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photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village according to SANA, receives treatment by doctors at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/SANA, File)

 The signs are that U.S. President Barack Obama is taking the Syrian Army's latest chemical weapons attack very seriously. Obama has consulted with his top national security advisors, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered several U.S. Navy destroyers, armed with Cruise missiles, to sail closer to the Syrian coast, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is returning to the Middle East. Meanwhile, a senior Syrian official has warned that an attack on Syria will not be 'a walk in the park'.

 The stuff terrorists thrive on...

It is possible that if the U.S. had acted decisively on March 19, the Syrian despot would not have used them now.

 This is a defining moment for U.S. President Barack Obama and the whole world is watching. If the leader of the West does not order a punitive strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his latest chemical weapons attack, similar atrocities will follow, and not just in Syria. In fact, it is possible that if the U.S. had acted decisively after Assad's previous use of chemical weapons on March 19, the Syrian despot would not have used them now at Ghouta near Damascus. The death toll is over 1400 people, many of them children, and rising. Thousands of others have been horribly afflicted. This is the stuff terrorists thrive on everywhere, and some will try to emulate it. Not only was Obama's red line flagrantly crossed again, terrorists worldwide will take notice and the floodgates may eventually swing open. If they do, that will be on the leader of the Western world. Obama will no longer be able to blame Russia and China and lecture about 'the rules of international law' or the necessity for an international coalition sanctioned by the UN Security Council. In the court of international opinion, the former law professor will risk being found guilty of dereliction of duty. And what of the contention that maybe the rebels themselves used the chemical weapons? Or as the Russians allege, 'it was a deception by the rebels to put the blame on Assad'. First, if Assad knows he did not unleash the chemical weapons, would he not do everything in his power to rush those UN inspectors, now in Damascus, to the site in order to clear his name?  Secondly, some argue that Assad would not have been so foolish as to use chemical weapons a day before the UN inspectors arrived to investigate the previous attack. Surely this logic also applies to the rebels. 

Weather conditions may have affected the Sarin nerve gas, spreading it over a wider area than the Syrian Army intended, and this caused the catastrophic casualties.

 So what happened on the ground? It may be that the rebel forces were advancing so close to Damascus that Assad panicked and gave the order; but maybe he did not anticipate such harrowing results. Some Israeli experts have surmised that weather conditions may have affected the Sarin nerve gas, spreading it over a wider area than the Syrian Army intended, and this caused the catastrophic casualties.   

 What's to be done?

Although Obama views the chemical attacks in Syria as 'very troublesome', will he agree to act after his consultations with his national security team?

 Undoubtedly, America is sick and tired of the costly wars it has waged in Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken so much in blood and treasure. Add Egypt to the list and a natural American reaction is 'a plague on all their houses!' And it can be contested that Obama adopted the right course of action in Libya by 'leading from behind' and letting France and Britain conduct the air campaign against Kaddafi’s forces. Now the Brits and the French are firmly behind a reaction by the West. In pointing the finger at Assad, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned: 'We don't rule out any option for the future'. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius went one step further: 'We need a reaction by the international community ... a reaction of force!'  No one is talking about dispatching 'boots on the ground' to Syria. Moreover, Syria, with its advanced Russian anti-aircraft systems would pose a formidable threat to British and French fighter-bombers. A no-fly zone over Syria is also ruled out. This leaves the extremely accurate cruise missiles on vessels of the U.S. Sixth Fleet stationed in the Mediterranean. Although Obama views the chemical attacks in Syria as 'very troublesome', will he agree to act after his consultations with his national security team? Today, the stakes are at least as high as his decision to send a team of U.S. SEALS to assassinate Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. At that time, he threw international protocol out the window and did not seek Pakistan's approval.  

A strike against Syria would also send a stern message to Tehran.

 There is another factor that should be considered by Obama and his advisers. A strike against Syria would also send a stern message to Tehran, where Ayatollah Khamenei apparently believes the U.S. leader is a paper tiger that will never launch a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear weapons installations.  After Iranian officials boasted recently about their new advanced centrifuges, it should be clear that Iran is proceeding full speed ahead, not only with its uranium enrichment but also on a plutonium track; this despite the much-heralded election of President Rouhani, who supposedly represents a new possibility for a diplomatic solution. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu recently warned that he might have to decide on Iran before Obama thinks it's necessary. This sounded like Bibi’s diplomatic way of saying the U.S. President might procrastinate indefinitely. On the other hand, an American attack on Syria could present a new threat for Israel in its wake.  Russia is determined to maintain its sole foothold in the Mediterranean, its big naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, and will stand firmly behind Assad. In retaliation to a possible blow by the West against Syria's chemical weapons sites, Moscow could immediately implement its standing agreement to supply Syria with advanced S-300 anti-craft missiles, which could shoot down just about any Israeli jet flying over Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Could Assad conceivably launch chemical missiles at the Jewish state in the event of an American strike? Possible, but not probable. In such a scenario, massive Israeli retaliation would probably topple the Alawite regime and Assad knows it. 

