Military In-Action Against Syria
“History would suggest that Obama does not want to play any major role in this war," Michael O’Hanlon, with the Brookings Institution, said 25 February 2014. "And he prefers to ignore it for as long and as often and as much as he can.”
On 17 April 2013, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the deployment of elements of the 1st Armored Division headquarters to Jordan in response to the ongoing crisis in Syria. The elements from 1st Armored Division would join forces that already in Jordan, providing a cohesive command and control element in cooperation with Jordan forces. If directed, the elements from the 1st Armored Division could establish a joint task force headquarters that would provide command and control for chemical weapons response, humanitarian assistance efforts, and stability operations.
US personnel already in Jordan were said to have already been facilitating the exchange of information with the Jordanians and supporting US humanitarian assistance efforts in Jordan. This appeared to be a product of lessons learned from Operation Odyssey Guard, a US operation in Libya that followed NATO's Operation Unified Protector in October 2011. During Operation Odyssey Guard, US military personnel assigned to Joint Task Force Odyssey Guard assisted in numerous immediate post-conflict functions to include the securing chemical weapons in Libya. It was unlikely that any task force led by the 1st Armored Division headquarters would deploy into Syria except in a similar regime collapse scenario.
CIA backed the idea of arming and training Syrian rebels to pressure President Bashar Assad, and developed a detailed plan aimed for ousting the Syrian leader, a former CIA agent revealed in an interview with US media 03 April 2016. CIA officials were pushing for a multifaceted plan designed to plot Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster back in 2012, former CIA operative Doug Laux, who drafted the “ops plan” revealed in an exclusive interview with NBC. The White House and CIA leaders "had made it clear from the beginning that the goal of our task force was to find ways to remove President Assad from office," Laux told NBC.
He was providing insight into a soon-to-be-released memoir that deals specifically with the issue and was published on 05 April 2016. The book written by the former ground operative from the CIA's Syria task force, who spent a year in the war-torn country meeting with Syrian rebels and intelligence officers from various US partner countries, was heavily censored by US intelligence and he was not allowed to disclose the details of his plan.
However, Laux claimed that his ideas “had gained traction" in Washington and were shared by other CIA members. The then-CIA Director, David Petraeus, supported the plan and now he believes that is could have prevented the rise of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) as well as European refugee crisis, former US officials told the media.
The plan included both “bolstering Syrian rebels” and “pressuring and paying senior members of Assad's regime to push him out,” NBC reports, citing unnamed former US officials, who also added that it was seen by some members of the US establishment as a way to resolve the Syrian civil war peacefully. Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, and Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, also reportedly supported the plan. Petraeus, Ford and other officials held weekly meetings on the issue in 2012. Democratic presidential candidate and the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, also sided with Petraeus in White House debates, supporting in particular the idea of CIA secretly arming the Syrian rebels, as she said in her memoir “Hard Choices” published in 2015.
However, the final plan that contained many of Laux’s suggestions was eventually declined by US President Barack Obama. "We had come up with 50 good options to facilitate that. My ops plan laid them out in black and white. But political leadership…hadn't given us the go-ahead to implement a single one," Laux told NBC.
Later, Obama authorized another plan that envisaged arming and training Syrian rebels. However, some US politicians still believe that the plan could have been effective. "I'm confident we would be looking at a different Syria today if the president of the United States hadn't overruled David Petraeus, head of the CIA, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, and Leon Panetta, who was secretary of defense,” Sen. John McCain (R.-Arizona) told NBC News.
By May 2013 President Barack Obama was under increasing pressure to intervene in Syria’s civil war, either by ordering air strikes on government targets, arming the opposition or setting up a no-fly zone to protect the rebels trying to oust the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The pressure was coming from all directions – from Obama’s political rivals at home, the Syrian rebels themselves and powerful US allies such as Britain, France, Israel and Turkey. All of them argue Syria has already crossed the so-called “red line” Obama himself drew nearly a year earlier when he said use of chemical weapons against civilians would be a “game changer” requiring U.S. action in Syria.
