American and European intelligence analysts now believe that President Bashar al-Assad’s troops have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in the civil war in Syria, an assessment that will put added pressure on a deeply divided Obama administration to develop a response to a provocation that the president himself has declared a “red line.”More details on possible military options from the Wall Street Journal:
According to an internal memorandum circulating inside the government on Thursday, the “intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” President Obama said in April that the United States had physiological evidence that the nerve gas sarin had been used in Syria, but lacked proof of who used it and under what circumstances. He now believes that the proof is definitive, according to American officials.
But a flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week only underscored the splits within the Obama administration about what actions to take to quell the fighting, which has claimed more than 90,000 people. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad’s troops — joined by fighters from the militant group Hezbollah — claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse.
Senior State Department officials have been pushing for an aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country, and receive shipments of matériel from Iran. But White House officials remain wary, and one American official said that a meeting on Wednesday of the president’s senior advisers yielded no firm decisions about how to proceed.
It is unclear precisely how the Obama administration made its final determination about the chemical weapons use in Syria. According to the internal memorandum, intelligence agencies have “high confidence” in their assessment, and estimate that between 100 and 150 people have died to date from chemical weapons attacks. The memorandum goes on to say that the conclusion is based on a variety of intelligence.
“Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information,” the memorandum said.
A U.S. military proposal for arming Syrian rebels also calls for a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced from Jordanian territory to protect Syrian refugees and rebels who would train there, according to U.S. officials.That would be my preferred course of action -- not ground troops and maybe not even a no-fly zone. Assuming we can even identify non-Islamist opposition groups (a big assumption). There is deep opposition within the American electorate for "military action" in Syria, which can limit our options. As Allahpundit pointed out:
Asked by the White House to develop options for Syria, military planners have said that creating an area to train and equip rebel forces would require keeping Syrian aircraft well away from the Jordanian border.
To do that, the military envisages creating a no-fly zone stretching up to 25 miles into Syria which would be enforced using aircraft flown from Jordanian bases and flying inside the kingdom, according to U.S. officials.
The White House is currently considering proposals to arm the rebels in Jordan, according to U.S. officials. White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on the details of those deliberations.
The limited no-fly zone wouldn't require the destruction of Syrian antiaircraft batteries, U.S. officials said.
Officials said the White House could decide to authorize the U.S. to arm and train rebels in Jordan without authorizing the no-fly zone recommended by military planners. A White House announcement could come soon, officials said.
I’ll repeat what I said in this post last month about polls showing deep opposition to U.S. action in Syria: The only way he can sell it is by emphasizing the WMD angle. If you look back at the polling data, only when chemical weapons are mentioned does public opinion against getting involved there begin to soften. Go figure that U.S. intelligence would suddenly conclude that sarin has been used at precisely the same time that Obama’s looking to intervene in Syria for strategic reasons unrelated to WMD — namely, that if the rebels aren’t reinforced soon somehow, Assad and Hezbollah might roll right over them and the big upcoming “peace” conference will be even more meaningless than it’s expected to be. One of the ironies of the U.S. putting such stock in the peace talks, notes Aaron David Miller, is that when they inevitably fail, military intervention of some form will be the only option left to Obama. He boxed himself in. Maybe he realized that and decided to get the ball rolling today. Another grand irony is that if you asked Americans what they’re most afraid of vis-a-vis Assad and WMD, most would probably say it’s the prospect of jihadi rebels overrunning his stockpiles and using those chemical weapons against western targets. Well, thanks to Assad’s recent victory streak, that seems less likely than ever right now. And yet here we are.Maybe. I do not necessarily believe chemical weapons need be the "red line" that Obama portrayed it to be. The use of chemical weapons in, say, Outer Mongolia, would not necessarily warrant a US response.
