Solid Evidence, Little Appetite to Strike: Obama's Dual-track Approach to Syria

From now, the president will operate on both diplomatic and military channels; the trauma of flawed intel dogs the U.S. on the anniversary of 9/11; Assad's may show his chemical capabilities once again. Three perspectives on the Syrian crisis.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Policy. In interviews U.S. President Barack Obama gave on Monday night to no less than six American television networks, the first hints were scattered of U.S. willingness to help reach a diplomatic outlet to the crisis in Syria. Obama once again seemed as if he was leaving his secretary of state, John Kerry, out on the ice alone. Right after publication of the Russian compromise of monitoring the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, Kerry responded almost dismissively, claiming that that would not stop the administration from going to Congress to approve military action in Syria. A few hours later, Obama sounded much more positive. If the proposal was real, the president said, it could stave off an attack.

Meanwhile, the administration is pursuing its efforts in Congress, although its chances of success seem murky. (Obama himself conceded in the interviews that he could lose.) From now on, two parallel channels will be operating: the diplomatic and the military, accompanied by political maneuvers in Washington to obtain the necessary support for the operation. Obama, in a direct line from his August 31 announcement that he had decided to seek Congressional approval, sounded unenthusiastic about an attack. That, apparently, is Tehran’s assessment. on Tuesday, of all days, the new Iranian president Hassan Rohani, whom the West describes as a moderate, declared that his country would not give up one iota of its nuclear capabilities.

Intelligence. A good deal of the controversy over the justification for an attack revolves around intelligence evidence the administration has, and is being aired in the shadow of the trauma whose roots are in what happened exactly 12 years ago today. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 exposed the hugely complicated American intelligence network in its weakness, when essential information that might have attested to plans by terrorists from al-Qaida fell between the cracks. What came afterward was not exactly the finest hour of the American intelligence community. The Bush administration coarsely manipulated the intelligence that had been gathered to justify invading Iraq; most senior intelligence officials did nothing or even openly cooperated. When the war in Iraq began to get bogged down, the intelligence community was accused of providing dubious evidence for an attack, especially the claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime was continuing to stockpile weapons of mass destruction.

The Obama administration’s situation is better. There is proof of the presence of chemical weapons in Syria, of murderous use made of these weapons and all signs also point to the fact that it was the Assad regime that used them. And yet, the gaps in the intelligence picture — as least the one that the public is seeing — are many. Conversations were apparently intercepted between leading officials in the Syrian regime after the fact that show awareness that Assad’s forces had used the weapons, however as far as is known there is no evidence that direct orders came from Assad himself. Kerry said Monday that three people, Assad, his brother Maher and another general, had given permission in the past for chemical weapons to be used. According to British intelligence Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on 14 occasions over the past year.

However, the U.S. administration is having trouble presenting direct evidence and it seems it has not caught the Syrian president associating himself with the massacre in eastern Damascus on August 21, which is what led to the current threat of an American strike. The difficulty the Americans are in recalls somewhat the problem the Sharon government faced in 2002. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, together with some intelligence officials, believed that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had permitted suicide bombings, or at least seemed to have given the nod to Fatah activists to commit such attacks. But despite the deep Israeli intelligence coverage of the Palestinian side, Arafat was never documented directly ordering such action.

The rockets. Pictures taken in eastern Damascus on August 21 show the remains of the rockets that were apparently used by the Assad regime to launch chemical weapons. According to Tal Inbar, an expert on rockets from the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, the rockets were most likely improvised Katyushas — originally Russian 122mm Grad rockets, with an added non-standard warhead, equipped by Assad’s forces to disperse gas. In light of the alterations made to the rockets by the Syrians, it seems their range is too short.

They make up only a small portion of Syria’s rocket arsenal, which was comprised in order to make use of Assad’s extensive stockpile of chemical weapons. This arsenal, built assiduously over decades, has two purposes. The first is to hit Israeli population centers during wartime, with shorter-range rockets meant to stop Israeli troops from advancing through the Golan Heights and into Syria. Although there is no official evidence, it seems that the Syrians are capable of equipping mid- and long-range missiles with chemical warheads as well.

Syria has never used its chemical weapons against Israel for two reasons. The first is fear of Israeli retribution (including the fear that Israel has WMDs of its own, which could be used in response), and the fact that after the Yom Kippur War, any escalation between the two nations has been relatively tame. Even during the first Lebanon war in 1982, as Israeli and Syrian troops clashed in the Bak’a Valley, the use of chemical weapons wasn’t even considered an option.

But in Assad’s life-or-death struggle against the Syrian opposition, the need to use chemical weapons originally conceived as measures against Israel has been increasingly pressing.

Thus, the Syrian army fired hundreds of rockets and used airstrikes against rebel population centers over the past year, and has apparently begun using chemical weapons as well.

U.S. President Barack Obama makes his way from a lunch with Senate Democrats to discuss Syria on September 10, 2013 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.Credit: AFP

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