US President Barack Obama was hardly out the door of the Middle East March 23 when preparations for a US-led multinational operation to liquidate Syria’s chemical weapons went into top gear. Before leaving, he removed one last obstacle to the operation by patching up the three-year feud between Binyamin Netanyahu and Tayyip Erdogan and hauling them back into military cooperation. Jordan’s King Abdullah was then lifted aboard.
Across the ocean, US and European commanders were lining up for action. On March 22, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel presided over the US Central Command changing-of-command ceremony which inducted Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, III, as incoming USCENTCOM chief and OC of the Syrian operation.
It took place at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, henceforth overall headquarters of the coming operation in Syria.
Conspicuously present at the ceremony were Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff; Gen. James. F. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps; Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of US Southern Command; Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of the US Special Operations Command; and assorted NATO officials and defense chiefs from USCENTCOM coalition countries.
This time the US will lead from the front
Whereas the Obama administration famously “led from behind” in NATO’s war for toppling Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi two years ago, leaving overall command to the British, Italian, German and French generals in Brussels, this time, American generals will be running the war from Tampa, Florida. So the Obama administration will be leading from the front.
NATO headquarters in Brussels and the US command centers in Europe are assigned support roles as logistical centers and bases for the reserves held ready in case the Syrian theater sends offshoots into other Middle East countries and beyond, to West European or Caspian countries.
Another major difference from the Libyan campaign is that regime change in Damascus is not its declared goal – only Syria’s chemical and biological weapons.
In this exclusive report, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources reveal for the first time the main points agreed for the forthcoming Syria campaign between President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jordan's Abdullah and the Turkish Prime Minister.
1. The circumstances compelling direct and immediate US-Israeli-Jordanian-Turkish military intervention in Syria were defined. Covered at this stage was the use of chemical and biological weapons by the Syrian army or by the rebels, their transfer to Syrian army field units or their falling into the hands of terrorist organizations.
“Terrorist organizations” were also defined: On the one hand, the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah and the Allawite “Shabiha” – civilian militiamen loyal to the Assad clan and his Ba’ath party, who were recently augmented by Iraqi Shiite fighters; and, on the other, Islamist rebel forces led by Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Jabhat al-Nusra Brigades.
The use of chemical weapons – a trigger in its broadest definition
2. Our sources point out that the Obama administration may not stick to these strict definitions – for instance, in the case of credible intelligence that an imminent broad-scale chemical assault was in the offing inside Syria and across its borders. A direct, pre-emptive strike might then be ordered from Washington to save tens of thousands of Syrian, Israeli, Turkish or Jordanian lives.
3. The US president has slashed the estimated figures of US combat manpower required for intervention in Syria: A year ago, US military planners estimated it would take 75,000 troops to capture the Syrian chemical and biological arsenals.
Last week, Obama decided to allot 12,000 troops for the first stage of the military operation, spearheaded by a first wave of 3,000 US commandos. The same number of Israeli, Jordanian and Turkish commandos would be fielded, augmented by the 2,000 Syrian rebels training for months in Jordan with US, Czech and Polish chemical warfare experts.
In addition to this round total of 8,000 fighting men, air force and navy personnel, missile interceptor teams and drone operators would be taking part in the operation.
Many Western military experts say that these figures are not sustainable and the Obama administration would soon be forced to put more US troops on the ground after the operation was underway.
A five-point scenario agreed with Israel, Turkey, Jordan
4. The first-wave units going into Syria are to be joined in the second wave by additional NATO armies: Britain, France, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic are to provide special forces and/or the units trained in chemical and biological warfare held ready for this contingency for nearly a year. More NATO nations, especially Germany, will come in later if warranted by the campaign’s expansion.
5. During Obama's talks in Jerusalem and Amman and Secretary of State John Kerry's discussions in Ankara, agreement was reached on five points:
– How to dispose of the dangerous chemical and biological substances after their capture;
– The assignment of zones of operation among US, Israel, Turkish and Jordanian forces, subject to US command in Tampa, Florida, and the NATO command, whose headquarters will be temporarily relocated from Brussels to Turkey;
– The joint command centers the US established in Turkey, Jordan and Israel at the end of last summer, for coordinating their operations against Syria’s chemical arsenals, will switch to switch to operational mode;
The success of the entire operation depends on those local command centers achieving smooth synchronization from the word go.
Four epic landmark features
In many respects, the Syrian military campaign promises to break a historical military mold as remarkably as did the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Suffice to single out four landmark features:
a) For the first time in Middle East annals, American and Israeli forces will fight shoulder to shoulder on sovereign Arab territory.
b) Never before has the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) joined an Arab army (from Jordan) or a Muslim army (from Turkey) in combat in an Arab country.
c). US, Arab and Muslim forces will be fighting together for the first time under the NATO umbrella.
Points a) and b) were made possible by President Obama’s success in achieving the prime strategic objective of his Middle East trip last week, which was to bury the hatchet between Ankara and Jerusalem and pave the way for their return to military cooperation.
d) The projected US-Israeli-Jordanian-Turkish military operation on Syrian soil would send a strong warning signal from Washington to Tehran about what is in store for Iran’s leaders if, by the end of 2013 or early 2014, they continue to resist a diplomatic resolution of their nuclear controversy. It puts on them on notice to reach terms either directly with the US or within the forum of the five Security Council members plus Germany.
(See two separate articles on the repercussions postulated for the projected US-led NATO invasion of Syria)