 Saudi Arabia & Israel...

The 'Arab Spring' is not simply about the struggle to overthrow dictatorships and replacing them with democracies; it is about moderate Muslims fighting for their freedom only to see well-organized Islamists pouncing on power after the revolution.

 America's other allies in the Middle East are also closely monitoring the ongoing situation. A forceful American response against Syria would boost the waning confidence in the U.S. throughout Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, except for Qatar, which backs the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These countries have been wary of Obama after he dropped, like a hot potato, another American ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They feared, as did Israel, that the radical Muslim Brotherhood would move swiftly into the political vacuum and take power, opening the door to another Iran in their midst. This also explains why Saudi Arabia has chipped in with a reported ten billion dollars in aid for the provisional Egyptian government headed by Gen. al-Sisi. It may also explain why an Egyptian court has just released Mubarak, who was regarded by both Saudi Arabia and Israel as a force for regional stability; in fact, also by Obama himself until he was blinded by the vision of democracy coming to Cairo in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood! Hopefully, Obama and others in the West are beginning to realize the 'Arab Spring' is not simply about the struggle to overthrow dictatorships and replacing them with democracies; it is about moderate Muslims fighting for their freedom only to see well-organized Islamists pouncing on power after the revolution. In Egypt, and more recently in Tunisia, that power-struggle is now being waged. While the outcome remains in doubt, what is certain is that founding a true democracy is no easy task, and there is no magical wand that can wave it in, or rousing rhetoric that can win over all its opponents. And this is no different in the Middle East than elsewhere in the world. How many years after 1776, and the end of the Civil War of 1865, did it take America to grant full civil right to its Black citizens, let alone to elect a Black president? And how many centuries of bloodshed were spilled in Europe before those enlightened nations agreed to join in a union of peace and cooperation? 

If al-Sisi restores law and order and plans a new presidential election, Washington will restore its traditional ties with Egypt.

 Although Washington did cancel a joint military exercise with Cairo and suspended the supply of more F-16 jets, it has not announced a cut-off to the more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid for 2013. This has been interpreted as ‘keeping the door open’ after the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood regime led by President Mohamed Morsi. In other words, despite the bloody coup, if al-Sisi restores law and order and plans a new presidential election, Washington will restore its traditional ties with Egypt. Meanwhile, to Jerusalem's gratification, al-Sisi continues his counter-terrorism campaign in Sinai against Islamist radicals trying to launch rockets into Israel. 

 Rockets from Lebanon... 

In this case, the conclusion was that another Palestinian gang of terrorists had tried to draw Israel into retaliating against Hezbollah.

 On the Lebanese front, Palestinian terrorists launched four rockets into Israel. Iron Dome intercepted one, but two others landed inside two kibbutzim in Western Galilee. Fortunately no one was injured, but some property was damaged. The sirens sounded over northern Israel, and Haifa airport was temporarily shut down. Usually the Shiite Hezbollah terrorists, who are now fighting for Assad in Syria, take credit for rocketing Israel. However, this time they kept mum. Israeli intelligence experts smelled a rat. Why would Hezbollah, which is taking significant casualties in Syria, now open another front with Israel? They are already up to their neck after Syrian rebels retaliated by blowing up two huge car bombs in the heart of their Dahia stronghold in Beirut, killing and maiming many of their supporters. The rebels had previously clashed with Hezbollah and warned they would pay a price for backing Assad. But things are not always what they seem in this part of the world. In this case, the conclusion was that another Palestinian gang of terrorists had tried to draw Israel into retaliating against Hezbollah. The Israelis cottoned on to this ruse and an Israeli aircraft simply dropped a bomb harmlessly on a Palestinian base causing a deep crater but no casualties. It was tit-for-tat with the message: next time we won't miss deliberately, if you again rocket Israel.  Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned that Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for all terror attacks emanating from its territory against Israel and that Israel's policy is zero tolerance.  

David Essing

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