Before landing in Israel for his first visit as Defense Secretary Sunday, April 21, Chuck Hagel told reporters that the $10 billion arms sales to three US allies are “a very clear signal to Iran that military action remains an option to stop it from going nuclear.” He carried this message to Jerusalem and on to his next stops in Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates.
They are the only three Middle East Nations capable of military action against Iran, separately or together, say debkafile’s military sources.
In his comment, Hagel did not mention US military involvement in such military action above and beyond the sale of arms.
At the same time, shortly before boarding his plane for the Middle East, our Washington sources report that the defense secretary’s mission in the region suddenly shifted onto unforeseen terrain as a result of the bombing attacks on the Boston Marathon of April 15, which left three dead and 180 injured. He saw Iran giving way to more pressing concerns centering on Syria and al Qaeda.
There is a certain symbolism in that Israeli physicians at the Beth Israeli Deaconess Medical Center are attending the seriously injured victims of those explosions – as well as the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, while at home, Israeli medics are treating wounded Syrian combatants, some of them al Qaeda adherents, at a field hospital on the Golan.
At a different level, the United Sates, Israel and Saudi Arabia, while fully alive to the threat of a nuclear Iran, have been jerked into awareness of the burgeoning presence of al Qaeda in Syria, Sinai and Iraq and the menace they pose to Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.
All this has come together in the power plays around the Syrian civil war.
For more than two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has maintained that sympathy is not his motive for propping up Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus, but the certainty that his fall will release a swarm of al Qaeda jihadists on Damascus and other Syrian towns. From there, they will spread out through the southern Russian Caucasus and then leap on Moscow and other key Russian cities.
By aiding Assad, Moscow is therefore protecting Russia, says Putin, echoing the argument US President George W. Bush put forward when he defended the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as necessary to protect American cities from terror.
President Barack Obama, for his part, has placed the onus of his counterterrorism strategy on decapitating al Qaeda in the belief that without their commanders, the jihadist rank and file will give up and go home.
This strategy was smashed by the Boston bombing. Notwithstanding the high profile liquidations and the CIA drone operations, a major American city stood at the mercy of Islamist terrorists – with possibly more to come.
As an army of law enforcement officers from across America descended five days later on the Watertown backyard and the boat in which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was cowering, President Obama phoned President Putin and thanked him for his “cooperation [unspecified] in the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings.”
This conversation stemmed from the Russian intelligence request to the FBI in 2011 to look into the older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan’s ties with Muslim terrorist groups in the Caucasus, who at that time decided to pledge allegiance to al Qaeda. In the face of the US agency’s indifference to its alert, Russian intelligence placed the two brothers under close surveillance – certainly dogging Tamerlan’s footsteps during the six months he spent visiting Dagestan and Chechnya last year – and presumably also in America. Upon his return, he was not placed on the FBI watch list.
The Russian agency was therefore in exclusive possession of the very intelligence the FBI sought for identifying the terrorists who perpetrated the bombings in Boston and their associates, whether inside or outside America.
The Russian president’s “cooperation” with the US inquiry was therefore invaluable.
According to debkafile’s counterterrorism and military sources, Putin’s quid pro quo for this assistance is not yet known, but it will certainly relate to the Syrian conflict rather than the Iranian issue.
Damascus, as well as Tehran and al Qaeda, have been intently watching the US-Russian trade-off in the wake of the Boston event in order to calculate which way to jump and how it will serve their objectives.
The al Qaeda menace may therefore find itself challenged more strongly than before by the Iran-Syria-Hizballah lineup – joined most recently by the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which has begun sending Shiite fighters to the Syrian front.
Large-scale US arms sales to its Middle East allies certainly have their place in the front ranged against a nuclear Iran – although the deal Hagel is carrying will take years to materialize. But current events coming in rapid succession have put the Iranian issue on a back burner and Syria at the top of Chuck Hagel’s talks in Jerusalem. Monday he sits down with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Tuesday, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.