Syria: A matter of grave concern

If the UN investigation proves beyond a peradventure that Assad has indeed gassed hundreds of his own citizens, both General Dempsey and his Commander in Chief, President Obama, may decide that enough is enough.

Bodies from Syria chemical weapons attack 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)
Bodies from Syria chemical weapons attack 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)
                “I will do such things –What they are, yet I know not: but they shall beThe terrors of the earth.”                           Shakespeare’s “King Lear”                       A year ago, in August 2012, US President Barack Obama promised "enormous consequences" if Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in the civil conflict raging in Syria. He called it “crossing the red line.” Over the past year reports and evidence of a series of chemical attacks by the Syrian military have accumulated.  Insofar as Obama responded at all, he confined himself to calling for incontrovertible proof that it was indeed the Assad government that was responsible before he could contemplate unleashing the unspecified “enormous consequences” that he had threatened. Ducking and diving around the issue, he appeared unwilling to acknowledge that what had happened had indeed happened.
And then, on Wednesday August 21, the world’s TV sets carried horrific pictures of what is generally accepted to have been the largest chemical attack on civilians since former president of Iraq Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of his own Kurdish citizens in Halabja in March 1988. Following that, for three full days, as videos were being shown nightly of the dead in their hundreds – made infinitely more poignant by the rows of dead children – and rebel fighters were demanding why the world was doing nothing, there was a deathly silence from the White House.
Both France’s President François Hollande and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, declared that they believed the Assad régime was responsible for the poison gas attack against Syrian civilians.  Finally President Obama spoke. The episode was a matter “of grave concern.” Mind you, he would need to seek international support before taking large-scale action. Cause for more delay. And if investigations proved what others had been saying, ie that Assad’s military was responsible, it would indeed “require America’s attention.”  Further delay, while agreement is sought from the Syrian authorities for the investigation – and while evidence of the attacks dissipates or is removed.
International pressure has induced the Assad régime to permit an investigation. United Nations weapons experts will visit the site of the alleged poison gas attack on Monday August 26. While the team begins "on-site fact-finding activities," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office says that Syria has promised to observe a ceasefire at the site in the suburbs of Damascus.
Jonathan Halevi, writing for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, observes that the Syrian régime knew very well that the results of a chemical-weapons attack could not be covered up. Its decision nevertheless to perpetrate one, and now to permit an investigation, reflects its assessment that, under current political conditions and with its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian backing (including threats of revenge attacks in the Persian Gulf), the international community is incapable of dislodging it.
As if to underline its position of strength, the Syrian government and its Iranian allies have been issuing blood-curdling threats about the consequences of any military action by the US against the regime.  It would "create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East," says Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi.
President Obama seems absolutely determined that US boots will not touch Syrian soil. But that does not mean that he has been without options for cowing the Assad regime, or that he lacks them now. As Middle East observer Peter Foster remarks, he could have armed the rebels, as they begged him to, before al-Qaida and the other Sunni jihadist fighters poured into the country and rendered that possibility too dangerous.  He could at any time have ordered a no-fly zone to cover Syria.
Indeed, that option remains open to him. It is reported that General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Jordan recently to inaugurate a new Forward Command center, manned by 273 US officers. The installation is reportedly bomb-and-missile-proof against a possible Syrian attack. Obama’s final decision on US military intervention – which could consist of establishing a no-fly and a buffer zone in Syria – could come in the next two to three weeks, depending on Dempsey’s recommendations. 
The US Air Force command section is said to be in direct communication with US, Israeli, Jordanian and Saudi Air Force headquarters, and stands ready for an order by President Obama to impose a partial no-fly zone over Syrian air space. As regards the buffer zone, the plan appears to be for the area as far as Damascus to be captured by 3,000 rebels, who have been trained in special operations tactics and armed by US forces in Jordan. The operation would be spearheaded by Jordanian special forces under US command.
The consequences of either or both these operations might indeed be as devastating as Syria has threatened.  Assad could take the fight outside his borders by launching missiles against Israel and Jordan.  From inside Lebanon, Hezbollah may join in with rocket attacks on Israel. Iran would enhance its military presence in Syria, and might decide to render the Hormuz strait non-navigable. Meanwhile, Russian rapid intervention units are on standby for saving Assad at their Black Sea and South Caucasian bases. In short, the danger of the conflict escalating into a full-scale Middle East war is very real.
Which is why General Dempsey has so far favored President Obama’s softly-softly approach to taking action of any kind.  In an August 19 letter to US Representative Eliot Engel, Dempsey effectively ruled out even limited intervention, including US cruise missile attacks and other options that wouldn't require US troops on the ground. "We can destroy the Syrian air force," he said. "The loss of Assad's air force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict.”
So he believes that “the best framework for an effective US strategy towards Syria” is for the US to provide far greater humanitarian assistance and, if asked, do more to bolster a moderate opposition.
But Dempsey’s letter was written before the Assad régime, casting all caution to the winds, launched its chemical weapon attack on the forces opposing it and the civilians who happened to get in the way. If the UN investigation proves beyond a peradventure that Assad has indeed gassed hundreds of his own citizens, both General Dempsey and his Commander in Chief, President Obama, may decide that enough is enough, and take active steps to curb Assad’s military operations and support the opposition. What may follow is in the lap of the gods. 
A matter of grave concern indeed.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (