Who persuaded the president that after standing by while 100,000 Syrians were slaughtered, he had to stake America’s prestige and possibly his entire second term on a military response to Bashar Assad’s second (or sixth, or is it his tenth?) use of chemical weapons?
Ronald Reagan and George Bush did nothing when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons throughout the 1980s. As Michael Dobbs of The Post reported in 2002, “U.S. condemnation of Iraqi use of chemical weapons ranked relatively low on the scale of administration priorities, particularly compared with the all-important goal of preventing an Iranian victory [in the Iran-Iraq war].”
Where Congress stands on Syria
Lawmakers appear to be tentatively dividing into four camps over military action in Syria. Each dot represents a lawmaker who has indicated how he or she might vote, and the sentiment of the quote is mapped across the four categories. Among the lawmakers mapped below are members of leadership and several “people to watch,” a category comprising influential or opinionated individuals, committee chairmen and 2016 presidential hopefuls.
Hillary Clinton was right when she said during her run for president in 2008 that Barack Obama lacked foreign-policy experience. Her claim resulted in a campaign commercial about which of them could better be trusted to take a 3 a.m. call to the White House.
As Foreign Policy Magazine recalls, “(Bill) Clinton also attacked Obama’s lack of experience in interviews with Al Hunt and Charlie Rose in the final months of 2007, arguing that Obama was ill-equipped to handle foreign-policy issues like terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The world is again witnessing the peril of on-the-job training. Apparently Jimmy Carter’s ineptitude taught us nothing.
US consulate attack in Benghazi: a challenge to official version of events
A year after the first US ambassador in 33 years was killed on duty, Chris Stephen, one of the first western reporters on the scene in Benghazi, pieces together what really happened from witness accounts, official reports, and the ruins of the compound
In some places, lawmakers didn’t even need to call meetings to hear voters’ thoughts about Syria. The opinions came to them. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) RepAndyHarrisMDwrote on Twitter that constituents who had contacted his office had opposed intervention, 523 to 4. Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) said the count in his office was 75 to 0.
Representative Elijah E. Cummings, who represents a district that includes parts of Baltimore and has not decided how he stands on attacking Syria, said the pressure from his constituents to oppose the president’s plan is unmistakable. When he visited a grocery store on Wednesday, he said, almost a dozen people told him they thought intervening in Syria was a bad idea. None of them expressed support.
“If you’ve got 95 percent of them saying one thing, it becomes far more difficult to go against them,” he said, adding that the president needed to make a more forceful and convincing case to the public if he wanted Congressional consent for an attack. “As a good friend of his and someone who supports him, I think he’s got to help the Congress help him.”
One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.
“They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic,” he said.
So what is Obama’s objective in Syria? In an interview with PBS, Obama said it would be to fire a “shot across the bow” of the Syrian regime. Huh? A “shot across the bow” is a warning shot. It is designed to send a message that a far more devastating response will follow if the target does not alter its behavior. But Obama has already ruled out broader military action. “I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria,” he said last week. “I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me.”
In other words, he’s just planning to blow some stuff up.
It is true that U.S. credibility is at stake given Obama’s red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. But the purposefully weak response Obama is planning — one he has telegraphed weeks in advance, allowing the Assad regime to move assets out of harm’s way — will do nothing to salvage U.S. credibility. Quite the opposite: A “shot across the bow” could embolden every potential adversary who might consider testing America’s resolve on the world stage. It could produce blowback in ways we cannot imagine — and in ways that may not be related to Syria.
…“Leading from behind” was bad enough. “Just muscular enough not to get mocked” will embolden our enemies, weaken our security and make the United States the world’s laughing stock.
Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval was sudden, verging on erratic. He was certainly correct when he said Saturday that “our democracy is stronger when the president and the people’s representatives stand together.”
But that raises an uncomfortable question: Why didn’t the president plan to seek authorization from the start? How can this request to Congress be reconciled with Obama’s willingness to act unilaterally in Libya — indeed, to argue that, months after the operation began, he did not need congressional authorization because the bombing campaign did not amount to the kind of “hostilities” contemplated by the War Powers Act?
In shifting course, the White House — or, more precisely, the president, since much of his staff was understandably skittish about seeking congressional support — was influenced by the British experience. Parliament’s rebuff of Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for approval to intervene in Syria put the White House in a difficult position, making it look as if democracy was fine for the United Kingdom but too dicey for the United States. Meanwhile, the blowback from Congress and the public has been fiercer than the White House anticipated.