The issue here is the that 1. the Syrian war is rapidly expanding, drawing in Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Jordan; and B. we have a chance to dump a real bad guy in Assad who is currently front man for an anti-American, anti-Western cabal in Syria-Iran-Hezbo'allah. As the always-readable Michael Totten explained it last year:
Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad is in the middle of a life-or-death struggle. He might be overthrown. He should be.And why is Assad and his allies such bad guys? The use of chemical weapons, for one thing. Then there is this bit:
The Arab Socialist Baath Party regime, beginning with its founder Hafez al-Assad and continuing through the rule of his son Bashar, is the deadliest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab Middle East. It assisted the bloodthirsty insurgency in Iraq that killed American soldiers by the thousands and murdered Iraqi civilians by the tens of thousands. It has used both terrorism and conventional military power to place Lebanon under its boot since the mid-1970s. It made Syria into the logistics hub for Hezbollah, the best-equipped and most lethal non-state armed force in the world. It has waged a terrorist war against Israel and the peace process for decades, not only from Lebanon, but also from the West Bank and Gaza. And it is Iran’s sole Arab ally and its bridge to the Mediterranean.
Tehran is the head of the Iranian-Syrian-Hamas-Hezbollah resistance bloc, and Syria is the junior partner in the alliance, but both governments have American blood under their fingernails. Unlike Damascus, however, Tehran may acquire nuclear weapons capability within the next couple of years. If we could take only one member of that bloc off the board, we’d be wise to pick the Iranian government. The Syrian government, though, is the second-best option. And it’s lower-hanging fruit right now because Assad is facing an armed insurrection.
Short of regime change in Tehran, the overthrow of Assad is the worst thing that can happen to the Iranian government and to Hezbollah. Iran will lose its only ally in the Arab world, and Hezbollah will lose one of only two patrons and its entire overground logistics network. Scud missiles and other enormous weapons can’t exactly be mailed to Hezbollah from Iran through the Beirut international airport.
A fresh government in Damascus will almost certainly be less friendly toward Iran and Hezbollah and more friendly toward Lebanon. Beirut will be able to make more of its own decisions, which are naturally closer to what the US and Israel would like, even if they aren’t ideal. So many of Lebanon’s politicians are currently bribed and bullied by Assad into doing his bidding, inducing their support for Hezbollah and violent “resistance” against Israel. Even Hezbollah’s most powerful tactical “allies” only support the organization under duress.
WikiLeaks published a batch of revealing diplomatic cables from Lebanon last year. One describes how Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s speaker of Parliament and Hezbollah’s supposedly most stalwart ally, reacted during the Israeli bombardment of South Lebanon in 2006. “Berri condemned the ferocity of Israel’s military response,” the cable writer says, “but admitted that a successful Israeli campaign against Hezbollah would be an excellent way to destroy Hezbollah’s military aspirations and discredit their political ambitions. . . . We are certain that Berri hates Hezbollah as much, or even more, than the [Western-backed] March 14 politicians; after all, Hezbollah’s support . . . is drawn from the Shiites who might otherwise be with Berri.”But there is that opposition inside the US to military action in Syria. Totten:
According to another cable, Lebanon’s current prime minister, Najib Mikati, described Hezbollah as “cancerous” and wishes to see its militarized state-within-a-state destroyed. Mikati is the man who replaced the previous prime minister, Saad Hariri, at Hezbollah’s insistence. If even Syria’s and Hezbollah’s hand-picked allies are waffling and possibly even plotting behind the scenes, the entire rigged system may come crashing down if there’s a regime change in Damascus.
Many on both the political left and the political right in the US think we ought to stay out of this. Partly that’s because the devil we know, so to speak, is sometimes preferable to the devil we don’t. And we have good reasons to believe a post-Assad government will almost certainly be unfriendly to Israel, as nearly all Arab governments are, but it might also be unfriendly to the United States. After the disastrous results of the Egyptian parliamentary election last year, where radical Islamists received twice as many votes as secular parties, we’d be fools to think a Syrian election—assuming an election is ever actually held—would bring to power parties that are politically liberal and friendly. Since Libya degenerated into a failed militia state after the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, we’d be naive at best to assume a stable order must necessarily follow Assad’s. And the Iraqi insurgency taught us that the Arab world’s reaction to our removal of even a genocidal tyrant can lead to serious blowback that grinds on for years.
