June 29, 2015

Syrian regime might use chemical weapons - how is that possible?

In what can only be regarded as an embarrassing turn of events for the Obama Administration, U.S. intelligence agencies are warning that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad may again resort to the use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebel forces, or the forces of the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front) and possibly the fighters of the so-called "The Islamic State" (more commonly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS).

Syrian forces are under pressure as they try to fight on multiple fronts against the various groups arrayed against the regime. Although the anti-regime forces usually do not cooperate with each other, or coordinate their operations against the Syrian army, nonetheless they are taking a toll on the Syrian military. The recent introduction of the American-made TOW anti-tank guided missile has increased the capabilities of at least one of the anti-regime forces against Syria's army and militias.

Why is this intelligence assessment embarrassing to the Obama Administration?

In the summer of 2013, Syrian forces conducted chemical attacks on Free Syrian Army positions in the eastern suburbs of Damascus called the East Ghutah. The chemical used in the attacks was the nerve agent sarin (known as GB in the chemical warfare community), delivered by artillery rockets. Almost 1,500 people - mostly innocent civilians - were killed in the attacks.

Only months earlier, President Obama stated in a news conference that if the United States intelligence community detected the movement of Syrian chemical weapons from storage depots, he would be inclined to take action to preclude the Syrian regime's use of the weapons.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in effect called his bluff in August by not only moving chemical weapons from their depots, but actually firing them from garrisons of the Republican Guard atop a mountain overlooking Damascus. (See my articles on these attacks: Syrian Chemical Weapons Strikes - Random Attacks or Viable Military Targets?, and Syria: United Nations report does not blame the regime for chemical weapons use - really?)

Although it appeared that President Obama was waffling in his decision to take the military action he had threatened, his advisers warned him that what remained of his credibility was at stake. Reluctantly, he ordered the Pentagon to ready military strikes on Syrian chemical warfare facilities. However, our generally ineffectual Secretary of State John Kerry made an off-hand comment at a news conference that the Syrians could avert American retaliation by giving up their stockpile of chemical weapons.

Anyone* who has ever worked or lived in Syria got a chuckle out of the thought that the regime of Bashar al-Asad would give up his chemical weapons. Syria maintains its chemical weapons arsenal and delivery systems to provide a deterrent against an attack by the vastly-superior (and nuclear-equipped) Israeli armed forces. Its ballistic missiles and squadron of SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers can deliver chemical weapons virtually anywhere in Israel.

The thought that the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons arsenal was, and remains, ludicrous. However, the Syrians' primary sponsor - Russia - saw an opportunity to back Kerry and the United States into a corner. The Russians announced that they had brokered a deal in which the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons in return for an American commitment to call off impending military action against Syria. Obama jumped at the chance.

This "deal" put in motion a carefully orchestrated charade by the Russians and Syrians. Almost immediately after al-Asad's acceptance of the Russian-brokered agreement, there were numerous flights of Syrian Air Force IL-76 (NATO: CANDID) heavy transport aircraft between Syria and Iran. One has to wonder about the cargo of these sorties that occurred days after the Syrians agreed to surrender their chemical weapons.

The Syrians did surrender tons of chemical weapons and precursor chemicals, including artillery shells and aerial bombs, to the United Nations organization tasked with the implementation of the removal and destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal.

However, at no time did the Syrians surrender any warheads designed for their arsenal of Russian, Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles, missiles that can range virtually any spot in Israel. I think it safe to assume that these warheads are now located either at a location in Syria considered to be safe, or have been moved to safe haven in Iran, or a combination of both.

So now in the early summer of 2015, American intelligence issues a warning that the Syrian regime may be contemplating the use of chemical weapons. Is anyone asking where these chemical weapons came from? Was there not a huge victory lap in 2013 as Syria agreed to rid itself of chemical weapons?

Is any one going to be held accountable for being so gullible as to believe that the Syrians were going to surrender their entire chemical weapons arsenal? Or was it all a charade on both sides to give the Obama Administration an out from having to follow up on a "red line?"

* From 1992 to 1995, I served as the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. It was part of my brief to monitor the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces, including their chemical warfare capabilities.