Obama couched his decision in high-minded terms, as “president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy” and a believer in government by the people. But numerous members of Congress, including some of his own party, sniffed a less lofty motive — seeking political cover for an unpopular move.
The Obama team has clearly struggled with its Syria policy, but, in fairness, this is a wickedly complex problem. We need a policy response that simultaneously deters another Syrian poison gas attack, doesn’t embroil America in the Syrian civil war and also doesn’t lead to the sudden collapse of the Syrian state with all its chemical weapons, or, worse, a strengthening of the Syrian regime and its allies Hezbollah and Iran. However, I think President Obama has the wrong strategy for threading that needle. He’s seeking Congressional support for a one-time “shock and awe” missile attack against Syrian military targets. The right strategy is “arm and shame.”
A nine-page declassified French intelligence report was released on Monday which claimed to show Assad forces had launched an attack on Damascus suburbs held by opposition units using a combination of conventional weapons and “the massive use of chemical weapons“.
STRINGER/FRANCE/REUTERS – The French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is seen in the Mediterranean port in Toulon. The French parliament will hold an extraordinary session on Sept. 4 to discuss the situation in Syria.
Top intelligence officials in two Middle East countries said they have examined the potential for bioweapons use by Syria, perhaps as retaliation for Western military strikes on Damascus. Although dwarfed by the country’s larger and better-known chemical weapons program, Syria’s bioweapons capability could offer the Assad regime a way to retaliate because the weapons are designed to spread easily and leave few clues about their origins, the officials said.
“We are worried about sarin, but Syria also has biological weapons, and compared to those, sarin is nothing,” said a senior Middle Eastern official, who like several others interviewed for this report agreed to discuss intelligence assessments on the condition that his name and nationality not be revealed. “We know it, and others in the region know it. The Americans certainly know it.”
…[Jill Bellamy] van Aalst, who has studied Syria’s weapons facilities for a decade as part of her research for a book, says the country’s bioweapons program, whatever its size, is capable of serious harm. Many of the basic elements have been in place for years, she said, including what she described as a full complement of lethal human and animal strains, from neurotoxin producers such as botulinum to the family of orthopox viruses such as camelpox and cowpox, both cousins to the microbe that causes smallpox.
“You don’t stockpile biological weapons anymore, because today it’s all about production capacity — and in Syria the production capacity is quite substantial,” van Aalst said. “The dual-use nature makes it very cost-effective. In down times, you can use the equipment for public health purposes, knowing you can ramp it up at any time. These are very agile programs.”
Other weapons experts view Syria’s biomedical expansion as intriguing but not necessarily alarming. “Syria has a chemical weapons program, so anything they do is suspect,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. “It’s easy to see the devil behind every woodpile. But I suspect there’s probably not a lot there.”
U.S. military officers have deep doubts about impact, wisdom of a U.S. strike on Syria
By Ernesto Londoño, Published: August 29
The Obama administration’s plan to launch a military strike against Syria is being received with serious reservations by many in the U.S. military, which is coping with the scars of two lengthy wars and a rapidly contracting budget, according to current and former officers.
Having assumed for months that the United States was unlikely to intervene militarily in Syria, the Defense Department has been thrust onto a war footing that has made many in the armed services uneasy, according to interviews with more than a dozen military officers ranging from captains to a four-star general.
Former and current officers, many with the painful lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan on their minds, said the main reservations concern the potential unintended consequences of launching cruise missiles against Syria.
Some questioned the use of military force as a punitive measure and suggested that the White House lacks a coherent strategy. If the administration is ambivalent about the wisdom of defeating or crippling the Syrian leader, possibly setting the stage for Damascus to fall to fundamentalist rebels, they said, the military objective of strikes on Assad’s military targets is at best ambiguous.
“There’s a broad naivete in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, who served as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the run-up to the Iraq war, noting that many of his contemporaries are alarmed by the plan.
New cycle of attacks?
Marine Lt. Col. Gordon Miller, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, warned this week of “potentially devastating consequences, including a fresh round of chemical weapons attacks and a military response by Israel.”
“If President Asadwere to absorb the strikes and use chemical weapons again, this would be a significant blow to the United States’ credibility and it would be compelled to escalate the assault on Syria to achieve the original objectives,” Miller wrote in a commentary for the think tank.
A National Security Council spokeswoman said Thursday she would not discuss “internal deliberations.” White House officials reiterated Thursday that the administration is not contemplating a protracted military engagement.
Still, many in the military are skeptical. Getting drawn into the Syrian war, they fear, could distract the Pentagon in the midst of a vexing mission: its exit from Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still being killed regularly. A young Army officer who is wrapping up a year-long tour there said soldiers were surprised to learn about the looming strike, calling the prospect “very dangerous.”
