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Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

 Total astonishment - that's been the reaction in Israel to US President Barack Obama's surprise announcement that he is delaying any possible attack on Syria at least until after September 9th. The question being asked is whether Obama was trying to buy time by seeking Congressional approval, although he said he didn't need it. Could Obama be backing out of his pledge to confront the Assad regime in Syria for the chemical weapons attack that killed an estimated 1429 civilians on August 21? After Assad had again crossed Obama's red line on chemical weapons, politicians and pundits were certain that Obama had no choice but to react with a swift, punitive strike on Syria. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu immediately ordered an official blackout so as to prevent Israel bashers in the U.S. from accusing Israel of influencing the Obama administration to launch a military strike. But nearly all media commentators were of the view that Assad had gone too far and the signals from Washington were that it was not a matter of if, but when Obama would give the order. 


President Obama suddenly seemed to let all the air out of what appeared to be his hot air balloon...again creating the impression of indecisiveness and bending with the wind.

 Indeed those were the signals coming from the US capital. This was reinforced by Secretary of State John Kerry's impassioned statement giving chapter and verse of the enormity of the Syrian atrocity. After hearing Kerry, one retired IDF general said it sounded as if the U.S. would strike 'within hours'. For days now Iran's top military commanders have been warning that Israel would pay the price, if the U.S. dared attack Syria. In Israel, civilians who had neglected to pick up their gas masks rushed to do so. The Israeli Air Force carried out a minor call-up of reserve personnel, and ground forces were rushed to reinforce the Syrian border. Israel's air defenses were on top alert. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz reassured the public that Israel was ready to hit back hard if Syria, Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas exploited the impending American strike on Syria to attack the Jewish state. Then, in another of his impromptu appearances, President Obama suddenly seemed to let all the air out of what appeared to be his hot air balloon. Maybe this is not the case, but this is the impression that Obama suddenly created. Israelis were bewildered. American presidents are thought to chart carefully planned courses of action and not zigzag from one day to the next. Obama has again created the impression of indecisiveness and bending with the wind. For example, why did he not announce immediately after the chemical weapons attack that he would seek Congressional approval? Why did Obama send Kerry to create the impression the Tomahawks were about to be launched and then, the next day, tell the world it didn't matter if were tomorrow, a week or a month from now? US presidents are not expected to operate like that. And then there's Iran - after telling Israel that Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, implying military force, would Obama then seek Congressional approval?

 Now more than ever, the message is clear for all with eyes to see, that in the hour of critical danger, the Jewish state must be strong enough to defend itself on its own. This applies to any future security arrangements on the West Bank with the Palestinians or the Iranian nuclear threat. Even Obama's stirring declaration to cheering Israeli students in Jerusalem: 'Israel I have your back!' is less comforting when one now considers his reaction time. In the event of even a conventional military offensive attack on an Israel, without adequate security borders, it could be all over before the US got moving. 

'The most unkindest cut of all'...

British Prime Minister David Cameron (photo credit: Christian Guthier)
One would have surmised that after more than an estimated 185,000 British soldiers died or were horribly wounded by gas attacks in WWI, the British parliament would have rushed to stand in the breach behind Obama.

Britain dealt the cruelest blow of all to Obama's effort to rally international support for action, not just words, against Assad's atrocity. The House of Commons voted against Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal in favor of supporting military intervention in Syria. Some rebel members of Cameron's own Conservative Party and his Liberal Democrat coalition partner joined Labor in voting it down by 285-272. The Obama administration was stunned, as was Cameron, by the vote. In Secretary Kerry's litany of intelligence data proving Assad's culpability, he pointedly ignored mentioning Britain, while stressing France as 'America's oldest ally'. Although British public opinion is still smoldering over former Prime Minister Tony Blair's following the lead of President W. George Bush into the Iraqi war, the Commons' vote was still bewildering. One would have surmised that after more than an estimated 185,000 British soldiers died or were horribly wounded by gas attacks in WWI, the British parliament would have rushed to stand in the breach behind Obama. Consider this harrowing account by a British nurse: 

“They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.”

British MP Ed Miliband (photo credit: Christian Guthier)

Then there's Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labor party who led the opposition against backing Obama. One would have also thought that Miliband would have taken a more unequivocal position, considering that his own Jewish grandmother and aunt barely escaped the Nazi gas chambers in Poland during WWII. In all fairness, perhaps Miliband and the majority of British MPs would have voted differently, if they had had all the American intelligence for their perusal. But as things now stand, they have joined ranks with the Russian and Chinese in jaw-jaw about the U.N. and all that rot. Sorry chaps: 'It's not done!'


Putting the genie back in the bottle...  

Israeli-Syrian Boarder view from the Golan Heights (photo credit: Sam Mugraby, Photos8.com)
But the problem is how to...carry out a punitive response that would not risk determining the outcome of the current power struggle in Syria.

What is to be done? There are two separate aspects that have to be resolved. First, Assad has repeatedly let the chemical weapons genie out of the bottle and gotten away with it. Obviously, this needs to be addressed. But the problem is how to put the genie back in the bottle without breaking the bottle - that is, to carry out a punitive response that would not risk determining the outcome of the current power struggle in Syria. In other words how to calibrate an American-led military response that will deter any future culprits such as Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, et cetera from ever considering the use of chemical weapons, and to do this without toppling the Assad regime and inadvertently paving the way for an Islamist takeover of Syria. For example, an eventual al Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood, as in Egypt, which could pose an even greater threat. This is easier said than done. On the other hand, clearly Assad is not euphoric about having to absorb a U.S. military strike and his officials have warned that Syrian missiles would be launched into Israel. However, Assad did not retaliate when, according to foreign reports, Israeli missiles knocked out arms shipments inside Syria bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The conclusion was that Assad realized he had his hands full with the rebels and did not need to get involved with Israel over a marginal issue like arms shipments to Hezbollah. Take this approach one step further: if an American strike does not threaten the fall of the regime, Assad could again take it in stride and carry on his war with the rebels after, of course, claiming to have beaten off the U.S. But if the American response took an unexpected turn then all hell could break loose - that is why those irresponsible Israelis, who had not picked up their gas masks on time, are lining up across Israel.

QED: If the Syrian despot were made to realize that chemical weapons don't pay, and the civil war could continue unabated, the genie would have been put back in the bottle, without breaking the bottle. 



David Essing

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