UPDATE: Terry Moran reporting from the region for ABC News, 11:50am 30 August 2013:
"This crisis has strengthened Bashar al-Assad, no doubt about it."
Obama's current dilemma is of his own making. He set it up almost precisely a year ago when he stumbled into the White House Press room and warned Assad not to cross his red-line. Obama has had long working relationship with Assad and has never supported regime change in Syria but for political reasons he has been forced to feign support for the democratic struggle and opposition to Assad's use of military power to suppress his people.
Obama's red-line statement came amidst more words of support for the opposition. It was designed to put certain limits on Assad's use of military power and to indicate to him what would and wouldn't be acceptable behavior to the superpower. Assad has now decisively crossed that red-line and this has forced Obama to act. Given that Obama does not favor an opposition victory, we can expect a military action full of sound and fiery but signifying little. Assad knows Obama won't take him out and he has used this massive chemical attack to deliberately provoke the US into attacking him so that he can galvanize his base.
The Initial Blunder
President Barack Obama was not even expected at the White House Press Briefing on the afternoon of 20 August 2012 when he surprised everyone including Jay Carney, his press secretary, and said"I thought I’d come by and just say hello." He spoke about his health care program before taking questions which eventually got around to Syria.
Chuck Todd asked him "whether you envision using U.S. military, if simply for nothing else, the safe keeping of the chemical weapons, and if you're confident that the chemical weapons are safe?" In responding to Todd's question, Obama first reiterated his view "that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down," noted that "we’re providing humanitarian assistance" and that they were also providing "some assistance to the opposition in thinking about how would a political transition take place," but no military support. "I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel."
He then when on to make the statement that may well come to define his presidency:
"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation
We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.
All right, thank you, everybody."
And so Obama abruptly ended the press conference. He probably realized he said too much already.
Since the chemical-weapons "red line" warning on 20 August 2012, LCC have confirmed that at least 50143 people have been killed in #Syria.
The origins of this dilemma can be traced in large part to a weekend last August, when alarming intelligence reports suggested the besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons. After months of keeping a distance from the conflict, Mr. Obama felt he had to become more directly engaged.
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, "Are you crazy?" But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
... "The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action," said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But "what the president said in August was unscripted," another official said.
Consequences, Intended or Not
President Obama spoke with the arrogance of a superpower when he laid down the law with his surprise comments to anyone in Syria who might even think about using sarin gas, but whether he intended them or not, his remarks had certain consequences. They also gave Bashar al-Assad three other pieces of valuable information:
1) Obama told Assad the US would not intervene so long as he continued the slaughter by conventional means. I called that out with Obama "green lights" Assad's slaughter in Syria a few hours after Obama made his red-line statement. At the time, the uprising against the Assad regime had already taken 25,000 lives but Assad was only tentatively using his air force and had not yet started using his large ballistic missiles against the people. Once he knew their use alone would not provoke a US military strike, he greatly accelerated their use and consequently the death toll in this conflict quickly climbed to over a hundred thousand.
When asked about a possible military strike against Syria in response to this massive new chemical attack at the White House Press Briefing Tuesday, Jay Carney issued the standard presidential reply to all such questions:
We have never taken military force off the table and we will not now in response to this flagrant violation of international norms.
But that is exactly the favor Obama did Assad a year ago August. First he re-affirmed that he had "not ordered military engagement" but that chemical weapons use would "change my calculations significantly." The implication being that the military option was off the table so long as Assad didn't use chemical weapons. Its hard to say if any lives would have been spared if Obama had also indicated that at some point the US might find slaughter by more conventional means intolerable but its also hard to see how such a proclamation would have made things any worst.
2) Obama gave Assad a road-map for introducing chemical weapons into the conflict in an acceptable way.
Why did Obama say "a whole bunch of chemical weapons?" What exactly is a whole bunch of chemical weapons? Such fuzzy language has no place in laws, let alone ultimatums. Can one imagine schools that prohibit "a whole bunch" of drugs or weapons on campus? How could you enforce such a rule?
And yet this is exactly the road map that Assad has used to introduce chemical weapons into the arsenal of weapons he is using to suppress his own people. In a whole series of chemical attacks since December, he has stayed safely to this side of "a whole bunch of chemical weapons" until this most recent attack on 21 August 2013.
The first use was on 22 Dec 2012 in the rebel-held al-Bayyada neighborhood of hotly contested Homs. While this use by the regime was documented by videotapes, witness and doctor testimony and confirmed by a general who defected from the chemical weapons division days later, only seven people died so it could hardly be considered that "a whole bunch of chemical weapons" were used.
