Confounding tense expectations worldwide, US President Barack Obama again dodged a decision for a US strike on Syria by referring it to Congress. In a speech to the American people, Saturday, Aug. 31, he said the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad must be “confronted not just investigated.” But then went on to say, “We are ready to strike whenever we choose. This operation is not time-sensitive. It could take place tomorrow, next week, or next month.
The US House Speaker meanwhile set Sept. 9 as the date for the debate to start.
By these words, the US president chipped away once again at US military plans for Syria – only this time, they looked like vanishing into the blue yonder, leaving Assad and his partners all the time in the world to line up their counter moves, and putting Israel in a tight spot on three counts:
1. The hostile Iran-Syrian-Hizballah bloc comes out strengthened;
2. Tehran can feel free to develop a nuclear bomb without fear of resolute US interference;
3. Hizballah can celebrate its backing for the winning horse in Damascus.
4. Binyamin Netanyahu’s six-year old policy, which was oriented on engendering understanding with Barack Obama, is in ruins, although it was endorsed by Israel’s defense ministers on the assumption that it was in the interests of national security.
As we reported earlier, President Obama confirmed Friday night that the forthcoming US military attack on Syria would be “limited” and “narrow” and not open-ended, in a bid to avoid the risk of America being mired in the Syrian civil war.
DEBKA Weekly’s analysts calculated Thursday that by forgoing an air assault and relegating his projected military operation against Syria solely to seaborne Tomahawk cruise missiles – limited to 15 launches – the US president relinquished America’s “penetration and destruction” capabilities – depending of course on his sticking to this plan and not expanding its scope at the last minute.
The Tomahawk cruise missile has a range of 2,500 kms, weighs 450 kilos and can be fired from the five US destroyers and the four US nuclear submarines waiting in the eastern Mediterranean for orders to go.
However powerful, the exclusive use of this type of missile means that Washington has a priori sacrificed the following military objectives:
1. Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles will remain intact. The Tomahawks can damage surface structures at the bases hosting them, but not penetrate their underground storage sites.
Assad will be left in full possession of his CW arsenal.
2. Neither can Tomahawks alone cripple the Syrian Air Force or shut down its bases. They could damage runways, but only for the hours or days it would take to repair them.
DEBKA Weekly's military sources say that the Syria air force is left with six air bases still operational, out of a total of thirty. A heavier and larger missile onslaught than the limited assault planned could have destroyed them all, given the Syrian rebels a huge advantage and opened the way for a plan to impose no-fly zones over Syrian air space.
But Obama clearly chose to discard those options.
By delaying his go-ahead on military action against Syria, he gave the Assad regime time to tuck most of its air force bombers and attack helicopters away in fortified hangars early this week, safe from attack. As the hours slipped by with US action, the Syrian ruler’s self-confidence mounted.
3. Syrian missiles have likewise been hidden in underground bunkers. They include the Scud C and D missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads.
4. The big Syrian field command centers will also escape unscathed, although DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that many of them figure as large as strategic assets on the list of targets which the Pentagon and US military chiefs originally put before the president.
Among them were the command and control centers of the Syrian army’s 4th Division and Republican Guard Division, which protect Bashar Assad and bolster his regime's hold on power.
It is not clear if the military command centers of Homs, Hama, Tartus, Latakia, the Aleppo area and Idlib remain on the final list.
Striking those targets would have shut down the Syrian military command system and seriously disrupted its operational capabilities.
A second list of 35 strategic targets was handed to President Obama by Syrian rebel commander Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, according to our sources. Their destruction was described as vital. However, not a single item on the list was approved by the president, the Pentagon on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, reflecting the distrust and disconnect prevailing between the US administration and military, and the Syrian rebel leadership.
5. Our sources say that the US military to-do list for Syria covers army artillery units, some of which participated in the chemical weapons launch of August 21 against eastern Damascus; local command and communications centers; and research institutes involved in the development and upgrade of Syrian chemical weapons.
This heavily pruned US operation, if it goes through, will leave Syrian President Bashar Assad sitting pretty with most of his military resources intact, and his hands free to continue his barbaric war on the Syrian opposition, including the use of chemical weapons, unhindered and undeterred.
It is still possible for President Obama to have second thoughts about his low-key operational plan and decide after all to land a strategic blow on Syria.