After a four hour national security team meeting on Aug 23, Pres. Obama requested an updated list of targets in Syria from US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. A second meeting is planned for Aug 24 to discuss military options. Sec. of Sate John Kerry will participate via video conference.
Mr. Hagel told reporters late Friday that American naval forces are assembling in the eastern Mediterranean region to close the distances with possible Syrian targets. The naval options are centered on the USS Harry Truman Carrier Strike Group (CSG), and include F/A-18 Hornet aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from submarines, cruisers and destroyers assigned to the Truman CSG.
Targets in Syria would include both fixed and mobile launchers as well as heavy artillery capable of launching chemical and biological warheads and perhaps any depots where they may be stored. Syria does not possess nuclear weapons.
The new developments follow an apparent Sarin gas attack on Aug 21 which is believed to have killed anywhere from 600 to over 1,300 civilians in eastern Damascus. Syrian opposition leaders contend the attack was carried out by Syrian Army forces; a contention the Assad regime flatly denies.
Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin, a long time ally of Pres. Assad, went so far as to suggest that Syrian rebels themselves carried out the attack. Interestingly, however Moscow’s tune on the attack has changed in the last 24 hours in that they are no longer suggesting that the attack was a hoax staged by the rebels; probably due to the surprisingly unanimous preliminary conclusion by US and allied intelligence agencies that there was indeed a chemical attack.
It’s not very likely that such a massive chemical attack could have been carried out by the rebels or any fringe rebel group for the simple reason of logistics. A chemical attack on that large a scale would mean moving and deploying mobile Scud missile launchers or heavy artillery, or the use of aircraft.
Even if rebel groups had possession of Scuds or WMD capable artillery, positioning and targeting of these weapons takes expertise and time. Rebels do not have the expertise and the time involved would leave the missiles or artillery open to spotting from the air followed by an airstrike to take them out. The rebels have no aircraft of any kind.
However, the reverse is true for Assad’s forces. The Syrian Air Force has total air supremacy and the Syrian Army has the artillery, Scud missiles and the trained expertise to employ such weapons.
The Sarin attack in Damascus appears to have been carried out with WMD capable artillery. A missile launch would have been detected by air defense radars and AWACS planes in Turkey, Israel and Jordan. No word of the attack made it out of Syria until victims were brought to hospitals and no air strike was reported by Syrians in the area.
A decision to use WMD now and on such a massive scale is an indication that Pres. Assad’s forces are close to collapse in the battle for Damascus. Assad's forces were thought to be making gains in recent weeks. But, there remains a large rebel presence in eastern Damascus and rebels made big gains in the Alawite heartland near Pres. Assad’s hometown of Qardaha.
The greater danger accompanying the crossing of this WMD ‘red line’ is that if Assad is hurling WMD out of sheer desperation at the rebels it raises the question of who else he may hurl them at. Assad has made past accusations that Israel, Turkey, Jordan and other nations plotted the rebellion against his regime. Turkey, along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are openly aiding the rebels with weapons and military intelligence.
A WMD strike against any of these nations would guarantee a regional war. Turkey has a large ground army, well trained and equipped with modern weapons and tanks. Jordan has far less capability but, would most certainly open its borders to Saudi ground forces which are comparable to those Turkey in all but numbers of troops.
A WMD strike on Israel would provoke Prime Minister Netanyahu to open the proverbial ‘mouth of hell’ in response with all options on the table including a ground invasion which Israel is more than capable of carrying out when fully mobilized.
It is due to these risks of a wider conflict, as much as the outrage of the atrocity itself that may now compel an US/NATO response. A letter sent to Pres. Obama by Democrat Rep. Elliot Engel cites the atrocity and the precedent it sets for other despots around the world to carry out such attacks should there be no consequences to Assad.
In the back Rep. Engel’s mind and likely many other members of Congress however, is that the Syrian Civil War has become a Sunni vs. Alawite (Shiite) sectarian conflict with parallel strife already spreading into Lebanon and Iraq. No response to Assad’s use of WMD and/or further such strikes by Assad could well accelerate a full blown Sunni-Shiite war across the Middle East with or without Israeli entanglement.
Such a conflict would be dirt thrown into the grave of Pres. Obama's Middle East policy. The political and social devastation left in the wake of his direct meddling in Egyptian internal affairs via the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood would become but a footnote to an 'implosion' of the Middle East.