By Thursday August 29, it was clear that even when President Barack Obama does finally decides to order a US military strike on Syria for waging chemical warfare on its citizens, it is likely to be extremely restrained and limited.
By promising to pull his punches, US President Obama gave America’s rivals the upper hand in their bout over Syria – even before the punch was delivered – which according to most estimates will happen either Friday night, early Saturday, Aug. 31 or after Labor Day on Sept. 2.
Not only Bashar Assad, but also Russian President Vladimir Putin were already crowing. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guards chiefs recalled they had been saying for years that the United States is a paper tiger and would not dare attack their country’s nuclear facilities.
Most of this issue is devoted to exclusive reports from DEBKA Weekly's military, intelligence, Washington, Moscow and Tehran sources on the complicated efforts made by President Obama – first to convince the world that large-scale US military intervention Syria was imminent, and then to use the spreading war scare to startle Tehran into jumping into direct diplomacy with Washington.
To lure his object, the US president gave ground step by step on the coming military operation, insisting it was still undecided – while at the same time progressively winding down its potential scale and virulence.
US package for Russia starts with softened strike on Syria
The quibbling over the legality of a military operation against Israel at home and among US allies – without a UN mandate or an incriminating report from the US team of chemical experts – gave Obama extra headwind for procrastinating.
He played for time while his envoys were busy. Under cover of massive US military preparations for action against Syria and the war alerts declared by armies across the Middle East and half of Europe, those envoys were engaged in intensive backdoor diplomatic moves, which are revealed hereunder by DEBKA Weekly:
1. US Secretary of State John Kerry launched a secret give-and-take dialogue – which is still ongoing – with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He has been reporting directly to Putin without so far obtaining his consent to the package proposed by Kerry, whereby the US with Moscow’s nod would downgrade its projected military strike on Syria and make it almost painless.
Only the Syrian units directly involved in the poison gas attack against a suburb east of Damascus on Aug. 21 would be targeted. The bulk of the Syrian armed forces would remain untouched.
2. There would be no attempt to harm President Assad, his family, his regime heads or his Syrian military chiefs.
No more than 10-15 Tomahawks to be launched
3. The "strike" would be short, a one-time incident taking no more than an hour or two.
4. As soon as it was over, Washington and Moscow would announce they had agreed to jointly convene a second Geneva Conference to hammer out a solution for ending the Syrian civil war. The US would let Assad or his chosen delegates take their seat at the table.
5. Russian officials, seeking to clarify the meaning of a “limited strike,” were given the following picture from US officials:
It would not entail air force activity against Syria – only Tomahawk “land-attack” cruise missiles fired from destroyers out at sea.
DEBKA Weekly's military sources note that by spilling out this information in advance, the Obama administration gave Russia and Syria the chance to set up Russian missile interceptor systems already present in Syria or beefing them up with additional batteries that could be delivered in days.
6. When the Russians asked how many Tomahawks the Americans had in mind, they were told, "It won't be dozens of missiles. 10-15 missiles will be fired in all."
This American reply was beamed straight from Moscow to Damascus. It enabled Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem to use his press conference in Damascus on Tuesday August 27, to publicly sneer at the threatened US military attack, by likening it to the shelling routinely withstood by Damascus and other Syrian cities.
Assad to come out smiling, Netanyahu’s hands are tied
In the next item in this issue, our military sources discuss the "military achievements" the US may expect from a low-key strike by no more than 15 Tomahawk missiles. It is already obvious that the Syrian armed forces and infrastructure will not suffer substantial damage and Assad’s position will remain unshaken.
7. The US president made sure that Israel would not get in the way of his plans by procuring from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a secret commitment that Israel would not retaliate for a couple of Syrian missiles or, at most, adjust its response to the low scale of the American strike.
(More about Israel’s position in a separate item.)
8. Obama’s other diplomatic efforts this week focused heavily on Tehran.
He sent two emissaries – one from UN center in New York and the other from a Gulf emirate – with a special proposition for Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
The US would keep its strike on Syria low-key and guarantee Bashar Assad’s survival in power. There would be no moves against the Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah alliance or challenges to Iran’s dominant influence in Syria and Lebanon. For all these concessions, President Obama expected to be rewarded by Iran’s consent to resume direct nuclear talks with Washington.