The information and statements made in Washington are multiple and often contradictory. The only thing that is clear - the US officials appear to prepare the ground for a military action against Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons, which is an unconfirmed affirmation. With all the statements made and the ballyhoo raised about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the administration has left itself almost no choice; otherwise it would undermine its own credibility. State Secretary John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden have left no doubt that action will be taken. In a BBC interview US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel says the military is «ready to go» in responding to Syria. He told the BBC on Tuesday, August 27, the US military had «moved assets in place» so all options were available to the President. According to Mr. Kerry, the evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria is «undeniable» - a claim Assad calls «preposterous». Remembering the «dossiers» before the Iraq War, the evidence will come under a lot of scrutiny this time.
Will the U.S. launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country? The administration may also try to time any strike around Obama's travel schedule — he's due to hold meetings in Sweden and Russia next week — in order to avoid having the commander- in-chief abroad when the U.S. launches military action.
Meanwhile global stocks plunged and oil prices shot up amid growing concern about an impending attack.
The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria. The US stance is unambiguously approved by UK, France, Germany and some other NATO members.
Syrian opposition sources have said they have been told to expect a Western intervention in the conflict imminently. «There is no precise timing... but one can speak of an imminent international intervention against the regime. It's a question of days and not weeks», AFP news agency quoted Syrian National Coalition official Ahmad Ramadan as saying.
What is important - there is no public endorsement from Arab governments, even from Saudi Arabia, so the West has little political cover regionally should the intervention go the wrong way. The Arab League said it held Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible for the attacks and called for UN action. But, at that, the delegates on August 27 urged the United Nations Security Council, rather than the West, to take «deterrent» action against Syria to prevent a repeat of alleged chemical attacks on Aug. 21. Arab leaders have publicly maintained that any international military action there should be sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.
Turkey is the only major Muslim Middle East ally of the U.S. to announce it would join an international military coalition against Syria, even without advance U.N. approval.
In an interview published Tuesday, August 27, on the website of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency Syria President Assad accused the U.S. and other countries of «disdain and blatant disrespect of their own public opinion; there isn't a body in the world, let alone a superpower, that makes an accusation and then goes about collecting evidence to prove its point». Assad warned that if the U.S. attacks Syria, it will face «what it has been confronted with in every war since Vietnam: failure».
China's state news agency recalled that intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq turned out to be flawed, while Syria's neighbor and ally Iran said any strike would threaten the stability of the region.
Russia warned Western powers on Monday, August 26, against any military intervention in Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had no plans to be drawn into a military conflict and that Washington and its allies would be repeating «past mistakes» if they intervened in Syria. «The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council is a very grave violation of international law», Lavrov told a news conference at which he discussed accusations by rebel forces that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons. «If anybody thinks that bombing and destroying the Syrian military infrastructure, and leaving the battlefield for the opponents of the regime to win, would end everything - that is an illusion», he said. The Minister also cast doubts on the veracity of US and European claims about the incident, «Official Washington, London and Paris say they have incontrovertible evidence that the Syrian government is behind the chemical attack in Damascus, but they have not yet presented this evidence. Yet, they keep saying that the ‘red line’ has been crossed.» The Minister said that the development set the world on a «perilous path» and warned that «repeating the Iraqi and Libyan scenario» and bringing in outside forces, would be a «terrible mistake that will lead to more blood being spilt». In his press conference Lavrov spoke of how the ruling parties in the US, UK, and France stir up emotions among poorly informed people that, once aroused, have to be satisfied by war.
Military options in general
In July US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) General Martin Dempsey said that the Obama administration was preparing various scenarios for a possible military intervention in Syria. In July the US top military official publicly advised against military intervention in Syria.
According to CJCS estimates, establishing no-fly or buffer zones inside Syria, or containing Syria’s government-held chemical weapons, would cost at least a billion dollars a month and require ships, aircraft and up to several thousand troops. The CIA has been moving weapons to Jordan to allow a concerted push by the rebels this August-September. Up to a few hundred of the fighters are to enter Syria.
On July 22 Mr. Dempsey set out five options for military intervention in Syria in a non-classified letter addressed to the US Congress. The US military online news site Stars and Stripes provided a review of the document. He said the United States needed some 700 sorties with inevitable losses to degrade the regime’s armed forces. Such an option would require hundreds of aircraft and ships and, «depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions».
According to the newspaper (1), these are the five options outlined by Mr. Dempsey for U.S. military action in the Syria:
- a «train, advise and assist» mission with no U.S. troops directly involved with fighting:
- limited stand-off strikes launched outside Syria to target «high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes»:
- establishing a no-fly zone to go further taking out Syrian air defenses to control the skies throughout the country. Because U.S. aircraft would be required to fly over Syrian airspace the risk to U.S. troops would be higher.
- creating buffer zones to protect the borders of Turkey or Jordan, or to protect Syrian civilians.
- controlling chemical weapons. This is the most complex option. It would require a no-fly zone, air and missile strikes and thousands of troops on the ground.
Last month the Pentagon left around 800 troops, combat-equipped a fleet of F-16 fighter planes and its Patriot anti-missile system on the Jordanian border following a routine military exercise. The force will part of the operation.
The scenario of tomorrow
The president has so far ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria and officials say they are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone. A limited strike would allow Obama to say he’s following through on his warning a year ago that Assad would incur «game changing» action if he used chemical weapons. Among the military options under consideration are missile strikes on Syrian units believed to be responsible for chemical attacks or on Assad’s air force and ballistic missile sites, U.S. officials said. Such strikes could be launched from U.S. ships and submarines (a limited number) or from combat aircraft capable of firing missiles from outside Syrian airspace, thereby avoiding Syrian air defenses. Four U.S. Navy destroyers remain ready in the Eastern Mediterranean for President Obama’s call to strike the Syrian regime’s military assets, each equipped with up to 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The USS Mahan, USS Gravely, USS Barry and USS Ramage are «poised and positioned should any options be taken,» US defense officials report. Officials said it was likely the targets of any cruise-missile attacks would be tied to the regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.
NBC has reported the cruise missile strikes are to take place in August 29, Thursday. Other outlets say the strike will take place in the coming days. A onetime short strike could rather be symbolic and last no more than a couple of days limited by four Mediterranean based destroyers as cruise missile platforms striking command and control system as well as other core military targets. This operation will be more like the 1986 United States bombing of Libya, code-named Operation El Dorado Canyon. The attack was carried out by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps via air-strikes, in response to the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing. Limited in time it will keep down the costs. No doubt that in any scenario the 4th tank division and its 155 brigade – the main fighting component – will be on the target list. The second scenario envisions a rather long-lasting air operation more like the one conducted by NATO against Libya in 2011. This course of action will make the West embroiled into the war on the side of rebels and make it last till Assad is overthrown or the intervention fails.
There is also an intermediate scenario presupposing intensive bombing and consecutive pulling out ceding the initiative to the regional actors like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.