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from left: Neville Chamberlain, Barack Obama, Winston Churchill

Will U.S. President Barack Obama turn out to be a Winston Churchill or a Neville Chamberlain? Whatever the outcome, Obama's statecraft is being viewed as puzzling, to say the least, by the vast majority of Israelis. The sudden silence of Israeli officials, from Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu on down, speaks for the gravity with which they view the situation. One noticeable exception was President Shimon Peres who praised Obama 'for examining all the options to respond to Assad who had lost all legitimacy as Syria's president'. Shimon Peres, the media, and the Israeli 'in the street' found it hard to accept that the U.S. and the rest of the Free World were so prevaricating in standing up to a barbaric dictator's gassing of his own children and women. As for Russia and China, that's par for the course, realpolitik is their name of the game. In fact, it recalls Stalin's pact with Adolph Hitler when they okayed the Molotov- Ribbentrop treaty to carve up Poland and forestall Germany from invading the Soviet Union. 

Obama meets with Cameron during the G20 Summit in Russia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

 Fast forward to 2013. Naturally, after six million Jews were gassed to death by the Nazis, the current state of affairs was particularly upsetting, even if those now being gassed in Syria happened to be Arab. And naturally, Israel was also in Syria's chemical cross hairs. Questions were being asked not only about the West, particularly Britain, turning its back on crimes against humanity. Above all, was U.S. public opinion, in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, turning to a new isolationism that would impact on America's support for Israel with a nuclear Iran looming nearer day by day? Of course, Syria is not Israel and Iranian nuclear missiles were not Syrian chemical weapons but still...Just look at the comment of American political satirist Bill Maher when asked about a possible U.S. strike against Assad.

If a majority does vote 'Nay' would Obama, with the Senate's support, go ahead with the 'limited strike without boots on the ground'?

 'We don't know where it is going to lead. You know - I don't know. To bomb another Middle Eastern country, I mean at some point, these people are going to have to learn to kill themselves. They really are'. 

 Okay, Maher deserves some literary license for such a flippant crack about a horrible atrocity, but it reflects a growing trend, not only in America, after more than a decade of weary wars in the Middle East.  U.S. Congressmen are feeling the heat, and it remains an open question how they will vote on the issue. And if a majority does vote 'Nay' would Obama, with the Senate's support, go ahead with the 'limited strike without boots on the ground?'

 Possible diplomatic solution...

Obama talks with Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, as Putin opens an afternoon plenary session during the G20 Summit. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
This would have an impact on Obama's red line on Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons...without a Syrian strike, Obama would find it hard to take real steps against Iran when that day comes.

 Is a diplomatic solution still possible despite the failure of Presidents Obama and Putin to see eye-to-eye at the G-20 in St. Petersburg?  Obviously believing he has Obama over a barrel, the Russian leader showed little sign of cooperating on a solution to the crisis. However, IDF Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence, did not rule out the possibility that Putin might still exert pressure on Assad to give up his chemical weapons without a U.S. military strike. Yadlin, who now heads the private Institute for National Security, disclosed that the Russian ships recently deployed off the coast of Syria were intelligence gathering vessels and not warships. But in the absence of such a solution, Obama would suffer a severe blow to his credibility around the world, if he did not order a military operation. This would have an impact on Obama's red line on Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons. Yadlin surmised that without a Syrian strike, Obama would find it hard to take real steps against Iran when that day comes.

 The consensus in Israel is that Putin is fully aware of Assad's use of chemical weapons - Russian intelligence immediately spotted the Israeli-US ballistic missile test over the Mediterranean on September 3rd. There is no doubt that the Russians know all the gory details and have contrived a cock-and-bull story about a 'deliberate provocation' by the rebels. Why would the Russians lie through their teeth? Simply because they want to preserve their last foothold in the Middle East. Although they have blocked the U.S. diplomatic effort in the UN Security Council to chasten Syria, as well as sending vast quantities of weapons to Assad's forces, there is slim chance that Moscow would ever risk getting involved militarily on Assad's side. On this score, the Los Angeles Times has now printed a story quoting anonymous Pentagon officials as saying:

U.S. Trident II (D-5) missile

 'The Pentagon was preparing for three days of attacks on Syria, longer than originally planned'. 


 'War planners now aim to unleash a heavy barrage of missile strikes to be followed swiftly by additional attacks on targets that may have been missed or remain standing after the initial launch'.  


Assad now has something more to think about - is it really worth his while to keep his chemical weapons arsenal and risk absorbing such a blow?

 It is safe to assume the Obama administration deliberately leaked these details in order to spur both Assad and Putin into seeking an eleventh hour solution. In other words, Obama means business, and although he does not want to topple the Assad regime, he is determined to deliver a painful blow. A three-day heavy barrage of Cruise missiles is by no means a pinprick. In boxing terms, it would not be a knockout punch for the entire Syrian army and Hezbollah, but it would be a very stiff jab that could leave Assad's forces staggering. And if it comes, it will serve as a great boost for the rebels to go on the offensive. So Assad now has something more to think about - is it really worth his while to keep his chemical weapons arsenal and risk absorbing such a blow? And for their part, there is no sign the Russians will risk turning this confrontation into a replay of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. Take this one step further. If the US is not deterred by Moscow, Putin will then lose face with his clients worldwide. Iran will also have been served notice. The Los Angeles Times report will shake up the cost-benefit calculations in both Damascus and Moscow.  

 Obama's statecraft...

President Barack Obama meets with Members of Congress to discuss Syria in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

 But why has Obama made such 'a dog's breakfast' by his handling of the affair? Why has he gone to both Houses of Congress to seek their bipartisan approval? It's not as if he was taken by utter surprise, latest reports say U.S. intelligence had confirmed a year ago that Assad had already started using chemical weapons against the rebels. Today Obama contends the U.S. is duty bound to act against Syria, and the former law professor is convinced that it is his constitutional right to do so without the approval of Congress. Could it be that Obama, who was so critical of his predecessor's foreign policy in the Middle East, wants to safeguard his place in history, by cajoling the Republicans to be firmly on board a Syrian strike? 


David Essing

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