How did the US know that Syria was about to use chemical weapons?
January 9, 2013 3 Comments
By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Early last December, United States President Barack Obama issued a surprise warning to the government of Syria, saying that if it made “the tragic mistake” of using chemical weapons against rebel forces, there would be “immediate consequences”. Most observers took this as a clear indication that the US was prepared to intervene militarily in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Today, a month after Obama’s December ultimatum, one question is still in need of an official answer: namely, how did the United States come to suspect that the Syrians were contemplating using chemical weapons? An article by The New York Times‘ Eric Schmitt and Dave Sanger suggests that Washington was alarmed in late November by a tip-off from Israeli intelligence. According to The Times, the Israelis shared with officials at the US Department of Defense a series of satellite images showing Syrian government troops transporting tank-loads of chemicals to at least two storage sites along the country’s border with Jordan. The paper, which says it confirmed this information by speaking to “half a dozen military, intelligence and diplomatic officials”, claims that Syrian troops were ordered to load sarin nerve gas onto dozens of 500-pound bombs. The plan was for the bombs to be secretly transported by land to military air bases and from there onto planes, pending final approval by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Israelis, the bombs could be airborne less than two hours after Assad’s order. By the time the information from the Israelis reached President Obama, American military commanders realized they had been caught by surprise, as there was no time to act in the two hours that it would take the Syrians to deploy the bombs. After some quick thinking, Obama decided to issue a sharp public warning against the Assad regime, which was coupled by private warnings communicated to the Syrian government by Iraqi, Turkish, and possibly Russian and Jordanian envoys, say The Times. The bluff appears to have worked —for now. It is believed that the Syrian government’s chemical stockpiles remain under the control of Unit 450, an aggressively pro-Assad organization within the Syrian Air Force. There is little indication that the Syrian military is turning against Assad and —to add to the complex mix— it is difficult to ascertain whether chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict. The Times suggests that, even if sarin or other chemicals were deployed by the Syrian government, “it would take time for the outside world to know”. Moreover, putting aside Russia and China’s objections to foreign military intervention, an invasion of Syria by the US and its allies would require a minimum of 75,000 troops, according to Pentagon estimates. Is Washington prepared to send troops to the Middle East so soon after the Iraq debacle? Or will Obama give in to Israeli plans to simply bomb Syrian Air Force bases and chemical weapons installations? It may not be too long before we find out the answer.