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August 28, 2013 11:37 pm

Analysts: Weak U.S. Action in Syria Could Embolden Assad, Iran

avatar by Joshua Levitt

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Damascus, Syria. Photo: WikiCommons.

Damascus, Syria. Photo: WikiCommons.

As the world waited on Wednesday for the U.S. government to attack the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad after he crossed President Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons, residents of the region prepared for possible fallout from a strike, armies maneuvered their troops, and analysts questioned U.S. resolve for hitting Syria with enough force to send a decisive message.

In the Middle East, residents were on edge. In Israel, long lines gathered for government issued gas mask kits and syringes of atropine, an antidote for chemical weapons poisoning. One distribution center was mobbed, and gas mask kits were looted. Israeli MKs pointed to a recent budget cut of NIS 1.3 billion ($364 million) now needed to supply the 4 out of 10 Israelis who still don’t own gas masks. In Kiryat Shemona, in the north of Israel, along the country’s border with Lebanon and Syria, 140 bomb shelters were opened by local authorities, Israel’s Channel 2 reported. Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces called up reserve soldiers and placed an additional Iron Dome missile defense battery in the north. In Turkey, missile batteries were pointed in the direction of Syria, according to Turkish daily Today’s Zaman. In Lebanon, a former AFP correspondent who blogs at Syria Deeply, a news website created to cover the crisis in the country, told Twitter followers: “Everyone getting mentally prepared for strikes over here… It’s like watching a slow motion car accident.”

Over the last three days, in Amman, Jordan, defense chiefs and generals from 10 nations, including Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, met with U.S. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the response to the Syrian chemical weapons charges, but no information had been shared by the allied military forces on Wednesday.

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On the ground, the U.S. has 1,000 troops based in Jordan, including a headquarters unit, and an F-16 fighter detachment, at Jordan’s Mafraq air base, as well as Patriot anti-missile systems at two sites in the kingdom, according to a report from U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, published Sunday. The USS Kearsarge, a Marine amphibious assault ship, is reported to be approaching Aqaba— Jordan’s sole port—and the U.S. Navy has deployed an extra destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean, bringing to four the number of warships in the area capable of firing cruise missiles against land targets, according to Stars and Stripes.

The Jordanian military, numbering 120,000 troops, has deployed combat units to the border with Syria to prevent a spillover of the ongoing fighting between Assad and Syrian rebel groups, and manage the Syrian refugees — about 600,000 so far — who have fled across the frontier into Jordan.

The Syrian regime has responded to the allied “drums of war” and growing military build up in the Mediterranean, with threats of their own for reprisals against Israel and promises that Moscow will respond  in the country’s defense. Iran’s Director-General at the Parliament for International Affairs, Hossein Sheikholeslam, told the country’s national FARS news agency, “No military attack will be waged against Syria. Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack.”

Mohammad Esmayeeli, member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, told FARS, “The U.S., as well as the western and Arab states and certain regional countries, are beating the drums of war, but they should know that this is not to their benefit. If [it] starts a war with Syria, the U.S. will not achieve its desired and needed results. Russia will likely stand up to these threats.”

The ratcheting escalation now falls on U.S. President Barack Obama, who, analysts said, needs to follow through on what he laid out when he declared the use of chemical weapons his “red line” for Syria.

“Perhaps for the fourth time now, Assad’s used chemicals weapons, and this was just the most egregious,” said Dr. Michael Makovsky, newly appointed  CEO of JINSA, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a non-profit that brings leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces and their supporters into contact with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel, in an interview with The Algemeiner. “Obama has said that is the ‘red line,’ with serious consequences, so now the world is waiting to see how Obama responds.”

“I can appreciate that Obama doesn’t want to be seen like [previous U.S. President George W.] Bush and overreact, but the ‘red line’ he set was chemical weapons, and that’s what we have here,” said Dr. Makovsky, who was the former Foreign Policy Director for the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank,  where he specialized in Iran policy. “This is an opportunity for the Obama administration to show serious mettle; a lot of people are going to be watching this strike, particularly in Iran.”

“If the U.S. does not strike a serious blow, it doesn’t do serious damage, doesn’t impact chemical weapons capability, doesn’t impact the regime’s abilities, it could boomerang to Iran’s benefit. Another limited strike could actually embolden Assad and the Iranians,” Dr. Makovsky said.

The question of how much force might be expected was partially answered on Wednesday by Obama administration leaks to the media that called for ‘limited’ cruise missile strikes, likely fired by U.S. ships rather than planes.

“A big response is needed to preserve U.S. deterrence, but too big means risk escalation,” said Eytan Sosnovich, a former Middle East analyst for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who plotted out a decision process tree that Obama’s “red line” might have led him towards. Unfortunately, Sosnovich pointed out, Obama “should have thought it all out before drawing the red line.”

A “limited strike” with only cruise missiles shows “a more nervous approach,” like [former President Bill] “Clinton in Sudan,” Dr. Makovsky said, “as Israelis would use airplanes, as they have to attack certain installations or truck convoys, so it will be very important to watch out what kind of attack is launched, and what that signals. The U.S. needs to send a serious signal that chemical weapons can’t be used, that countries can’t go against UN Security Council resolutions, regarding chemical weapons, and, by extension, for Iran, nuclear weapons. The big game here is Iran.”

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