The White House said June 13, 2013 it had conclusive evidence that Syrian troops have used chemical weapons against rebels -- a move President Barack Obama has said would cross a 'red line.' Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that President Obama had decided to send direct military support to the rebel fighters. But he declined to say what that support would be or when it will arrive. Rhodes said that according to intelligence, as many as 150 people have died from multiple small-scale chemical weapons attacks over the past year. He said those numbers are likely not complete. The national security official said sarin gas was among the chemicals used by the Syrian army.
The United States had not previously expressed plans to utilize direct force, limiting its involvement in Syria to humanitarian aid, non-lethal assistance and plans to provide rebels with weapons. General Dempsey discussed the option of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, but cautioned that would require hundreds of aircraft and cost as much as a billion dollars per month. He also said the impact may be limited because Syrian forces could still attack with mortars and missiles. He also mentioned establishing "buffer zones," most likely in neighboring Turkey and Jordan, which could be used to provide humanitarian assistance and give opposition forces a place to train. This option, he said, would also require a no-fly zone for protection, as well as thousands of US ground forces at a cost of more than $1 billion per month.
The fifth option would be conducting air strikes to weaken the Syrian army, which General Dempsey said would need hundreds of US aircraft and ships at a cost of billions of dollars. He cautioned that once military action is taken, the United States should be prepared for what follows, saying "deeper involvement is hard to avoid." His letter follows testimony he gave the previous week to the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which he said "the tide" in Syria seems to have shifted in Assad's favor.
Officials said 13 June 2013 that the United States was proceeding with a plan to arm Syrian rebels, a move that prompted a positive early reaction from US allies in Europe. The decision came after White House officials said an intelligence report found conclusive evidence that Damascus used chemical weapons on a small scale, including deadly sarin gas, against Syrian rebels during the past year. US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said President Obama decided to authorize direct military support to the opposition. US officials acknowledged this support would include weapons and ammunition. But the White House still does not support sending US troops to Syria, and that no decision has been made on other military options, such as the enforcement of a no-fly zone.
Red lines are not enough to prevent developments. The alleged chemical attack on 21 August 2013 that killed more than 1,400 people - including 426 children - in areas outside Damascus populated by opposition supporters, crossed an international, global red line. In an interview with CBS television, Assad denied he had ordered the August 21 attack and said evidence was not conclusive it had even taken place. He said he is concerned that an air strike on Syria would degrade his military and tip the balance in the conflict. German intelligence in reporting that Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Syrian presidency to allow them to use chemical weapons for more than four months, but permission had always been denied. German intelligence officers suggested that could mean Assad may not have personally approved the attack.
On 22 July 2013 General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined five options for using American force in Syria, while cautioning about the costs and potential consequences of direct involvement in the country's crisis. Detailed in a letter to Congress, they ranged from training opposition forces to destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. He said such intervention would likely help the opposition and place more pressure on President Bashar al-Assad's government. However, he said the unintended results could include empowering extremists and "unleashing the very chemical weapons we seek to control."
By February 2014, Saudi Arabia, frustrated by the deadlock in the second round of Geneva 2 talks, reportedly offered to supply the rebels with anti-aircraft missiles. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Russian-made antitank guided missiles and Chinese man-portable air-defense systems were already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey. An Arab diplomat and several opposition figures told WSJ that these supplies were likely to tip the battlefield scales as the rebels will become capable of taking on the government’s air power and destroying heavy armoured vehicles. The new weapons were expected to reach southern Syria from Jordan while the opposition in the north will get arms from Turkey. According to the WSJ report, rebel commanders struck a deal on the new armaments shipment during a meeting with US and Saudi intelligence agents in Jordan on 30 January 2014.
Senator John McCain demanded a stronger U.S. response. “Where is the President Obama who has said he refuses to accept that brutal tyrants can slaughter their people with impunity, while the most powerful nation in the history of the world looks on and stands by? Where is our outrage, where is our shame?” – asked McCain. The Republican senator had long advocated establishing a no-fly zone over Syria and arming rebel groups not linked to al-Qaida. “It is true that our options to help end the conflict in Syria were never good, and they are certainly worse and fewer now. But no one should believe we are without options even now,” said McCain.
