Strong reluctance to stepping in to prevent the use of Syria’s chemical weapons was registered by President Barack Obama in an interview Monday, Jan. 28 to The New Republic: “In a situation like Syria, I have to ask: can we make a difference in that situation?” He then continued to ask rhetoricalally: “Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in Congo?"
Apples and oranges, commented one Washington observer, after hearing President Obama’s queries.
The outcome of the Bashar Assad’s ruthless 22-month effort backed by Iran and Hizballah at the cost of 80,000 lives will bear profoundly on the next stage of Middle East history, whereas the local conflict between the Katangan militia and Congolese army, however savage, will hardly determine the destiny of continental Africa.
Obama’s remarks appear in the context of a working paper submitted three days ago to US Navy commander, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, which reports that aircraft flying hours in the Middle East have been cut by more than half. Naval experts estimate that the real figure is closer to 70 percent.
A current photograph released by the US Navy shows most of the American aircraft carrier fleet including Marine craft anchored at dock in the United States empty of crews. This fits in with past debkafile disclosures of the fact that the White House last month withdrew US aircraft carriers from Middle East, Red Sea, Persian Gulf and African waters.
On Monday, too, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro maintained in an Israel radio interview that the US and Israel were closely coordinated in all aspects for coping with security challenges in the region, including Syria’s chemical arsenals. He identified two potential dangers in this respect: the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people and their transfer to Hizballah or other extremist groups. “We are anxious to avert both these perils,” he stressed. “We are therefore keeping close watch on the situation and US and Israeli intelligence agencies are sharing data.
Israeli officials tended this week to radiate confidence that the United States would intervene militarily to foil the two threats. No such commitment, however, is even suggested in the US president’s comments. What they do convey is that Obama is concerned with juggling his global priorities for the US military as it shrinks under the knife of deep defense budget cutbacks.
Ambassador Shapiro’s words must therefore be seen as bromides; certainly no commitment.
It fell to the retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to put the situation on the table when he said candidly on Jan. 17: “The United States has quietly asked Turkey and Jordan to keep an eye on Syria’s chemical weaponry and to step in to take responsibility for the ordnance should the need arise.”
The onus for dealing with Assad’s chemical weapons has therefore been placed squarely on Turkish and Jordanian shoulders. Although Israel was not mentioned, it has been made clear that its defense forces face the same expectations from Washington as Syria’s other at-risk neighbors.
The Obama administration will confine US assistance to setting targets, providing intelligence and coordinating Israeli-Turkish-Jordanian military operations for taking control of the dangerous arsenal. Two imponderables remain: What happens if Bashar Assad decides not just to move his chemical arsenal out of its secure sites into the wrong hands but to actualley use it himself on a wide scale? And how will Tehran react to a combined Jordanian-Turkish-Israeli incursion of Syria after declaring Saturday that an attack on its ally would be deemed tantamount to an attack on Iran?