At a joint news conference Friday, Jan. 11, retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, cleaned the Pentagon’s Syrian desk ready for incoming Secretary Chuck Hagel. Boiled down to essentials, their triple message was that Bashar Assad could not be stopped from using chemical weapons if he chose to do so, that securing the CW sites after Assad’s fall was the job of the “international community” and that no US ground troops would be sent to Syria.
Panetta and Dempsey essentially confirmed a fact first reported by debkafile in the third week of November: US naval, air and marine forces were withdrawn from Syrian offshore waters following the White House's decision to stay clear of military involvement in the Syrian conflict. After extending Syrian opposition forces diplomatic support for nearly two years, the Obama administration is dumping the Assad headache in the laps of Syria’s immediate neighbors, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, and casting the rebels adrift.
This decision was spelled out with crystal clarity by Panetta and Dempsey at a joint Washington press conference in Washington:
“The United States is increasingly focused on how to secure Syria's chemical weapons if President Bashar al-Assad falls from power,” said the outgoing defense secretary. In reference to the problem while Assad is still in place, Panetta emphasized that the United States is not considering sending in ground troops.
At one stroke, he refuted Western and Israeli media claims of American and Israeli special forces operating at the chemical weapons sites.
His words also broadly hinted to Bashar Assad that, if he kept his hands off using his chemical arsenal, he would enhance his chances of staying in power, because after America’s exit from the war scene, no other military force would be around to help the opposition remove him.
Panetta was less clear about the so-called “international community” – an amorphous entity in every sense. He said: "I think the greater concern right now is what steps does the international community take to make sure that when Assad comes down, there is a process and procedure to make sure we get our hands on securing those sites. That I think is the greater challenge right now."
The US government was discussing the issue with Israel and other countries in the region, he said, but ruled out deploying American ground forces in any "hostile" setting. He repeated: "We're not talking about ground troops."
The defense secretary did not say exactly how this international coalition would function or whether it would go into action if Assad himself embarked on chemical warfare. Neither did he refer to the claim leaked by British intelligence this week that the Syrian stock of 50 tonnes of un-enriched uranium, enough for weapons grade fuel for five nuclear devices, had gone missing and may have passed to Iran.
Gen Dempsey, addressing the same press conference, spoke about the current problem: He said that if Assad chose to use his chemical stockpiles against opposition forces, it would be virtually impossible to stop him. Preventing the launch of chemical weapons "would be almost unachievable,” he said “… because you would have to have such clarity of intelligence, you know, persistent surveillance, you would have to actually see it before it happened."
He added that “messaging” to the Syrian ruler publicly warning him that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line, established a deterrent, because “he might think it would prompt outright US or international intervention leading to his downfall. But that’s different from preemption.”
Dempsey was repeating Panetta’s implied message to Assad that avoiding chemical warfare would extend the life of his regime, say our sources.
US military sources later told reporters that, while Dempsey and Panetta believe sarin gas will break down after 60 days – “That’s what the scientists tell us,” Dempsey said, US government sources have suggested that “Syrian sophistication with chemical weaponry may leave the combined, weaponized sarin deadly for up to a year.” Sarin, they say, is exceptionally hard to dispose of.
debkafile reports: This confusion is compounded by the decoys used by the Syrian army to conceal its chemical weapons stocks, which are now believed to have been distributed among different Syrian Air Force bases.
Israel has responded to the US withdrawal from the Syrian arena with a decision announced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Israel has started erecting a special security fence along its 57-kilometer boundary with Syria.
Ankara's response has been to segregate Turkey from the Syrian conflict behind the six Patriot anti-missile batteries provided by NATO and place them on the border of its embattled neighbor in defensive array.
Indeed, both countries have retreated to defensive postures. However, neither the Patriots nor the wall will be much use should chemical weapons fall into rebel hands, including the Islamist terrorists in their ranks, and they decide to use them.