Damascus is eerily calm tonight while Damascenes nervously hunker down for what Washington is billing as a short duration Mediterranean-based cruise missile assault on Syrian military installations. The limited objective: "punish" Syria for deploying chemical weapons "on a large scale" (Obama's words) against innocent men, women and children, and deter Assad from doing it again.
Washington has done just about everything but take out ads in Syrian newspapers: The target is not Assad, nor is the attack directed at shifting any balance of power toward the "secular" Syrian opposition.
Although the war drums are beating, the exact timing of the attack, should it come, remains a mystery.
Placing an unexpected brake on what has looked like an "any minute" cruise missile attack, Britain stated it would not support a U.S.-led attack until UN inspectors in Damascus send their report to the Secretary General (even though the inspectors are prohibited from assigning any blame as to the gas attack's origin; they can only corroborate chemical weapons were used). For good measure, the Arab League decided this morning to oppose western retaliation against Assad. Lest we forget that Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- the two most important deciders in the Arab League -- are the two largest arms suppliers to the radical Islamist rebel fighters -- go figure!
Why London decided that the inspectors report was suddenly a necessary precondition to grant a green light to retaliation has less to do with any residual doubt at 10 Downing whether Assad ordered the attack, but rather a desire to lay at Russia and China's doorstep the irrefutable evidence of independent IAEA weapons inspectors that a chemical attack indeed occurred -- an attack the Kremlin insists never happened.
Given Russia's abysmal defense of its rogue client state no amount of evidence -- even from the Almighty himself -- will dissuade Moscow from vetoing any UN Security Counsel resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria. But London, as the sponsor of the draft Security Council resolution, considers it diplomatically essential to rub the truth in Putin's face before a vote.
Even within President Obama's limited goals for a strike, calibrating the measure of retaliation to achieve them is the tricky part.
How many cruise missile attacks against Syrian command and control centers will convince Assad that reverting again to his chemical stockpile is a non-starter? Ten? Twenty? Fifty?
What happens if Assad ups the ante and blatantly deploys his chemical weapons shortly thereafter. After all, he controls the largest cache of chemical and biological WMD in the entire Middle East? More retaliation? By who? And wouldn't that subsequent retaliation require a far greater investment of military force than President Obama is willing to deploy, because it could risk drawing the U.S. into the very civil war Obama has vowed not to fall into? Does Assad think he can bluff the U.S.? After all, he is fighting an existential battle for his family's and regime's very survival. And let us not forget, this man has no reluctance whatsoever to use whatever force is necessary to maintain power -- international law be damned.
I actually hope the Pentagon places Assad's oil refineries in its crosshairs. Taking out his oil exporting revenue costs nothing in lives, and will hit him where it could hurt most -- right in Syria's wallet. Syria earns an estimated $15 million a month that pays for his weapons purchases from Russia.
What will Assad and his Hezbollah terrorist allies do if he is attacked? What will Russia do? Just this morning, Iran's leadership threatened that if the U.S. attacked Assad Israel would be attacked (by whom?).
Here is what a possible "day after last cruise missile attack" Assad retaliation scenario could include:
- Assad's "Syrian Electronic Army" which has launched cyber attacks against U.S. media interests (the New York Times was its latest casualty -- having proved it s technological dexterity -- launch a more massive cyber attack on U.S. interests.
- Iran could order Hezbollah to lob missiles at U.S. warships stationed off the Lebanese coast, or direct them at Israel.
- Assad could lob missiles into Jordan, which has been a not-so-covert staging area for U.S., Israeli and Jordanian intelligence operations against his regime.
- As for Iran, its leadership is playing the "moderate" card and does not want to complicate its charm offensive with Washington over its nuclear weapons program by being caught retaliating on behalf of Assad (Iran has 5-6 battalions of Revolutionary Guard forces fighting alongside Assad's beleaguered forces)..
Frankly, Assad's options are limited and inadequate to deter a retaliation. If he turns on Turkey, well then, he just invited a full fledged NATO attack on Syria. If Israel is somehow hit as a consequence of a U.S.-led attack, Assad can kiss a good part of his Russian-built air defenses and air force goodbye when Israel sends it own air message back to Assad.
Assad has to have his hand's burnt real good to avoid a subsequent round of retaliation and escalation. Deterring him from using his cache of nerve gas under any circumstances in the immediate weeks and months ahead is what the U.S. must achieve to meet the president's micro-objectives and to avoid a total loss of U.S. credibility.
Oh, I almost forgot. How many more hundreds of thousands of Syrians will die at Assad's hands in order for him to and his clique to remain in power as the international community dithers is, well, on the proverbial back burner. First things first.
Follow Amb. Marc Ginsberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ambmcg