Tuesday 11 June 2013

“The Amateur” Obama weighs his Syria options

Would U.S. President Barack Obama -- who former President Bill Clinton dismissed as an incompetent “amateur” who “doesn’t know how the world works” – approve arming Syrian opposition forces this week?
I doubt very much, though I hope he proves me wrong.
The Obama administration ordered strategy sessions on Syria after thousands of Iran’s Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen poured into the country to help regime forces capture the border town of Qusayr last week and press on with a campaign to clear rebels across the heart of Syria.
Top aides from the State and Defense Departments, the CIA, and other agencies gathered for a ‘‘deputies meeting’’ at the White House yesterday, with officials saying a decision on arming beleaguered rebels could happen later this week.
They were seeking to lay the groundwork for a meeting that President Obama will hold with his senior national security staff, reportedly planned for tomorrow, Wednesday.
Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned Middle East trip to participate in the White House discussions.
While nothing has been concretely decided, U.S. officials said President Obama was leaning closer toward signing off on sending weapons to vetted, moderate rebel units.
Obama already has ruled out any intervention that would require U.S. military boots on the ground.
Other options such as deploying American air power to ground the regime's jets, gunships and other aerial assets are now being more seriously debated, the officials said, while cautioning that a no-fly zone or any other action involving U.S. military deployments in Syria were far less likely right now.
The president also has declared chemical weapons use by the Assad regime a "redline" for more forceful U.S. action.
American allies, including France and Britain, determined with near certitude that Syrian forces have used low levels of sarin in several attacks, but the administration is still studying the evidence. The U.S. officials said responses that will be mulled over in this week's meetings concern the deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria, independent of final confirmation of possible chemical weapons use.
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the Obama administration was continually looking at ways to strengthen the opposition but had nothing new to announce.
"At the president's direction, his national security team continues to consider all possible options that would accomplish our objectives of helping the Syrian opposition serve the essential needs of the Syrian people and hastening a political transition to a post-Assad Syria," she said.
"We have prepared a wide range of options for the president's consideration, and internal meetings to discuss the situation in Syria are routine," she said. "The United States will continue to look for ways to strengthen the capabilities of the Syrian opposition, though we have no new announcements at this time."
One reason why I expect the president to continue slow walking on Syria is his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the June 17-18 G8 summit in Northern Ireland’s Lough Erne.
I can’t imagine him burying the planned Geneva-2 peace conference agreed with Russia by announcing any time soon an overt and unequivocal measure to shore up the Syrian opposition.
Editorially, columnist Elias Harfouche, writing today for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, says:
The Syrians did not need the Qusayr tragedy to ascertain the depth of the Obama Administration’s treachery and deceit.
Obama told them time and again Assad’s days are numbered, the use of chemical weapons is a redline and the massacre of civilians is unacceptable.
All the Syrians got from these empty promises and farcical warnings was more killings, massacres and sarin gas attacks by the Syrian regime…
The Syrians never asked the Obama Administration to put U.S. boots on the ground and fight the regime on their behalf. All they asked for was a modicum of power balance on the ground.
They appealed to the United States not to prevent her allies from putting their shoulder to the wheel of the opposition, at a time when President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was being fully armed and funded by Iran and having its military arsenal ceaselessly replenished by Russia.
The bystander president is not only undermining America’s national interests, but also our region’s confessional and social stability.
His ill thought withdrawal of U.S. troops presented Iraq to Iran on a silver platter. His spineless response to Iran and Hezbollah’s brazen intervention in the Syria fighting was an expression of “concern.”
Obama has proved to be ignorant of the region’s history and sensitivities by allowing Iraq and Syria – once cradles of the two most important empires in Arab history – to fall into the lap of Iran, the Arab world’s strategic rival for power and influence…
Russia on Golan
Separately, Israel has given Russia an official reply to its offer to send peacekeepers to the Golan Heights, but does not want to make that reply public, an Israeli deputy foreign minister told RIA Novosti yesterday. Other Israeli officials have revealed contradictory feelings about the offer.
“Israel’s position was expressed openly and unambiguously during a conversation between the two countries’ leaders. Sometimes there are things that are best left on that level,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said, referring to a telephone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Putin.
Putin on Friday said Russia was ready to deploy troops to the Golan Heights to replace nearly 400 Austrian peacekeepers being pulled out of a UN monitoring mission due to intense fighting in Syria.
Although Elkin was tightlipped about Israel’s reply to Putin’s offer, other officials have revealed conflicting views about Russian troops in the area.
Israeli Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirshenbaum, currently on a visit to Moscow, said Monday she thought Israel would not oppose the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.
“If President Putin has decided to deploy his forces there, I don’t think Israel will oppose that. We always want somebody to be there to monitor the situation,” she told Ekho Moskvy radio. “We would like any forces that could assume responsibility. Those can be Russian, Austrian or Australian. That doesn’t make any difference to us at all.”
Yuval Steinitz, Israeli minister of international, intelligence and strategic affairs, said Friday that Putin’s idea of sending Russian peacekeepers to the Golan Heights to replace the Austrian contingent was “unrealistic.”
In Beirut, Rosanna Boumounsef, in her column today for the independent daily an-Nahar, notes that the Syrian army has asked the IDF not to hit its tanks in the Golan and that contrary to its 1974 Disengagement Agreement with Syria, Israel is allowing Assad’s army to keep a military presence in the area of separation of forces.
She quotes from UN Report this part of a note submitted to the Security Council last Friday by UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous:
During the (June 6) clashes, SAAF (Syrian Arab Armed Forces) reinforced its presence in the area of separation with five main battle tanks and five armored personnel carriers, moving in the direction of Quneitra. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) informed the UNDOF (UN Disengagement Observe Force) Force Commander that should the movement of SAAF tanks continue, the IDF would take action. Subsequently, the UNDOF Force Commander conveyed the message to the Senior Syrian Arab Delegate (SSAD), UNDOF’s main interlocutor on the Bravo side. The SSAD informed the UNDOF Force Commander that the presence of the tanks was solely for the purpose of fighting the armed members of the opposition and asked that the IDF not take action. Also, during the fighting, armed members of the opposition took control temporarily of the Bravo Gate. After several hours of clashes between the SAAF and the armed members of the opposition, the SAAF regained control of the Bravo Gate and fighting in the area had subsided. Currently, four main battle tanks and three armored personnel carriers remain in the area of separation, in violation of the Disengagement Agreement.