Then there were two attacks on 19 March 2013. In one of them, Khan al-Assal, 31 people were killed. Both Britain and France conducted investigations and found the Assad regime responsible but the Assad regime blamed the opposition, which denied responsibility and nothing was done. Apparently, "a whole bunch" involved more than three dozen deaths.
There was no question of who was responsible for the gas attack on 13 April 2013 in Sheik Maqsoud, Aleppo because the gas cannisters were dropped from helicopters and only the regime flies those. Using that delivery method was very much "in your face" but since only two women and two children were killed and another 16 made sick, there was no question of it passing the "whole bunch of" test.
And this has been the pattern of chemical attacks up until now. Almost certainly, the Assad regime has been behind all of them. Jhadists have not used sarin gas missile attacks anywhere in the world and there has been nothing indicating that anyone in the opposition has this type of capability. The videos of so-called rebel labs making chemical weapons with lye have all been debunked. These chemical weapons attacks have all been small scale attacks, very tentative in nature, in the beginning. This has been Assad's pattern with the introduction of every new weapons system into the conflict. There has been the suspicious on the part of some observers that the poisons were being deliberately watered down or mixed with non-lethal agents to throw investigators off the scent. All of these gas bombs fell through the "whole bunch of" loophole Obama included in his chemical weapons prohibition and all of them have been given a pass by Obama.
Assad calls for US intervention
The attack that took place on Wednesday, 21 August 2013 killed over a thousand people and undeniably involved "a whole bunch of chemical weapons." That attack took place about 3:00AM Damascus time, it was still August 20th in Washington, DC and so a year to the day exactly after Obama threw down his "red-line" gauntlet to Assad.
This brings us to the third thing Obama telegraphed to Assad with his off-the-cuff red-line statement:
3) Obama told Assad exactly what he needed to do if he wanted to force the US to intervene militarily. US intervention has great political advantages for Assad and might be worth it provided he doesn't get hurt too badly militarily.
After Obama very publicly told Jeffrey Goldberg last year with regards to Iran "as president of the United States, I don't bluff," he can't afford to have his bluff called by Assad. So Assad could know with a high degree of certainty that Obama would respond with a military strike to this massive use of chemical agents.
Syrian Regime carried out the nerve gas attack on East Ghouta
There can be little doubt that Assad is responsible for this attack. The Arab League holds him responsible. Certainly, the White House has no doubt as they claim to have intercepted communications within the Assad regime about the attack. Apart from that, there is a lot of other evidence that says the Assad regime was behind this attack.
michaeldweiss -Unconfirmed, but source in Ghouta telling me death toll may have reached 2,500. "Many people died in their houses."
Nerve gas is the perfect weapon for ethnic cleansing. Assad has been moving Alawite and Shia families into areas he has cleansed the Sunni's out of. When he has done this the old fashion way, with bombs, as in Homs and Qusayr, he has left these families very little to move into. He could hardly afford to do this to Damascus. With sarin gas he can clear the people and spare the buildings. The gas clears in hours and the area can be re-inhabited immediately.
The attack took place on an area of Damascus that has been liberated for a long time. In spite of consistent Assad regime attempts to take back these areas and move the opposition out of Damascus, the people have stubbornly held on. It is well documented that the Assad regime was bombarding this area before the chemical attack, and they were bombarding it after the attack, destroying the evidence and using their offensive as an excuse to keep the UN inspectors out. It is ludicrous to think an opposition force carried out a chemical attack on itself in between more conventional Assad regime attacks.
Yezid Sayigh, an analyst of Arab militaries at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut speculated as to why Assad may have made this attack:
"They clearly felt a need to use chemical weapons quite a while ago and were able to get away with that, bluntly, as long as they kept it within certain limits," he said. "Maybe they felt they needed to achieve significant progress in the Damascus area, and loosened the rules of engagement."
The Stratfor Global Intelligence Group is the largest private intelligence organization in the world, it is known as the private CIA, and it covers things like Syria for its corporate clients. This is what it said about the situation around East Ghouta in a report it issued on 17 June 2013:
Syrian loyalist forces are also on the offensive in Damascus and in the south. Having mostly isolated the sizable rebel pocket in the Eastern Ghouta region with the seizure of Otaiba, loyalist forces continue their efforts to reduce the rebel pocket, though they have yet to make much headway.
So the Assad regime was being frustrated in its attacks on East Ghouta, and that was more than two months ago. Now guess which side used nerve gas on East Ghouta?
Video from Tuesday shows regime strikes on Irbeen city in East Ghouta, Damascus.
The attack was a very sophisticated one, with percussion bombs used to shatter windows prior to the deployment of the gas and then a massive amount of gas deployed with multiple rockets. Only the Assad regime has the arsenal and training necessary to carry out that kind of attack with chemical weapons. Neither Al Qaeda nor any of its affiliates have ever carried out a nerve attack of any size anywhere in the world and now suddenly they can kill over a thousand in Syria with nerve gas in rockets? It simply doesn't past the smell test.