Despite its anti-Assad policy, the US lost credibility among many in the region over its past reluctance to arm any in the Syrian opposition, as well as reversing its decision to strike Syrian government positions after allegations Damascus used chemical weapons against its own people.
By September 2013 no American arms had reached the opposition, due to Administration fears that the weapons may fall into the hands of terrorist groups. It is also believed the US wanted to avoid being pulled into Syria's civil war.
The two days after former President Bill Clinton criticized Obama for acting timid. “My view is that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past,” Clinton said, according to a report in Politico. “I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan — no one has asked us to send any soldiers in there... “If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken, is that, ‘Oh my God, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ Right?” he continued. “You’d look like a total fool.”
Prior to being ousted by a military coup, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had called on world powers to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria (as NATO did during the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi) during an Islamist-organised conference on 15 June 2013, which was held in support of the Syrian uprising. He also announced the end of diplomatic ties with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's regime. In his speech at the rally, though, the Egyptian leader gave no indication his government would send arms, let alone military personnel, to Syria, calling instead for talks.
US President Barack Obama expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of a potential no-fly zone over Syria. In a television interview broadcast June 17, 2013, Obama said if there was a move to restrict flights by the Syrian air force, that "may not be actually solving the problem." The president also said he will "preserve every option" available to him, and that the U.S. will be involved in a "careful, calibrated way." The White House has not completely ruled out a no-fly zone as a tool to help bring an end to the Syrian conflict. Syrian ally Russia says it would not permit enforced restrictions of Syrian airspace. US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told Reuters that neither the alliance nor the United States was considering a no-fly zone over Syria at that time.
The United States and Russia agreed September 14, 2013 on a framework for ending Syria's chemical-weapons program. The plan required Syria to make a full declaration of its chemical-weapons storage and production sites. It called for the destruction of chemical arms production and mixing equipment by November 2013 and the elimination or removal from Syria of all chemical-weapons material and equipment by the middle of 2014. The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army said his group rejected the deal reached in Geneva, and believed Russia and the Syrian regime were merely "playing games to waste time."
From the Saudi/Qatari perspective, the US switched sides. St. Augustine said: "Lord, Make me chaste, but not yet", just as some time later when Mao Tze Tung was asked "Don't you want to abolish state power?" he replied "Yes, we do, but not right now..." ["On the People's Democratic Dictatorship" (June 30, 1949), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 418]. Now Obama believes that Assad must go, but not right now. Obama has implicitly committed to the regime's survival until the chemical weapons are eliminated. For this reason, though not only this reason, Assad will want to drag things out, and the opposition will do what it can to wreck things.
The initial UN inspections following the 21 August 2013 attack were repeatedly delayed by security concerns, and there is every reason to anticipate such delays in the future. The United States will not provide decisive support to the secular Free Syrian Army, for fear of destabilizing the Assad regime, and it will discourage Saudi Arabia and Qatar from supporting their Islamic proxies in Syria. But as the opposition increasingly appears largely Islamic, and the regimes recently created National Defense Forces are overtly secular, Syrian public opinion will shift in favor of the regime.
The chemical weapons deal did not lessen the furious fighting in Syria’s civil war. Analysts said it will have long-term consequences, bolstering President Bashar al-Assad, while infuriating rebels trying to oust him. Steven Bucci, who directs foreign policy studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said, “On the ground, the resistance forces are probably the losers in this, and Bashar al-Assad is clearly the winner. He has now gotten some cover and credibility both from Russia and now from the rest of the international community.”
Rebels who hoped to regain momentum believe they now are facing the likelihood of a government escalation. The biggest group of rebel fighters is led by General Salim Idris, who said, “We think that the Russians and the Syrian regime are playing games to waste time and to win time for the criminal regime in Damascus.”
Analysts say the deal elevates Russian President Vladimir Putin's standing internationally, while Moscow continues to provide Damascus with weapons. Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said, “Russia has raised its strategic profile. It is on a level with the United States in terms of importance in determining the affairs of the Middle East.” Shaikh said that could affect America's influence in the region. “President Obama himself may well be projecting a ... weaker presidency for having not taken the action he said he would take.”
