The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?
Activity at a Syrian chemical weapons depot has prompted Hillary Clinton to warn against any use of these devices. The AP reports: "WASHINGTON -- U.S. and allied intelligence have detected Syrian movement of chemical weapons components in recent days, a senior U.S. defense official said Monday, as the Obama administration again warned the Assad regime against using them."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Prague for meetings with Czech officials, reiterated President Barack Obama's declaration that Syrian action on chemical weapons was a "red line" for the United States that would prompt action.
Readers will recall the New York Times recently emphasized the difficulty in securing these stockpiles. It reported that "the Pentagon has told the Obama administration that any military effort to seize Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons would require upward of 75,000 troops" raising doubts about the credibility of Clinton's warning.
The estimated size of the potential effort, provided to the White House by the military’s Central Command and Joint Staff, called into question whether the United States would have the resources to act quickly if it detected the movement of chemical weapons and forced President Obama, as he said in August, to “change my calculus” about inserting American forces into Syria. So far Mr. Obama has avoided direct intervention into the most brutal civil conflict to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings, and the Pentagon assessment was seen as likely to reinforce that reluctance.
Just what Hillary could do if Syria crosses her Red Line is an interesting question. Perhaps having kicked the can down the road for so long the Obama administration may find that it is too late to turn the Titanic away from the iceberg. The AP article cited above said:
An administration official said the trigger for U.S. action of some kind is the use of chemical weapons or movement with the intent to use or provide them to a terrorist group like Hezbollah. ... Syria is believed to have several hundred ballistic surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads.
Its arsenal is a particular threat to the American allies, Turkey and Israel, and Obama singled out the threat posed by the unconventional weapons earlier this year as a potential cause for deeper U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war.
Fears that Assad may use the devices has been prompted by reports of rebels pressing in on the airport at Damascus and unconfirmed stories that the Syrian regime can no longer adequately treat its wounded at the military hospitals.
Just now the UN has announced it is withdrawing all non-essential staff from Syria and "put those who remain in the country on standby to move to places of safety". Other reports say that a key Syrian foreign ministry official has decamped for Britain under circumstances that are still unclear.
Reports say that Russia has is preparing to evacuate its nationals from Syria [fixed]. "According to the Kremlin’s Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian emergency services have reserved several planes to evacuate Russian nationals from Syria. These people are officials, engineers and Russian wives."
Vladimir Putin has met with Turkish PM Erdogan today on "a trip focused on resolving sharp differences over the near 21-month conflict raging in Syria"
The Economist speculates that Assad may be shortening his lines and preparing to move his troops into the long-mooted Alawite enclave. It is giving up untenable swathes of the north and falling back, possibly taking its chemical weapons with it.
The regime has proved remarkably reluctant to pull garrisons and bases out of northern areas largely controlled by the rebels, but it may soon be forced to consolidate in Damascus and up the highway to Latakia, the coastal heartland of the Alawite sect, to which the ruling Assads belong. The government has already largely withdrawn its forces from the east, where rebels have moved in from the Iraqi border to the edge of Deir Ezzor, the main city in the region, snatching bases along the way. Military analysts now suspect it may do the same in the rural areas of Aleppo and Idleb in the north.
That may be what Hillary hopes for. Obama administration inaction has left it woefully unprepared to handle an Assad collapse in place. Now everything may depend on how well Assad's generals can retreat under fire.
What seems obvious is that the crisis in Syria may come to a head before the US decides whether it will support the Syrian rebels. The speed of the events may have caught the administration, as ever, by surprise. It seems more than possible that Assad's chemical weapons will either be used in the last spasms of the regime or fall into the hands of whoever controls the ground.