Even if US President Barack Obama gains Russian President Vladimir’s consent to a plan for deploying 5,000 armed UN observers in Syria to secure Bashar Assad’s chemical and biological weapons, both will then find themselves up against new quandaries: Can Obama nail down a nuclear deal with Iran while organizing military intervention in Syria? Can Putin maintain Russia’s position of influence in Damascus and Tehran while sidelining Assad? And can Washington, Moscow – together or separately – avert the spillover of the Syrian crisis into a regional war in which Israel is involved?
These three quandaries and others began to take shape from Obama’s current priority: averting what he regards as a primary threat to world security – a potential Al Qaeda or other terrorist organization’s grab for the huge Syrian stock of chemical and biological weapons (first revealed in a debkafile exclusive May 31).
The US president’s plan is for the immediate assignment by the UN Security Council to Syria of 3,000 armed monitors to take charge of all six chemical and biological stores, followed later by another 2,000.
To allay Putin’s suspicion of a trick to insert Western armed forces into Syria against Moscow’s will, Obama has suggested that most of the monitors would be Russian or nationals of governments lining up with its support of the Assad regime.
Tehran leaves non-US intervention out of its threat
By the time this issue closed, Putin had still not decided whether to take Obama up on his plan. Tehran furiously rejected it by threatening that Western military intervention in Syria would lead to Israel being “engulfed in flames.”
The threat did not specify whose hand would light the match and so left open a possible Syrian attack on Israel using the very biological and chemical weapons which the US seeks to keep safe from al Qaeda – and therefore away from his reach; or joint Syrian-Hizballah aggression. (More below about why Hassan Nasrallah would find it hard to go to war on Israel.)
Tehran also omitted to say how it would react if the foreign forces landing in Syria were non-American and non-Western – such as Russian forces commanded by Russia officers. It is therefore understood in Washington that the last word has not yet been heard from Tehran on the Syrian crisis or on the deployment of a predominantly Russian team of soldiers in UN uniforms.
To the Obama administration’s credit it must be said that this plan is the most creative and innovative to be put forward in the 17 months of the Arab revolt, having drawn a valuable lesson from the Libyan episode. Instead of alienating Russia and Putin specifically, as the US president did over Libya, he is now inviting him into the loop and offering him a working partnership.
To win him over, the Obama administration set aside decisions about the Syrian ruler’s future and turned to the strategic calculus that if a US-Russian understanding can be reached on Syria, it could form the basis for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program as well.
Hizballah hides its heavy weapons in bases near Damascus
And the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may also draw a lesson from the new alignment, or so it is hoped in Washington: If Assad is left in power – albeit with clipped wings – despite foreign military intervention in his country, and Al Qaeda as well as the Syrian army are barred from access to WMD stocks, it might occur to the Iranian leader that just as Syria’s unconventional weapons of destruction did not save Assad, neither will a nuclear program keep the ayatollahs in power – unless they come to terms with the United States over its disposition.
Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah appears to have been quicker than Assad in reading the writing on the wall.
It is a little-known fact that Hizballah keeps its primary heavy weapons arsenals at two military facilities near Damascus, Syria. At the two bases, named by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources as Al-Hame, 4 kilometers from Damascus and Zabadani, also near the Syrian capital, are hidden the Shiite group’s advanced Made-in-Iran Fajr and Zelzal missiles capable of striking any point in Israel, its Scud D surface missiles and self-propelled SA-18 Igla Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles.
There, too, Iranian Revolutionary Guards instructors train Syrian officers in combat tactics and teach them how to use advanced weapons systems.
In no shape for war without its heavy missiles
Before considering going to war on Israel, Hizballah must first retrieve its heavy weapons from their Syrian hideaways and transfer them to Lebanon. But meanwhile, intensified Syrian rebel assaults in the Damascus area have also placed Hizballah’s heavy weapon arsenals at risk. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah have dispatched substantial reinforcements to Damascus to guard them – according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, an entire Brigade of Hizballah Special Forces and a battalion and-a-half of Iranian Guards troops.
In these circumstances, Hizballah is hardly in any shape to attack Israel.
In the coming two or three days, we will keep track of Obama’s plan for Syria, which is designed to cut out everyone but the Russian president, including Iran, the Europeans, the Arabs, the Syrians and the Israelis.
Putin’s response will determine whether it stands or falls.