Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
On Wednesday an estimated 1,000 last Wednesday have been killed with symptoms of a neurotoxin like sarin nerve gas.
Doctors Without Borders reported taking in 3,600 casualties of the same symptoms at the three hospitals and 355 deaths on Saturday in attacks near Damascus. Syrian state media blamed the rebels for using chemical weapons. They have denied their use, saying they comply with UN regulations and also with attacks on civilians.
President Barack Obama’s “red line” for Syria has been crossed; perhaps several times. The Administration remains hesitant to take actions beyond supplying the Syrian Opposition (mostly the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria) with weapons, ammunition, intelligence and other supplies. Some are outraged and compare his inaction to Rwanda and have suggested similar approaches to the US assistance to Libyan rebels ousting Gaddafi.
The Russian-Iranian equation complicates any neat actions in Syria much further. Turkey and Jordan are base-camps and launching pads for paramilitary Syrian resistance forces and resupply. Qatari, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim backed fighters are still there in droves but reports of aid have waned, with international jihadists now arriving from Western countries as well.
Syria’s ports are Russian staging grounds for arm supplies. Iranian “commercial” flights and military “advisers” continue to make their way into the conflict.
The US Sixth Navy Fleet has repositioned destroyers near Israel to find a better line of attack in the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian Military-Maritime Fleet, just North, has 12 war ships in port in Latakia and Tartus, Syria.
What will be the Russian response to Tomahawk missiles? Russia has expressed concern over any use of chemical weapons. However, their main concern is holding their territory a newly fortified Mediterranean presence, which has not seen Russian warships on this scale since the Cold War. They are not able to defend against land based strikes to the Southwest from the Sixth Fleet.
Just reported is that Syria agrees to UN inspections of the chemical weapons attack site in Damascus. The Russian Foreign Ministry is stalling US military action, urging Syrian diplomatic cooperation to allow inspectors into a UN weapons probe. They are already taking a Syrian position that the attack must have been a provocation and some kind of framing of the Syrian government by the rebels. It is very likely that unless a larger-scale attack occurs, Russia will continue with this defensive posture.
If Syria has permitted the the present UN team to conduct an investigation, then it is likely that they have either managed to scrub the chemical site, or will dispute it or blame it on the rebels with Russia as a backer to their claims. There may be no way to verify which side was the chemical weapons aggressor; though it seems evident at this point.
So even if something is discovered, then it is back to more from the talking table and much finger pointing while the Civil War continues and chemical weapons either slip out or are let out in certain locations of the conflict.
Here in lies the moment of truth for the USA. What are the potential military options? As long as the US is involved in diplomatic talks and the UN team in-country, Syria knows that it can regroup, rearm, and remain safe in the short term from US counter-aggression. Also, his advisers have no doubt informed him of that the US motivation and their options are limited. Tomahawk missile strikes against chemical weapons depots would be disastrous to the surrounding populations.
A missile strike at Syrian conventional force structures and the Syrian government would be effective punishment and damage but not while in active investigations. Both naval strike options violate the “legal” hurdles that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has mentioned. They would mean an immediate act of war after over two years of near US non-interference. Getting the missiles there is also an issue with a stronger Russia position. They are prized to not permit any US intervention at all for fear that they will lose their strategic and economic holdings. Russia and Syria may have installments acting as a passive defense but most likely the US will easily get through Syrian defenses or anything Russia has given them.
Special operations and intelligence operations are already in play. They have said as much, but their effects are far more limited in the short-term and they are just one of many paramilitary forces pouring into Syria from all sides and for all manner of political reasons.
The third option is of course the Turkey-Israeli squeeze. Israel already has a more vested interest in stability and punishing Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime. Syria’s use of chemical weapons this year has been officially confirmed by the Israeli government on multiple occasions. They are getting anxious and not to fond of the events taking place on their increasingly unstable borders. An air strike against Lebanese militants that fired a rocket into Israel took place on Friday. Before that, to the South, they launched coordinated strikes with Egypt against would-be rocketeers, where they face the anarchy of the Sinai Peninsula.
Already Israel has struck Syrian territory four times. Its biggest fear is preventing advanced weapons from reaching the hands of the Lebanese political militia Hezbollah. But they do not want a war with Syria if they can avoid it. They will continue to monitor and regulate, as best as they can, the any weapons going to their Northern enemies. Could they do more?
Just today, Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles at the port were targeted in a strike to prevent them from reaching Hezbollah. Even if Russia intended them for Syria, Israel has its fixed policy. This will likely encourage greater Russian future precautions and redoubled efforts to assure that Syria has its needed supplies and also to discourage Western actions via missile defense technologies. But Syria has warned Israel that it will not allow another attack on its soil. At the same time, they are hard pressed to enter a war with Israel either. Yet it may in the end come to that. Meanwhile, their interest is not to provoke or punish but to deny.
The US will also continue to get as many allies involved for a response as it can. Turkey and Jordan may soon have a bigger role to play, even reluctantly. The US remains in waiting for a coalition. If Syrian chemical attacks transition into chemical warfare en mass, that would be a red line limit for almost everyone in the international community. At that point, there is no more Assad. Short of that, a few chemical attacks here and there may unfortunately go unpunished; especially if they are small-scale and go unreported.