For 18 months, President Barack Obama firmly rejected the very notion of US military intervention to halt the Syrian bloodbath and remove the brutal Assad regime. He also refused calls by US allies, Britain, France Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to “lead” a coalition offensive from the rear.
But this week, out of the blue, the US president called an impromptu White House press briefing to warn Syrian President Bashar Assad that the use or deployment of chemical or biological weapons in his country's conflict would be a "red line" for the United States and its perception of Damascus's suppression of the uprising.
Noting that the issue of chemical and biological weapons was of high concern to the both the United States and its close ally, Israel, he said: "A red line for us is (if) we see a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around, or being utilized. That would change my calculus… and widen the conflict considerably.”
So what suddenly changed the US president’s mind?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report the top members of his administration are piling on the heat for him to abandon America’s disengagement from the Syrian civil war. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads a powerful faction telling President Obama that the situation is now ripe for US-led Western and Arab military intervention and it should be pursued without delay.
Operation “Kosovo Revisited”
She speaks for a faction embracing most of the State Department’s Middle East experts and influential Pentagon figures.
Our Washington sources identify this group with the high-ranking administration officials who in May, 2011 urged President Obama to go through with the plan for a US Navy SEALs raid to finish off al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad hideout in Pakistan.
Then, too, Hillary Clinton was the most vocal member of the group.
Having tried diplomacy – fruitless applications to the UN and its Security Council plus two “Friends of Syria” conferences, which all failed to break through the solid Russian-Chinese wall against foreign interference – Clinton came up with a plan of operations to support her arguments for direct US action in Syria.
Dubbed “Kosovo Revisited," her plan is revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources as approximating the lines of the Kosovo operation, embarked on by President Bill Clinton between March 24 and June 10, 1999.
During those weeks, the US and NATO pounded Serbian government centers and military facilities in order to bring the Serbian military to collapse and remove Slobodan Milosevic from power.
That campaign opened the way for Muslim Albanian self-government in Kosovo.
Show the world American leadership
The Secretary of State maintains that after 18 months of relentless war against the opposition, the Syrian army is in no better state than the Serbian army was 13 years ago, and that President Assad’s situation today is analogous to that of Milosevic then. Russia and China, then the Serbian ruler’s main props in the international arena, perform the same service for Assad today – with the same result: Now, as then, the UN Security Council withholds its endorsement for a NATO operation because of their veto power.
The Secretary has therefore been pressing Obama for the past two weeks to give up his quest for UN authority and give the world a display of American leadership. NATO and Arab allies can be counted on to fall in behind him.
She also emphasizes that America’s failure to take the lead in bringing about the Assad regime’s downfall would erode international support for any future US action.
Our sources outline the six points Clinton made to the president in support of direct action in Syria:
1. Military action would be limited to surgical aerial strikes by aircraft and missiles launched from US warships in the eastern Mediterranean against key government and military targets in Syria, including President Assad’s person.
2. The best guess of US military and intelligence analysts is that Moscow and Beijing will raise their voices in outrage against US bombardments but, other than verbal protests, they will not intervene directly – any more than they did in Yugoslavia.
Ride roughshod over Russian, Chinese interference
Clinton recalled that the Chinese embassy in Belgrade paid dearly for being caught by US intelligence passing messages to Yugoslav army communications and suspected of monitoring US cruise missile attacks on Belgrade, with a view to developing effective counter-measures. On May 7, 1999, five US JDAM bombs flattened the Chinese embassy building.
She advises applying the same rules in Damascus. If Moscow or Beijing are proved to be succoring Assad and his army with military assistance in the course of a US-led operation against Assad, the Obama administration should not shrink from hitting back at Russian or Chinese targets in Damascus or the Russian naval base at Tartus.
3. A US-led NATO operation in Damascus would send a badly-needed message to Tehran. After they see a display of American military might ordered by President Obama not far from their borders, they will stop dismissing America as a paper tiger.
4. The same display would also arrest the decline of America’s strategic and military standing in the Arab world, especially in the Persian Gulf states, whose rulers have given up in despair on the US under Obama ever resorting to military action to stop Iran’s nuclearization.
The rapprochement Iran is developing with Saudi Arabia and Egypt could then be nipped in the bud.
5. Even if US intervention triggers Hizballah and/or Syria attacks on Israel, that too has its upside: Israel and its military will have their hands full defending their northern borders and they will be too busy to go to war on Iran so soon as the fall of 2012. They will have to wait until after the US presidential election.
6. Assad and his clique will never be shaken loose from power in Damascus without direct US military action.
Obama puts his toe in Syrian water
Was she able to persuade the president?
His flat refusal to consider intervention in Syria has started cracking under the pressure of the pro-intervention faction in his administration led by Hillary Clinton. The first crack was visible Monday, Aug. 20, when Obama admitted he was ready for a “change of calculus” citing Syria’s chemical and biological weaponry as triggering – or perhaps justifying? – this change.
While noting that he had not ordered US military engagement in Syria “at this point,” he also announced that he had set “contingency plans” in train, so opening the door wider to military intervention.
By Thursday, Aug. 23, those contingency plans were translated into “small US special operations teams” standing ready to be ferried into Syria to secure or destroy Bashar Assad’s chemical and biological stocks. Wednesday night, he had phone conversations with two allies, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. Together, they tied up the last ends for the onset of US-led Western intervention in the Syrian conflict.