“I can’t believe the president is even considering it,” said the officer, who like most officers interviewed for this story agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because military personnel are reluctant to criticize policymakers while military campaigns are being planned. “We have been fighting the last 10 years a counterinsurgency war. Syria has modern weaponry. We would have to retrain for a conventional war.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned in great detail about the risks and pitfalls of U.S. military intervention in Syria.
“As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that use of force will move us toward the intended outcome,” Dempsey wrote last month in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”
Dempsey has not spoken publicly about the administration’s planned strike on Syria, and it is unclear to what extent his position shifted after last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack. Dempsey said this month in an interview with ABC News that the lessons of Iraq weigh heavily on his calculations regarding Syria.
“It has branded in me the idea that the use of military power must be part of an overall strategic solution that includes international partners and a whole of government,” he said in the Aug. 4 interview. “The application of force rarely produces and, in fact, maybe never produces the outcome we seek.”
The recently retired head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, said last month at a security conference that the United States has “no moral obligation to do the impossible” in Syria. “If Americans take ownership of this, this is going to be a full-throated, very, very serious war,” said Mattis, who as Centcom chief oversaw planning for a range of U.S. military responses in Syria.
The potential consequences of a U.S. strike include a retaliatory attack by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — which supports Assad — on Israel, as well as cyberattacks on U.S. targets and infrastructure, U.S. military officials said.
“What is the political end state we’re trying to achieve?” said a retired senior officer involved in Middle East operational planning who said his concerns are widely shared by active-duty military leaders. “I don’t know what it is. We say it’s not regime change. If it’s punishment, there are other ways to punish.” The former senior officer said that those who are expressing alarm at the risks inherent in the plan “are not being heard other than in a pro-forma manner.”
President Obama said in a PBS interview on Wednesday that he is not contemplating a lengthy engagement, but instead “limited, tailored approaches.”
A retired Central Command officer said the administration’s plan would “gravely disappoint our allies and accomplish little other than to be seen as doing something.”
“It will be seen as a half measure by our allies in the Middle East,” the officer said. “Iran and Syria will portray it as proof that the U.S. is unwilling to defend its interests in the region.”
Still, some within the military, while apprehensive, support striking Syria. W. Andrew Terrill, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Army War College, said the limited history of the use of chemical weapons in the region suggests that a muted response from the West can be dangerous.
“There is a feeling as you look back that if you don’t stand up to chemical weapons, they’re going to take it as a green light and use them on a recurring basis,” he said.
An Army lieutenant colonel said the White House has only bad options but should resist the urge to abort the plan now.
“When a president draws a red line, for better or worse, it’s policy,” he said, referring to Obama’s declaration last year about Syria’s potential use of chemical weapons. “It cannot appear to be scared or tepid. Remember, with respect to policy choices concerning Syria, we are discussing degrees of bad and worse.”
Heartbreaking video shows the moment a Syrian father collapsed in tears as he is reunited with young son he thought had been killed in chemical attack
The 7-minute footage allegedly recorded in the southwestern town of Zamalka – the site of last week’s massacre – was posted on YouTube Monday. The video, which is sure to make anyone tear up, shows a young man running out of a house, his face expressing both joy and pain, to embrace his toddler son. The father is so overcome with emotion that several men, presumably his relatives or neighbors, have to hold him back before he finally embraces his son
Viral: The tear-jerking clip has drawn more than 430,000 views, and counting
Syria’s darkest hour: Hundreds of children’s bodies piled high after nerve gas attack near
The activists said at least 213 people, including women and children, were killedy in a nerve gas attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces
Bodies of people, including children, activists say were killed by nerve gas
A young survivor of the alleged gas attack cries as he takes shelter inside a mosque
Syria’s darkest day? Opposition says up to 1,300 killed in ‘chemical weapons attacks by Assad forces’ on Damascus
Many of the victims were very young children, even babies
Kim Sengupta Defence Correspondent
Thursday 22 August 2013
The victims were laid out in a hospital, on beds and on the tiled floor, their eyes lifeless and staring. Many of them were very young children, even babies. Others were in convulsion, mouths foaming, as medics frantically tried to save them, using hand-pump respirators.
These were the scenes from videos showing, it was claimed by the Syrian opposition, the devastating aftermath of a massacre of more than 1,300 people by Bashar al-Assad’s forces using chemical weapons in Ghouta, east of Damascus.