It gets worse. From a Terry Glavin column titled "No one cares about Syria:"
The body count in Syria over the past two years easily exceeds the death toll from the first two years of the war in Iraq. As a humanitarian crisis, Syria is worse than the Kosovo War of the late 1990s and the Haiti earthquake of 2010 combined.But what can you do for people in a war zone? The best humanitarian act we can commit is to get rid of Assad.
And still, a paltry $306,000 is all that a coalition of front line Canadian aid organizations had managed to raise for Syrian relief, three weeks into a major push for private donations that began May 15. In contrast, the coalition raised roughly 20 times that amount — nearly $6 million — during the first week of its 2010 Haitian earthquake relief campaign.
When it comes to “rapid onset” crises brought on by earthquakes or floods, Canadians are generous to a fault. But in “conflict-related” crises, generosity routinely gives way to suspicion and confusion, Marie-Jo Proulx, the Humanitarian Coalition’s communications manager, told me. So that’s partly the problem.
“It’s complicated. With Syria, people feel that they don’t understand the politics or the history of it,” Proulx said. “The different groups, the perpetrators, who’s in charge — these are questions, irrespective of the humanitarian needs.”
What’s straightforward enough is that out of a population of about 20 million, the UN reckons nearly seven million Syrians are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Last month, UN General Assembly president Vuk Jeremic said at least 80,000 Syrians had been killed since Syria began to degenerate into massacres, jihadist violence and sectarian killings following Baathist dictator Bashar Assad’s brutal suppression of the country’s youthful and non-violent 2011 democracy uprising. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the body count at 94,000, and possibly as high as 120,000. By comparison, the Iraq Body Count project put the 2003-2005 death toll in the Iraq war at 67,365 civilians.
Almost six million Syrians — nearly three times the number of Haitians made homeless in the 2010 earthquake — have nowhere to live, either because of being driven from their homes, or because their homes have been destroyed. About 1.6 million Syrians have found their way into refugee camps in neighbouring countries, mostly Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The refugee camps are swelling by roughly 7,000 people every day.
The way the Syrian crisis has been reported in the news media, the political freight shunted around in debates about whether to “intervene” or not and the plain disgrace of NATO leaders mostly standing around with their hands in their pockets through it all — none of this has helped mobilize efforts to come to the aid of the Syrian people. “The only meaningful impact we can have now is to help these poor innocent civilians,” Proulx said. “There is a lot of work being done on the ground, but funds are just trickling in.”
It isn’t only Canadians who are confused. Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser told Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month that the public response to Syrian relief appeals in the United States has been “just nil.” Last week, Oxfam America had raised only $140,000 of its goal of $53 million for Syrian relief. In contrast, in 2010 Oxfam America managed to raise nearly $30 million to help the 2.4 million Haitians made homeless by the earthquake that year.
Last Friday, the UN issued the most ambitious aid appeal in the UN’s history: a pitch for $5 billion. That’s the amount necessary just to provide food, water, shelter, medical assistance and the basics of life for the refugee population, and also to assist Lebanon and Jordan with stresses on infrastructure.
Unless you are an elementary school student or a Ron Paul supporter, you can easily see how the Syrian war has already engulfed its neighbors. Iran is sending in Pasdaran troops to prop up its ally. Hezbo'allah is trying to shore up its rear in Lebanon while moving in to support Assad. Israel has already attacked Syrian military assets. Jordan and Turkey are swamped with refugees. Turkey has also suffered border incursions from Syria. The Syrian war has also contributed to the protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan across Turkey (which is a good thing). Then remember this war is taking place around an area disputed between Turkey and Syria: the southern Turkish province of Hatay, home to the ancient cities of Antioch and Alexandretta.
Staying out of the war is not an option. We don't have to send in ground troops or even any troops. But we must recognize this is another front in a battle for civilization.