Syrian opposition leaders and activists released videos 21 August 2013 of large numbers of bodies - many of them young children - that had no signs of physical violence or blood. Those pictures, and separate scenes from hospitals showing patients writhing in agony without apparent wounds - were said to be persuasive indications that they were victims of a attack that used nerve gas or some other deadly chemical agent. Estimates of the number killed ranged from 500 to over 1,300, vastly more than said to have been killed in previous small scale poison gas attacks.
The international humanitarian medical organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said August 24, 2013 three Syrian hospitals had received about 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of exposure to neurotoxic agents. Doctors Without Borders said it had learned that large numbers of patients arrived in the three Damascus hospitals with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva and blurred vision, and that nearly 10 percent of those patients had died.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said 25 August 2013 that UN personnel would begin inspecting the site of a major suspected chemical attack near Damascus on 26 August 2013. In a statement released by his spokesman on Sunday, Ban said the Syrian government agreed to "provide the necessary cooperation" for the UN team to investigate the 21 August incident. The US and other world powers had been pushing for a United Nations-led investigation of the chemical-weapons allegations, and a top UN official arrived in Damascus Saturday to push for access to the site where rockets loaded with poison gas were launched. The UN high representative for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, was seeking an investigation of the incident. Many international leaders say they suspect the Syrian government is guilty of using banned chemical weapons, but Russia has spoken out in defense of the Assad regime. Russia and China did join the US, France, Britain and other Western powers in calling for a thorough investigation of the recent events in Syria.
The United States was moving towards war with Syria, a senior Russian lawmaker said 25 August 2013 lashing President Barack Obama as “clone” of George W. Bush in his drive for war. “Obama is restlessly heading towards war in Syria like Bush was heading towards war in Iraq. Like in Iraq, this war would be illegitimate and Obama will become Bush’s clone,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Russian lower house’s international committee, said.
Iran has warned Washington against military intervention in Syria amid growing concerns about the Syrian government's alleged use of poison gas against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, the Fars news agency reported 25 August 2013. "Iran has announced many times that the Syrian crisis has no military solution and such provocative measures and comments will merely further complicate the situation in the region and create more tensions," the news agency quoted Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Seyed Abbas Araqchi, as saying.
The Syrian government denied that it used any chemical weapons against rebels who had been fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad for more than two years. The government said any blame lay with the rebel side. The state-run SANA news agency reported a number of soldiers suffocated and died in a Damascus neighborhood where "armed terrorists used chemical weapons." Syria’s information minister said on Saturday that any US-led military action against the regime would be “no picnic.” "US military intervention will create a very serious fallout and a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East," Syria's official SANA news agency quoted Omran Zoabi as saying.
A senior Obama administration official told Western news agencies 25 August 2013 there was "very little doubt" that the Syrian government used a chemical weapon against civilians in Ghouta. The official said the US intelligence community and its international partners reached the assessment based on "the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts, and other facts gathered by open sources."
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel strongly suggested that the US was moving naval forces into place in the region in anticipation of any decision the president may make concerning Syria. Hagel told reporters Obama asked the Defense Department for a range of options if he chose to launch an attack on the Damascus government. A defense official said the US Navy was expanding its presence in the Mediterranean, sending in a fourth warship armed with cruise missiles. The USS Mahan and USS Ramage were located in the central Mediterranean, the Ramage was replacing the Mahan. The US Sixth Fleet, with responsibility in the Mediterranean, decided to keep the USS Mahan in the region instead of returning to home port in Norfolk.
The USS Barry and USS Gravely were located in the eastern Mediterranean performing the Navy’s ballistic missile defense mission in the region. The four Arleigh Burke class destroyers were loaded with dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles. By 29 August 2013 the USS Stout, another Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, was in the Mediterranean, moving east to relieve the USS Mahan. Along with Tomahawks launched from British and American submarines, at least 150 cruise missiles were available for strikes on Syria.
