Was a Clandestine Foreign Hand Behind the Chemical Outrage in Damascus?
US President Barack Obama’s two weeks of epic zigzags on military force versus diplomacy for Syrian chemical weapons inspired some creative captions in the US media (“Obama’s Successful Foreign Failure,” A Trap of the President’s Making”), and even a comment by one of his former advisers on Iran, Dennis Ross, in the Washington Post: “A blocking action on Syria makes Obama’s attack on Iran more likely.”
Spurning the role of lame duck for his fumbles, Obama is convinced he is on track for pulling off the most brilliant triumph of his double term as president.
Like George W. Bush, who is waiting quietly for history to vindicate him for invading Iraq in 2003, President Obama is absolutely sure that ten years hence, the American people and the world at large will finally appreciate the great objectives and complexities of his strategy for Syria and acknowledge him as one of America’s great presidents.
Four key aspects of this strategy are revealed here by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources:
After Syria, Iran can be stripped of nuclear capabilities
1. His overarching objective is to resolve the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program by means of the same diplomatic, non-military formula used in getting rid of Syria’s chemical and biological arsenals. This recipe is intended to be applied with equal success to disarm the Iranian nuclear peril by placing its program under international control.
As President Obama sees it, his diplomatic dexterity and enterprise have cornered the Syrian ruler, Bashar Assad, and left him no option other than to relinquish his weapons of destruction.
The same tactics, he believes will work just as successfully for Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, compelling him to give up the enriched uranium Tehran has accumulated for building a nuclear bomb.
The US President is following this simplistic, one-dimensional perception as his guiding star.
2. Obama has long entertained an ambition to get Israel’s nuclear arsenal dismantled in stages (as the key to a nuclear-free Middle East).
He seems to believe that after Syria is stripped of its chemical and biological tools of war and Iran transfers its fissile materials and the military elements of its nuclear program to international oversight, Israel will be obliged to follow suit and place its nuclear stockpile under the same control.
Catching on to the demands looming over the horizon, Israeli officials Thursday issued reminders that their country’s reported WMD arsenals were set up to guard the fledgling Jewish state from the multiple threats of annihilation by its Middle East neighbors. Those weapons were necessary to deter Israel’s enemies until such time as they opted for recognition if not peace.
Suspected: An outside hand orchestrated the Syrian chemical attack
3. The suspicion is gaining ground among Middle East intelligence agencies that the massive chemical attack on the eastern outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21, which left more than 1,400 dead, was not ordered by Bashar Assad, one of his relatives or a member of his inner circle of top commanders, but a clandestine outside hand.
They suggest that a foreign agent penetrated the chain of command of the Syrian units in charge of the chemical weapons and obtained their commanders’ assent to a massive poison gas attack. Its purpose: To stir Washington into threatening military intervention in the Syrian civil war. To counter the threat, Moscow and Tehran would give Assad no other option but to agree to surrender his unconventional arms.
The Syrian ruler, it was calculated, might just decide to stand up to American military force, but on no account live with the cutoff of Russia and Iranian financial and military assistance for his war effort.
Conspiracy theories are endemic to Middle East political affairs. This one, however, points to it having been hatched in the rare exchanges between Washington, Moscow and Tehran on the Syrian chemical issue, which had sprung up through back channels from the last week of July.
That would be three weeks before the disastrous chemical attack took place.
Their suspicions were further bolstered by leaked a quote from UN investigators who visited the scene of the attack. Although their formal report is due to be released only next week, they are set to be preparing to attribute responsibility “predominantly” to government forces, without confirming Russian allegations that Syrian rebels mounted an attack on the scale of a massacre.
This suggested to some observers that a third, unidentified factor may have been at work.
Obama embraced the Russian plan without competent advice
Intelligence experts in the region tend to point the finger of suspicion for Assad’s “chemical trap” at Iranian intelligence, which has permeated the Syrian army at all levels of command, especially those responsible for securing the Damascus region and Assad’s person.
Tehran’s plan, according to this theory, was to offer the Syrian ruler up to Moscow and Washington in too weakened condition to resist being dragged to the negotiating table.
The Americans and Russians would not have been privy to the details of this purported plan, say those experts, but they would be clued in after it was in the oven..
4. The US president’s exchanges with the Russians and Iranians in the past month went forward in complete secrecy, aside from a tight team of White House aides.
Even Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice were not always in the picture.
Rice is said to be hopping mad over being passed over by the president without consulting her in all his decisions relating to the Syrian chemical crisis and the Russian proposal.
The three top-ranking officials often found themselves performing like supporting actors running behind a roller coaster scenario with no script, as Obama pursued his secret tracks with Moscow and Tehran single-handed – except perhaps for CIA Director John Brennan and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.
Obama’s only real confidants were his campaign trail buddies, like David Axelrod, who have no background in foreign policy and military affairs.
Obama pays dear for an all-but unfeasible Russian plan
Had he conferred with the diplomatic pros, Obama might not have grabbed Putin’s tempting proposal to relieve Assad of his chemical weapons, without submitting it first to expert scrutiny.
Yet Obama drove his dialogue with the Moscow forward away from the public eye and professional critical scrutiny, confident that he was masterminding a successful diplomatic ploy that would show the world he was not the fumbling, indecisive figure he appeared to be.
Now, all too late, the US President is being called on to pay the Russians, Syrians and Iranians in unintended major concessions for a plan which is turning out to be all but unfeasible in the foreseeable term.
For one, Obama has stopped demanding regime change in Damascus or questioning Bashar Assad’s legitimacy as Syrian president.
He sees the game as just starting. He understands it could go wrong, but never appreciated how quickly it could turn against him.
The impression DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources gain is that Obama has climbed incautiously up to a dazzlingly height and, at this point, can’t afford to wobble without his entire presidency coming crashing down.
The Russians and Iranians are no doubt fully aware of his vulnerabilities and more than ready to exploit them to extort as much as they can in the way of concessions to their interests..
The areas of accord covered by this secret trilateral track will be revealed in a separate article.