And always, when considering who is responsible for this mass murder with chemicals, the context must also be remembered. The Assad regime is already slaughtering thousands of Syrian civilians with its air force and ballistic missile force. That is undeniable, as is the fact that the Assad regime is overwhelmingly responsible for the death and destruction in this conflict.
Obama wants to discipline the regime not change it
Obama has already signaled that any military action will designed to send a message and not advance the opposition cause of regime change. Max Fisher analyzed it this way in the Washington Post on Tuesday:
Actually, publicly revealing when, how and where the United States (and some allies) will likely strike makes sense, given what Obama wants to accomplish. If his goal were to fully enter the Syrian civil war and decisively end it, then, yes, secrecy would be the way to go. But the administration has been very clear that it has a much more modest goal: to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for his suspected use of chemical weapons so that he, and future military leaders, won’t do it again.
What’s about to happen, if the United States and allies do go through with the strikes, is less of a war and more of a ritual. This isn’t about defeating Assad, it’s about punishing him.
Flash and Bang
While the limited strikes are bound to generate a lot of flash and bang, as appropriate for sending a message, they specifically won't do what Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has suggested they should do, that is to "tip the battle in favor of the insurgents."
As presidential press sectary Jay Carney said on Tuesday "the options that we are considering are not about regime change" and as Martha Raddatz said on ABC World News that same evening "They don't want regime change."
In spite of long feigned support for the struggle for freedom and democracy in Syria, the imperialists know they have enjoyed a good working relationship with Assad. He has given Israel its quietest border and kept both the Palestinian and Syrian people on a short leash. He has supported the US "War on Terror," working with the CIA rendition and torture programs and has generally proven to be just another petty dictator looking for his piece of the imperial pie. The US imperialist have no real interest in seeing him replaced by an Iran like theocracy, and even much less so a truly democratic, and people orientated, Syria.
Fred Hoff, a key Obama Syria hand since 2009, who lobbied for much more serious strikes that would significantly degrade Assad's offensive capabilities, said:
"Something that is significantly less than that, something that is seen as symbolic, I think would just enable Bashar al-Assad to say I have stood up to the world’s only superpower and faced it down."
Assad knows this. He knows that Obama isn't going to hit him hard or knock him out of the box, just as he knows Obama won't threaten him personally. And there are definite political benefits for him in drawing the US into the Syrian conflict. All along he has tried to paint himself as the underdog, fighting a conspiracy of Western backed terrorists, but that story has become very tattered as the death toll continues to rise as a result of his air attacks. A direct attack by US forces could revive Assad's anti-imperialist underdog status like nothing else and he badly needs to rally both his internal and external support networks for a desperate push to preserve his regime in at least a part of Syria.
And apart from provoking Obama, Assad needs to use his chemical weapons for strategic reasons. In spite of claims by the pro-Assad activists and much of the Western media that the tide has turned in his favor in the civil war, the facts on the ground say he's not doing so well. He lost a major airbase near Aleppo and is very close to losing Syria's second largest city entirely. He knows he can probably never get back control over large portions of the country so now he is trying to create an ethnically cleansed Alawite-Shia-Christian area around Damascus, Homs and the Latakia area by the sea. Only he ain't been doing to good. The rebels have been able to mount a successful offensive in what he thought his safest rear area around Latakia, taking several towns, and the opposition areas in Damascus have proven very stubborn and have refused to yield to conventional arms. Hence the chemical attacks. Obama's rebuke, even if military, is likely to be timid and ineffective. There will be more chemical attacks.
We can already see how even the threat of an imminent US attack on Syria has had the effect of "turning the tide" in the US Left with some forces that were just starting to question there outlook on the Syrian Revolution, suddenly dropping such considerations as they rush to the "US Out of Syria" barricades.
One can imagine that effect multiplied ten times inside of Syria, which is what matters to Assad. For more than two years now Assad has been losing this war, and not because of bombs dropping from American planes but because of soldiers dropping from his army. Defections have been his biggest problem and lately defections have been rising. Probably nothing could stanch the flow of defectors like an Obama missile strike.
Not much of a strike, mind you, just enough of a strike so that Assad can say "You're not going to dessert your country just when the long awaited direct war with the US imperialist has started are you?"
With that stance widely broadcast in the past several weeks, Assad could easily believe that even if he provoked a US strike, and he already knew just how to do that, it would be relatively mild and not harmful to him personally.
But personally, I hope I'm wrong about this. I hope he takes the sucker out!
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