On 29 August 2013 British Prime Minister David Cameron sought authorization for a military strike to “deter and prevent” the Syrian authorities from using poison gas. The measure was defeated by a vote, 285 -272. French President Francois Hollande said he still supported taking “firm” action in Syria despite the British "no" vote. Hollande would not need parliamentary approval for a military strike, as long as the campaign lasted less than four months. France decided to send the warship the Chevalier Paul to waters off Syria in preparation for military action. The anti-aircraft frigate quit the port of Toulon on 29 August 2013 to join an international fleet deployed in the Mediterranean, but it does not carry weapons appropriate for a strike on Syria.
France could deploy the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, which carries aircraft mounting long range cruise missiles, off the Syrian coast. The ship, which as of 29 August 2013 was in the southern French port of Toulon, would need three days to get to the Syrian coast. Sources close to Hollande were reported by AFP to say its deployment was not yet considered "indispensable". French aircraft carrying stand-off cruise missiles might operate from Turkish airfields.
On 09 September 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry, in what seemed like an offhand remark this past week, mentioned chemical weapons disarmament as a possible solution to the Syria impasse. Moscow picked up on the remark almost immediately and offered it as a proposal and the Syrians, again almost immediately, accepted it. Most experts dismiss suggestions that this can be done easily or quickly, and certainly not within the tight timetables being mentioned by some diplomats. It wwould take many months, at least, to transfer the entire arsenal out.
Syrian rebel leaders worried that if a deal goes ahead, what happens during those months while America’s hand is stayed from retaliating for the August 21 attack. The rebels had been hoping the U.S. would use its cruise missiles to attack Assad’s air force and long-range rocket capabilities. They now believe Assad will increase the tempo of operations against the rebellion, arguing that he press his offensive knowing the U.S. would not attack.
Renowned political dissident and linguist, MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky, said "The Russian plan is a godsend for Obama," Chomsky says. "It saves him from what would look like a very serious defeat. He has not been able to obtain virtually any international support, and it looked as though Congress wasn't going to support it either, which would leave him completely out on a limb. This leaves him a way out: He can maintain the threat of force, which incidentally is a crime under international law. We should bear in mind that the core principle of the United Nations Charter bars the threat or use of force. So all of this is criminal, to begin with, but he'll continue with that."
On Saturday 31 August 2013, President Barack Obama announced that he would defer military action against Syria, pending approval of the US Congress. He said "... while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective." The US Congress remained in recess, with no plans to return before September 9th. “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” candidate Obama told The Boston Globe in late 2007. He added that the president can only act unilaterally in “instances of self-defense.... It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action...”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed believed the US should not intervene militarily in Syria, compared to 9 percent who supported such action. A new NBC News poll found that 50 percent of Americans believe the US should not intervene militarily in Syria, while 50 percent were willing to support long-range missile strikes. The poll also found that nearly 80 percent of Americans wanted Obama to get congressional approval for using force in Syria, including 70 percent of Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans. Quinnipiac polling found that three in five Americans did not see a national interest in intervening militarily in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry noted 30 August 2013 that some “cite the risk of doing things” in Syria, but it is also important to ask “what is the risk of doing nothing?”
"For Official Washington's foreign-policy elite, Obama's flinching from a bombing campaign against Assad was a historical inflection point for which Obama deserves hearty condemnation," US author and investigative reporter Robert Parry narrated in his March 2016 article for Consortiumnews.com.
To illustrate the point, Parry quotes the latest article of Jeffrey Goldberg written for The Atlantic. "Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America's reign as the world's sole indispensable superpower," Goldberg remarks, referring to the events which followed the August 21 deadly sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs in 2013.
What has been remaining largely unnoticed for years is that fact that the "US intelligence was unsure whether Assad was responsible for the attack," Parry stressed. It obviously gave Barack Obama pause for thought. What I was told by intelligence sources at the time was that the evidence against Assad was anything but a slam dunk," the investigative reporter points out.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad described President Obama as "hesitant and confused" for his decision to seek congressional approval for a military strike against Syria. A professor of international law at Damascus University told Syrian TV that Syria had tentatively prevailed over countries “trying to commit aggression against it”.
In his analysis for London Review of Books published in 2014, Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh shed light on the tragic events revealing that intelligence officials had traced the attack to Islamists and the Turkish secret service. "The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration's public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons," Hersh underscored.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|