Obama and Assad Play Chemical Poker before Big Confrontation
For the past week, US officials have kept up a flow of leaks to the media suggesting that Syrian President Bashar Assad was on the verge of ordering his army to unleash chemical weapons. The details built up as the week went by, starting with the detection of “unusual movements” of Syrian chemical weapons units, advancing to reports that the Syrians were “mixing precursor chemicals” for the nerve gas sarin and on Thursday, Dec. 6, that bombs had been made ready with sarin gas for loading onto Syrian Air Force fighter-bombers when Assad gave the word.
The strange thing about these tactics is this: If “US officials” – military and intelligence – were able to keep track step by step of the movements of Syria’s poisonous weapons and could predict that sooner or later Assad will use them, why didn’t they take preventive action in good time?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources confirm that US, Israeli, Jordanian and Turkish special forces are spread out on the ground in Syria, armed with special gear for combating chemical arms. They are close enough to count the convoys carrying canisters, shells or bombs loaded with poison gas and their reports are supplemented by orbiting US military surveillance satellites and drones able to pinpoint the position of the chemical munitions at any given moment.
Yet President Barack Obama is holding back from ordering an attack on the Syrian army’s chemical units – just as the Syrian ruler is abstaining from issuing the “go” order to use those weapons.
It seems that neither wants to go first.
Chemical weapons prepared for US, Turkish troops?
We are therefore witnessing a high-stake poker game between Washington and Damascus over a deck of chemical cards, each waiting to see who blinks first.
If the Americans attack, Assad will feel he is justified in releasing his poisonous gas over Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
But if Assad loses his nerve and lets loose with chemical weapons inside or outside Syria, the Americans will come crashing down on him with the full might of the US air, sea and marine forces standing by off the Syrian coast, along with Turkish, Israeli and Jordanian strikes against targets in Syria.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly analyses the six key events occurring in the Syrian war in the last three days from Tuesday Dec. 6:
1. Syrian chemical weapons units positioned near the capital, Damascus, began heading north toward Aleppo armed with shells loaded with nerve agents – sarin and possibly XV.
One of the theories advanced by intelligence experts –and cited here by DEBK-Net-Weekly – is that the chemical supplies were not heading for any of the battle fronts against rebels, but for the Alawite Mountains. Assad was getting ready to withdraw from Damascus to his mountain stronghold with forces still loyal to him.
Another intelligence theory held that from the Allawite Mts. near the coast, the Syrian ruler was planning to hit American and Turkish soldiers with chemical weapons as they came ashore.
2. There were indications that Syria’s ground-to-ground missiles and the bombs used by the Syrian air force have been loaded with mustard gas and sarin.
Turkey’s triple-layer Western defense system
Wednesday, Dec. 5, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the Syrian regime has 700 missiles, adding that their location, storage method and holders are no secret to Ankara. “A psychological line has been crossed in Syria,” he said. “In the past, it was feared that if the regime survives, it will take revenge. But now everyone thinks of what to do next if the regime falls,” Davutoglu said.
So it seems that Turkey and its NATO allies, starting with the US, are thinking in terms of wiping out the Syrian missile arsenal, not just to prevent their use for delivering chemical warheads, but as a means of getting Bashar Assad removed from power.
3. Through Wednesday, NATO and Turkey confined their discussions to the positioning of the six alliance Patriot missile batteries at ten sites along the Turkey-Syria border as protection against Syrian ballistic missiles armed with chemical warheads.
But then the talk widened to discussing defensive weapons other than the Patriots.
Davutoglu and other Turkish officials stressed that NATO’s protection of the country would be three-dimensional, consisting of the short-range Patriots, the middle-range Terminal High Altitude Air Defense – THAD – system and the AEGIS, which counters missiles coming in from outside the atmosphere.
“With this integrated system, Turkey will have maximum protection,” they said.
A US armada bristling with warplanes and missiles
5. The military teeth for this proposition were provided Tuesday, Dec. 4, with the arrival opposite the Syrian coast of the USS Eisenhower carrier and its strike group.
It brought total American air power positioned in the eastern Mediterranean since the end of November to 70 fighter-bomber jets, and at least 17 warships, including three amphibious assault ships of the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, a guided missile cruiser, and at least ten destroyers and frigates.
Among the American warships, four carry AEGIS missile intercept systems.
The Eisenhower carrier has on its decks 8 squadrons of fighter-bomber jets from the US Air Force’s Air Wing Seven. Its strike group carries 8,000 American sailors, pilots and Marines. They join the 2,500 US Marines on board the Iwo Jima group. Altogether, 10,000 American military personnel are now posted off the Syrian shore.
On the ground in Turkey, Jordan and Israeli, another 20,000 American soldiers face Syria. They and the armies of the host countries have all been placed on chemical warfare alert, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources.
Stormy weather screens Assad’s military movements
6. Since Tuesday, heavy rainstorms, accompanied by strong winds, thunder, lightning, and low, heavy clouds have buffeted the Middle East, including in Syria, Turkey, Israel and Jordan.
The storm has given Bashar Assad the advantage for redeploying and regrouping his army, including his chemical warfare units, screened from hostile eyes. The stormy weather is forecast to last into early next week or longer, with a possible letup of 36 to 48 hours Thursday and Friday. The Americans, Turks or rebels may well use this respite for a military initiative. If they don’t, the element of surprise may pass to Assad’s advantage.
7. On the other hand, the presence of a vast US military so close to its shores is calculated to bring the Syrian ruler under unbearable stress and possibly even to convince him that the war is lost.
President Obama and his advisers would like to believe that this psychological strain could prompt Assad to quit and seek asylum outside Syria. Countries in line for asylum would be Iran, Russia or Venezuela.
Yet this may be more wishful thinking than realistic. There is every sign that Assad’s undivided focus is on plans to pursue, or even intensify, his fight rather than cut and run.
Indeed, instead of raising his blood pressure, the hostile military buildup surrounding Syria, may have the opposite effect of persuading the Syrian ruler to cold-bloodedly resort to chemical warfare for crushing the rebellion rather than dissuading him from its use.
US warnings are unheeded in Damascus
Monday, Dec. 3, President Obama issued a strong warning to Assad telling him that the use of those weapons against rebel forces would be totally unacceptable. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University.
But the movements of Syrian chemical weapons the next day (reported exclusively by DEBKAfile’s military sources) pointed to the US warning falling on deaf ears.
Wednesday, former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was enlisted to caution Bashar Assad that President Obama would follow through on threats to punish the Syrian leader if he uses chemical weapons.
“One of the things about President Obama, he is very tough-minded,” said Gates, in an interview aired Wednesday on “CBS This Morning.” “I think it would be a mistake, particularly on Bashar Assad’s part, to underestimate him”
Unless Assad is persuaded by US warnings to back down, he may decide in the coming hours or weeks that he has nothing to lose by unleashing chemical warfare against the rebels or polluting an area under their control.
The rebels have no way of protecting themselves against poison gas and would be totally dependent on external aid.
But by the time external forces start moving, they may find they are operating in areas already contaminated.. It is therefore incumbent on US and NATO intervention to take place before Assad orders his chemical weapons units to go into action.
And if they leave it too late, Turkish, Israeli and Jordanian forces may end up fighting in Syria alongside US troops while their own countries are subjected to chemical assault.