|File photos of the USS Eisenhower (top) and the USS Iwo Jima|
The Iraq playbook is all set for Syria:
- The American aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower has arrived at the Syrian coast, joining the USS Iwo Jima amphibious assault ship.
- France is said to be lining up a relatively small contingent of its Special Forces -- Brigade des forces spéciales terre (BFST) -- for a mission in Syria.
- U.S. officials confirm the Syrian military have loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs to be used against rebel fighters.
- Overnight, the US Senate voted nearly unanimously to assess military options to cripple President Bashar al-Assad’s air force. Lawmakers said the action aims to stop the killing of civilians.
|Rebels along the perimeter of Damascus airport|
The big question though is whether these are simply deterrence measures or concrete steps for imminent direct intervention. Only time will tell.
But either way, they come after opposition forces scored a series of tactical victories around Syria in recent weeks, overrunning military bases and airports, closing in steadily on Damascus and halting air traffic at the capital's international airport for days.
According to RT, the first Russian 24/7 English-language news channel which brings the Russian view on global news, the USS Eisenhower, an American aircraft carrier that holds eight fighter-bomber squadrons and 8,000 men, arrived at the Syrian coast yesterday in the midst of a heavy storm, indicating U.S. preparation for a potential ground intervention.
While the Obama administration has not announced any sort of American-led military intervention in the war-torn country, the U.S. is now ready to launch such action “within days” if President Assad decides to use chemical weapons against the opposition, The Times reports.
The USS Eisenhower joins the USS Iwo Jima amphibious assault ship, which holds about 2,500 Marines.
“We have (U.S.) special operations forces at the right posture, they don’t have to be sent,” an unnamed U.S. official told The Australian, which suggested that US military troops are already near Syria and ready to intervene in the conflict, if necessary.
If the U.S. decides to intervene militarily in Syria, it now has at its disposal 10,000 fighting men, 17 warships, 70 fighter-bombers, 10 destroyers and frigates and a guided-missile cruiser. Some of the vessels are also equipped with Aegis missile interceptors to shoot down any missiles Syria might have at hand, according to DEBKAfile.
“The muscle is already there to be flexed,” a U.S. official told the London Times about the U.S. military’s presence off Syria’s coast. “It’s premature to say what could happen if a decision is made to intervene. That hasn’t taken shape; we’ve not reached that kind of decision. There are a lot of options, but it [military action] could be launched rapidly, within days.”
The move comes after NATO made a significant strategic decision Tuesday to deploy Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems in Turkey on the border with Syria where opposition groups have their stronghold. The Patriots would be able to protect Turkey from potential Syrian missiles that could contain chemical weapons, as well as intimidate Syrian pilots from bombing the northern Syria border towns, which the armed rebels control. Syria is thought to have about 700 missiles.
“The protection from NATO will be three dimensional; one is the short-range Patriots, the second is the middle-range Terminal High Altitude Air Defense [THAD] system and the last is the AEGIS system, which counters missiles that can reach outside the atmosphere,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
DEBKAfile’s anonymous military sources claim the THAD and Aegis arrived at the Syrian coast aboard the USS Eisenhower.
France in turn is preparing a small contingent of its Special Forces for Syria action.
The French weekly Le Point says the move appears to be in response to fears the regime intends using chemical weapons against rebel forces closing in on Damascus. It says a large ground operation "is out of the question" and a move to secure chemical weapon stockpiles is possible.
With mounting fears the capital will become the next major battlefield in the 21-month-old Syria conflict, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday Assad’s army has effectively loaded chemical weapons into bombs and is awaiting his order to use them against insurgents.
The officials said the army loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto opposition forces from fighter-bombers.
As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence the process of mixing the "precursor" chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.
Sarin is an extraordinarily lethal agent. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces killed 5,000 Kurds with a single sarin attack on Halabja in 1988.
U.S. officials stressed the sarin bombs hadn't been loaded onto planes as yet and Assad hadn't issued a final order to use them.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated U.S. warnings to Assad not to use chemical weapons, saying he would be crossing "a red line" if he did.
Speaking Wednesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Clinton said the Syrian government was on the brink of collapse, raising the prospect that "an increasingly desperate Assad regime" might turn to chemical weapons or that the banned weapons could fall into other hands.
Aides told NBC News Clinton was expected next week to officially recognize the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, with which she is scheduled to meet in Morocco.
On Capitol Hill meanwhile, the 100-seat U.S. Senate voted almost unanimously to assess military options to cripple the Assad’s air force. Legislators said the action aims to stop the killing of civilians.
Ninety-two Senators voted to move forward with a Pentagon report on possible military options in Syria, with six opposing the legislation.
The bill in question gives Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta 90 days in which to carry out the study and report back to the Senate with the findings, aimed at “advancing the goals of President Obama of stopping the killing of civilians in Syria and creating conditions for a transition to a democratic, pluralistic, political system in Syria."
The report will detail three military options, including the deployment of Patriot missiles in the Syria-Turkey border zone, the creation of a no-fly zone and the possibility of airstrikes on key government air bases.