Asked if he was confident the U.S. military could secure Syria’s chemical weapons stock, Dempsey told Congress: “Not as I sit here today simply because they have been moving it and the number of sites is quite numerous.”
With even ardent Obama supporters like Jeffrey Goldberg reminding the president he has made it crystal clear that chemical weapons use would be a red line that would trigger a strong U.S. response, what follows will not only tell us whether that promise would be kept. It will also illustrate just how seriously to take other pledges the administration has made, specifically its vow never to allow Iran to go nuclear. With the White House desperately trying to buy time before making a decision on Syria, it’s fair to ask why anyone should regard American rhetoric on Iran as anything more than an elaborate bluff if Obama won’t keep his word about Assad’s behavior…
There may be no good options in Syria, but the blowback from a realization that the U.S. won’t stop mass killings in this manner may be far more costly. The price may not be paid by Americans, at least not immediately, but the toll in blood and diplomatic and security complications will be great. If American “red lines” mean nothing, then Obama’s blind faith in diplomacy will be exposed as a disastrous sham.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has huge stakes in the survival of Mr. Assad, his only real ally in the region. And United States intelligence analysts believe that Iran’s leaders have interpreted two decades of American drift on the North — during which Mr. Obama’s three immediate predecessors all said they would never tolerate the country’s obtaining nuclear arms — as a sign that Washington will not wage war to stop even a rogue nation from obtaining nuclear arms, or the ability to build them.
If the United States intervened in Syria to secure its chemical stockpiles — perhaps organizing the Arab League, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council or NATO to share the job — Israeli officials say it would be a signal that Mr. Obama would most likely back up his warnings to Iran the same way. But the prospect of such a move also worries many in Jerusalem: one senior official said he feared that an intervention in Syria could also obfuscate “the problem of greater concern” for Israel, stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
But the White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say.
The distrust, cynicism and hatred with which the United States is regarded in much of the world, particularly among Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa, is already a cancer. Standing by while Assad gasses his people will guarantee that, whatever else Obama may achieve, he will be remembered as a president who proclaimed a new beginning with the Muslim world but presided over a deadly chapter in the same old story.
Claire McCaskill, a Democratic senator and member of the homeland-security and armed-services committees, stood out this Sunday morning by not rejecting the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to address Syria’s civil war. When host Bob Schieffer asked her and Republican senator Saxby Chambliss about the possibility or necessity of deploying U.S. troops at some point, McCaskill responded, “I don’t think you ever want to rule it out. As Saxby said, this thing has really deteriorated, and it’s not really at a tipping point, so I don’t think you ever want to say absolutely not. Obviously, we don’t want to do that unless it’s absolutely necessary.”…
The circumstances under which U.S. troops would be deployed aren’t clear — a U.N. peacekeeping operation, likely under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, is not out of the question if Russia and China finally accept Assad’s fate, but U.S. troops do not particpate in such operations except as commanders (the U.S. contributes a huge share of their funding, though). A NATO on-the-ground peacekeeping or peace-making mission is theoretically possible, but was not carried out during the Libyan civil war, despite NATO’s extensive involvement — some allied special forces were put on the ground, but not Americans.
It’s a headache for a president whose main mission was to get America out of bad wars, not into new ones. But there’s likely no way around it — sooner or later, Obama will have to make good on enforcing his red line. Failure to do so will undermine his credibility, encourage the Assad regime to deploy additional chemical weapons, and send a powerful signal to America’s friends and adversaries that we don’t mean what we say…
But a red line has indeed been crossed — not only in terms of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but also in the slippery slide toward American military involvement. What Obama needs to decide is whether such military action is designed to deter the use of chemical weapons or topple the Assad regime by giving the rebels the advantages they’ve long sought — weapons, a no-fly zone, or direct U.S. military strikes against regime targets.
There’s a lot that’s murky about Syria right now, but one thing is clear. For America, a messy situation is about to get a whole lot messier.
McCain said that putting U.S. troops in Syria is the “worst thing America could do right now,” because the Syrian people are bitter and angry at the United States.
“I think that the American people are weary. They don’t want boots on the ground. I don’t want boots on the ground,” McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But McCain urged the Obama administration to take several actions in Syria, such as arming rebel groups or establishing a safe zone, steps he and other GOP hawks have long pressed for.
Via the Weekly Standard.