Dodging an issue that deeply affects Israel and its security, the White House Tuesday, March 19, found no evidence that either Assad forces or the opposition had used chemical weapons in an attack in northern Syria, which left 20-30 dead (the figure depends on the source) and put more than a hundred victims in hospital.
This evasiveness struck a jarring note in Jerusalem the night before President Barack Obama started a visit to Israel. The Israeli government felt bound to respond: "Chemical weapons were used on civilians in Syria on Tuesday,” said an official statement that night.
Two leading Republican lawmakers, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said bluntly: Reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, if true, mean the president's threshold for involvement in the country's civil war has been met, they said. If the reports of a Scud B hitting Aleppo with a poison warhead are substantiated, “The President’s red line has been crossed, and we would urge him to take immediate action to impose the consequences he has promised."
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, spoke of a "high probability" that the Syrian government had used the weapons. “… they are either positioned for use and ready to do that or in fact have been used," Rogers said.
But Britain's UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant reflected the US administration line, pointing out that reports of a chemical weapon attack in Syria had not yet been "fully verified."
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry had no problem with blaming Syrian rebels for firing the poisonous rocket outside the northern city of Aleppo.
Assad’s first step toward chemical war
By the time this edition was published, the Syrian government and rebels had traded accusations, but neither had offered proof of which side had actually fired the Scud B missile that hit the Khan al-Assal area of Aleppo – or the consistency of the poison substance used.
In theory, Red Cross medics stationed in Syria were on hand to examine the victims for some answers. But before they were asked to do so, the diplomatic mechanisms of evasion were put in place in Washington and also Jerusalem.
After his first working session with the US president Wednesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was amenable to joining his visitor in stepping back from the red line they had placed on a chemical Syria for now but they agreed on the circumstances that would necessitate their intervention.
(Obama-Netanyahu interaction and its ramifications are discussed in a separate article in this issue)
The upshot was that no world power was prepared to admit that, on Tuesday, March 19, the Assad regime had taken the Syrian conflict into the realm of chemical warfare as it entered its third year (also the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq),
Twenty-four hours earlier, Obama was shown around an exhibition at Ben Gurion airport of the Israeli Iron Dome, Magic Wand, and Arrow 3 missile interception batteries developed with US assistance and funding – the first such exhibit to be staged at a civilian airport.
But while he was on his way to Israel, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, Bashar Assad summarily kicked over the US president’s red lines in an effort to determine how far Obama would let himself be pushed before picking up the phone to Russian president Vladimir Putin for a fresh “red line” in the Syrian quicksand.
Lebanon bullied into lining up behind Assad
On Monday, March 18, Syrian Air Force planes and helicopters went into action in northern and eastern Lebanon to strike Syrian rebel bases of departure for operations in Syria.
Both targeted areas were at least one kilometer inside Lebanon. The Syrian ruler wanted no one to mistake his intentions or try to gloss over his decision to launch aerial incursions into Lebanon.
Neither was this a one-off; Assad was clearly bent on following up on the ultimatum he slapped down for Lebanese President Michel Sleiman on Saturday, March 16, giving Beirut 48 hours to meet his demands or face an air offensive: Sack Lebanese Chief of Staff Gen. Jean Khawaji immediately; have the Lebanese army break up Syrian rebel rear bases of operations in Lebanon, stop the traffic of men and arms into Syria and hermetically seal their shared border against smuggling.
If the Lebanese army failed to crack down on Syrian rebels using its territory for crossover attacks, the Syria military would do the job.
This ultimatum amounted to a declaration of war.
Lebanon has already been dragged willy-nilly into the Syrian conflict by the buildup on its soil of the Shiite Hizballah militia of 30,000 men, which is totally subservient to Iran, Assad’s closest ally, and the planting of Iranian al Qods Brigades command centers in the country.
But now, Damascus had put a loaded gun to the Lebanese president’s head, forcing him to align his country unreservedly with the Assad regime and jump into the boat piloted by Iran leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
To save Lebanon from more Syrian violence, he must join Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who has provided Tehran and Damascus with a vital air and land bridge through his country, and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose combatants fight shoulder to shoulder with the Syrian army in the northern town of Homs.
Lebanon has no one to count on for help
When we closed this edition, the Lebanese president had not responded to the Assad ultimatum.
But his back is to the wall. He knows that Lebanon’s national army is no match for Syrian might, especially when more than half of its troops are Shiite. He also understands that he can’t count on any Western or Arab military assistance should he choose to stand up to Assad.
When Syrian jets and helicopters were making free of Lebanese airspace for two-hour sorties, no Patriot missiles ran interference from the batteries deployed on the Turkish-Syrian border. Their radar easily identified the intruders. Yet no US or Turkish plane took to the air from the Incirlik Air Base – not even as a deterrent for containing Syrian air action in Lebanese skies.
Neither did Israeli warplanes get in Syria’s way although, according to Israeli political and military quarters, for the past seven months, they have imposed a no-fly zone over the Syria-Lebanon border, especially the points targeted by Syrian flights, to prevent Syrian chemical weapons moving across to Hizballah.
Encouraged by the universal inertia greeting his outrages, Assad crossed an even bigger red line this week: Tuesday, March 19, a unit of the Syrian army’s 4th Division, the elite Republican Guard, launched a Scud B missile with a chemical warhead against the Khan al-Assal region of Aleppo. The chemicals identified – phosphorus and chlorine – pointed to Agent 15, the choking gas, known also as BZ.
Assad may even get away with chemical warfare
Scud B missiles loaded with chemicals are only found in one place, according to our military sources: the big Al Safira base southeast of Aleppo, which houses Syria’s largest store of chemical weapons. Repeated rebel attempts to seize this strategic facility were repulsed. So it would only take a simple exercise in elimination to nail the Assad government as the culprit which fired the missile.
It may be also taken for granted that the Syrian ruler would not have gone to the extreme lengths of embarking on chemical warfare without prior consultation with Tehran, especially after both President Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced publicly that he would not be allowed to cross this red line.
The prime minister originally intended to place the Syrian conflict’s dangerous expansion into chemical warfare at the top of the agenda of his three rounds of talks with the US president, even ahead of the Iranian nuclear issue. He therefore issued a statement affirming the use of “chemical weapons on civilians in Syria,” shortly after his cabinet took the oath of office Tuesday and before Obama’s arrival.
But Assad’s gamble paid off at this stage. It failed to draw immediate counter-action.
The US president announced a “thorough investigation” would be launched to establish the facts of the chemical weapons attack, a handy cover for procrastination, and the Israeli prime minister did not demur.
Our sources learned later that the two leaders had decided that certain developments in the chemical weapons crisis would necessitate their intervention.
Assad’s brazen actions this week and their close incidence elevated the brutal Syrian civil war to even more unacceptable levels. The war itself and the situation on Syria’s borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Israel are already fragile and liable to grow more perilous.