The regime has denied the allegations, accusing “terrorists and their supporters” in the international media of disseminating false propaganda. Such recriminations have become standard in the vicious civil war. But, for the first time since reports of the use of weapons of mass destruction began to circulate, there is now a United Nations inspection team not only inside the country, but in the vicinity of the affected area. It arrived in the Syrian capital on Sunday after months of negotiations with the regime to investigate three occasions where chemical agents have, allegedly, been used in the past.
One of these was at the village of Khan al-Assal near Aleppo where the two sides in the conflict accused each other of carrying out the attack resulting in 26 deaths; the location of the other two sites has not been confirmed.
A number of Western states, including Britain, the US and France, asked the UN team to investigate the latest deaths. Following a closed-door emergency meeting tonight, the UN Security Council said it needed clarification on the attacks, but made no explicit call for a probe by the team in Syria. “There is a strong concern among council members about the allegations and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened and the situation must be followed closely,” said Argentina’s UN ambassador, Maria Cristina Perceval, after the meeting. Russia and China had opposed language that would have demanded a UN probe.
Earlier, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that if the claims were verified they would “mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons”. “I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realise its murderous and barbaric nature,” he added later. Russia had backed up the Assad regime’s denials, by saying the attack looked like a rebel “provocation” to discredit him.
The French President François Hollande declared it was imperative that the team be allowed “to shed full light” on what had taken place and the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle demanded that the inspectors be given immediate access.
The head of the 20-strong team of inspectors, Ake Sellstrom, a scientist from Sweden, said in Damascus: “It sounds like something that should be looked into. It will depend on whether any UN member state goes to the Secretary General and says we should look at this event. We are in place to do so.”
What happened was recent enough for the inspectors to be able to form a view on what had happened, according to specialists on chemical warfare. Such a development may have a major impact on the course of the conflict.
Evidence that the regime has indeed used WMDs, with such a massive number of fatalities, would greatly strengthen the hands of those pressing for large-scale supplies of advanced weapons to the rebels.
Evidence that the footage was fabricated would further dent the already fragile credibility of the disjointed opposition and weaken the position of their Western sponsors.
Ghazwan Bwidany, a doctor treating the casualties, held that the symptoms indicated the use of sarin gas. “It may be sarin, most probably it is sarin” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to treat all this number of people. We’re putting them in mosques, in schools. We are lacking medical supplies now, especially atropine, which is the antidote for chemical weapons.”
Bayan Baker, a nurse at the Douma Emergency Collection facility, initially put the death toll at 213. “Many of those affected are women and children. They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims.”
Local co-ordination committees of activists in the area said the numbers killed had risen to 1,360, while George Sabra, the deputy chief of the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella group of the opposition, announced a figure of 1,300. He said: “This is the coup de grâce which kills all hopes for a political solution in Syria. This is not the first time they have used chemical weapons, but it constitutes a significant turning point; this time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”
However, there are questions as to why the regime would want to have recourse to WMDs at a time when it was making gains using conventional arms and with the knowledge that UN inspectors were present in the country. “If you look at the way they have sought legitimacy through having the UN team there, in a carefully orchestrated fashion, with the help of the Russians and the Iranians, the use of chemical weapons does not make sense,” said a European diplomat.
Robert Emerson, a security analyst, added: “Assad has not been doing too badly in the publicity stakes with the excesses of Islamists among the rebels like the cannibal commander, et cetera. Deploying WMDs at this stage would be a hell of an own goal.”
Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, was also puzzled as to why the regime would carry out such an attack with UN experts there. But he continued: “It is clear that something terrible has happened. The scenes could not have been stage-managed. None of the victims appeared to have external wounds from blast, shrapnel or bullets. The footage seems to offer more convincing evidence of poisoning through asphyxiation – witness the pinkish-bluish hue on the faces of some of the fatalities. Further elements that seem to confirm exposure to toxicants are the unfocused and rolling eyes, severe breathing difficulties and possible signs of urination or defecation on trousers.”
Rebels wouldn’t back intervention, insists US general
The Obama administration is opposed to even limited US military intervention in Syria because it believes the rebels fighting the Assad regime wouldn’t support American interests if they were to seize power right now, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Effectively ruling out US cruise missile attacks and other options that wouldn’t require US troops on the ground, General Martin Dempsey said in a letter to a congressman that the military is clearly capable of taking out President Assad’s air force and shifting the balance of the Arab country’s two-and-a-half year war back towards the opposition.
But he said such an approach would plunge the US deep into another war in the Arab world and offer no strategy for peace in a nation plagued by ethnic rivalries.
“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” General Dempsey said in the 19 August letter to Eliot Engel. “The side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours… Today, they are not.”
Video Shows Victims of Suspected Syrian Chemical Attack
In trying to help Syria, an intervention would destroy it
By Steven A. Cook, Published: August 30
Steven A. Cook is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Syrians are fond of saying that their country is “the beating heart of the Arab world,” having played an outsize role in the history and politics of the region, from the Islamic golden age in the 7th century and the Arab Revolt during World War I to the Arab-Israeli wars. After 21 / 2 years of civil conflict, however, it is becoming more difficult to think of Syria as the spirit and soul of the region.
Among the catalogue of horrors that Bashar al-Assad and his supporters have perpetrated against their people, the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta on Aug. 21 is particularly egregious. The consensus in Washington is that this violation of international norms — like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait 23 summers ago — requires a military response. The Assad regime must be punished, and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un must be made to think long and hard before they resort to weapons of mass destruction, too. This view may be principled, but the Obama administration and its allies should understand that even limited intervention would hasten Syria’s demise.
There was a moment early in the Syrian crisis when one could imagine that foreign intervention would have had salutary effects. In January 2012, I wrote that it was “time to think seriously about intervening in Syria” and laid out moral and strategic arguments in a piece for the Atlantic’s Web site.
Syria’s political history, the record of the Assad family and the routine way in which the regime used coercion and force to ensure its security all supported the notion that Assad would kill his way out of his troubles. In 1982, when Hafez al-Assad was in power and his son Bashar was 17 years old, the regime pounded the rebellious city of Hama into submission, murdering an estimated 20,000 people in the process. By late 2011, Bashar al-Assad’s security forces were killing peaceful protesters. His phony commitments to reform notwithstanding, it was clear that the younger Assad had adopted his father’s strategy to reestablish control.
At that time, the conflict had killed 5,000 people, the vast majority at the hands of the regime. This was more than Moammar Gaddafi had killed on the eve of NATO operations in Libya. If Libyans deserved protection, then Syrians did, too. And it seemed that only military intervention of some type, rather than the chimera of a diplomatic-political solution, would prevent the bloodletting that was sure to come. Helping to bring down Assad also would contribute to the long-standing U.S. goal of isolating Iran, or at least make it more difficult for Tehran to stir up trouble in the Arab world.
That was then, about 95,000 deaths ago and before about 10 percent of the Syrian population fled the country. It was also before the present pathologies took hold. The Syrian civil war was formerly an uprising against the brutality of a despot. It has become a battle among sects and ethnicities over which group of Syrians should control the country; part of a fight for regional leadership involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran; and an extension of the battlefield on which al-Qaeda affiliates carry out their messianic violence.
The complex and dreadful evolution of the conflict has shaken the moral and strategic justifications for intervention, even a short one focused on punishing the regime for its use of chemical weapons and deterring future use.
The Obama administration has sought to limit the American response to Syria’s civil war, cognizant of domestic opposition to U.S. involvement and the fact that this president ran for office on the promise that he would disentangle the United States from Middle East conflicts. It realizes, too, that as much as Assad and his allies are despised in the Middle East, Washington’s use of force against yet another Arab and predominantly Muslim country would probably arouse further hostility toward America. There is another concern that should figure into the president’s calculations: The missile strikes the White House is contemplating would advance Syria’s dissolution.
Assad would remain defiant in the face of an attack. It is not as if he is constrained now, but he would probably step up the violence both to exert control within his country and to demonstrate that the United States and its allies cannot intimidate him. At the same time, the regime’s Iranian patrons and Hezbollah supporters would increase their investment in the conflict, meaning more weapons and more fighters pouring into Syria — resulting in more atrocities. And on the other side, Syrian opposition groups would welcome a steady stream of foreign fighters who care more about killing Alawites and Shiites than the fate of the country. This environment would heighten Syria’s substantial sectarian, ethnic and political divisions, pulling the country apart.
The formidable U.S. armed forces could certainly damage Assad’s considerably less potent military. But in an astonishing irony that only the conflict in Syria could produce, American and allied cruise missiles would be degrading the capability of the regime’s military units to the benefit of the al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting Assad — the same militants whom U.S. drones are attacking regularly in places such as Yemen. Military strikes would also complicate Washington’s longer-term desire to bring stability to a country that borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.
Unlike Yugoslavia, which ripped itself apart in the 1990s, Syria has no obvious successor states, meaning there would be violence and instability in the heart of the Middle East for many years to come.