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Initial Western Intelligence Finds Syrian Forces Used Chemical Weapons, US Secretary of Defense Hints at Asset Positioning

 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (L) and U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey arrive to testify at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on ''Department Leadership'' on Capitol Hill in Washington June 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. defense chief hints at asset positioning ahead of Syria decision

By Phil Stewart

Fri Aug 23, 2013 9:33pm EDT

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) -

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel strongly suggested on Friday the United States was positioning naval forces and assets in anticipation of any decision by President Barack Obama to order military action on Syria after apparent chemical weapons use.

Hagel's comments to reporters traveling with him to Malaysia came after a defense official said the Navy would expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth cruise-missile armed warship because of the escalating civil war in Syria.

Hagel said Obama had asked the Defense Department for options on Syria, where an apparent poison gas attack has mounted pressure on the United States to intervene in the country's 2-1/2-year-old civil war.

"The Defense Department has responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies," he said. "And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options - whatever options the president might choose."

Asked whether it was fair to report that the United States had moved assets, Hagel said: "I don't think I said that. I said that we're always having to prepare - as we give the president options - prepare our assets and where they are and the capability of those assets to carry out the contingencies we give the president."

The defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the USS Mahan had finished its deployment and was due to head back to its home base in Norfolk, Virginia, but the commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet has decided to keep the ship in the region, the defense official said.

The official stressed the Navy had received no orders to prepare for any military operations regarding Syria.

The comments came as senior U.S. officials weighed choices ranging from increased diplomatic pressure to the use of force, including possible air strikes on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, administration sources said.

Hagel said he believed the international community was moving swiftly in getting the facts about what took place. At the same time, he cautioned that if Assad's forces did indeed use chemical weapons against its own people, that "there may be another attack coming." That adds urgency to any decisions by the international community, he said.

"So a very quick assessment of what happened, and whatever appropriate response should be made, that needs to happen within that time frame of responsible action," said Hagel, who declined to specify a time frame.

The Syrian government denies being responsible for the attack and has in the past accused rebels of using chemical weapons, an allegation that Western officials have dismissed.

Asked about the possibility of unilateral action, Hagel said the United States would never give up its sovereign right to act, but added that Syria was an international issue.

"The international community, I believe, should and will act in concert on these kinds of issues," he said. "If the intelligence and the facts bear out, which it appears to be what happened, use of chemical weapons, then that isn't just a United States issue. This is an international community issue."

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Bill Trott)

 

Initial Western intelligence finds Syrian forces used chemical weapons

By Mark Hosenball and Matt Spetalnick

Fri Aug 23, 2013 6:30pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -

U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have made a preliminary assessment that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces in an attack near Damascus this week, likely with high-level approval from the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to American and European security sources.

The early intelligence finding could increase pressure for action by President Barack Obama, who made clear that he planned to tread cautiously even as his aides sought to narrow their differences in debate over possible military responses to the Syrian government.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the assessment was preliminary and, at this stage, they were still seeking conclusive proof, which could take days, weeks or even longer to gather.

But with a mounting international outcry over the apparent mass poisoning of hundreds of people, the issue appeared to have taken on a sense of urgency for the Obama administration.

In his first public comments since Wednesday's attack in the Damascus suburbs, Obama called the incident a "big event of grave concern" and one that demanded U.S. attention, but said he was in no rush to get war-weary Americans "mired" in another Middle East conflict.

Obama's wary response, which underscored a deep reluctance by Washington to intervene in Syria's 2-1/2-year-old civil war, came as senior U.S. officials weighed choices ranging from increased international sanctions to the use of force, including possible air strikes on Assad's forces, administration sources said.

A meeting of members of Obama's National Security Council, the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies was held at the White House late on Thursday, but made no decisions on what to recommend, officials said.

With further talks planned as early as this weekend, a senior U.S. defense official said a decision on a course of action could come soon. But it appeared unlikely any military response would take place without extensive consultation with allies and further review of U.S. intelligence about the attack.

One U.S. official acknowledged that the participants aired "differing viewpoints," but pushed back against the notion that the administration, whose Syria policymaking has been marked by internal dissent in the past, was sharply divided on a response.

"It's not like people were screaming at each other," the official said.

International powers - including Russia, which has long shielded Assad from U.N. action - have urged Assad to cooperate with a U.N. inspection team that arrived on Sunday to pursue earlier allegations of chemical weapons attacks.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was "some evidence" of chemical weapons use in the latest incident, but stopped short of saying an official conclusion was reached.

The Syrian government denies being responsible and has in the past accused rebels of using chemical weapons, an allegation that Western officials have dismissed.

CROSSING THE 'RED LINE'

While the preliminary U.S. assessment was that Assad loyalists carried out Wednesday's attack with high-level authorization, one U.S. source closely monitoring events in the region said it was also possible that a local commander decided on his own to use gas to clear the way for a ground assault.

"What we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event, of grave concern," Obama said in an interview on CNN's "New Day" program that aired on Friday, as anti-Assad rebels braved the front lines around Damascus to smuggle tissue samples to U.N. inspectors from victims of Wednesday's apparent mass poisoning.

Asked about his comment - made a year and a day before the toxic fumes hit sleeping residents of rebel-held Damascus suburbs - that chemical weapons would be a 'red line' for the United States, Obama expressed caution.

"If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it," Obama said. "The notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated."

At Thursday's White House meeting, which lasted more than three hours, Obama's aides had a "robust discussion" of the diplomatic and military options available to the president, U.S. officials said.

Among the military options under consideration are targeted missile strikes on Syrian units believed responsible for chemical attacks or on Assad's air force and ballistic missile sites, U.S. officials said. Such strikes could be launched from U.S. ships or combat aircraft capable of firing missiles from outside Syrian airspace, thereby avoiding Syrian air defenses.

Seen as more risky - and unlikely - would be a sustained air assault, such as the one conducted in Libya in 2011.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who took part in Thursday's meeting by secure video link, advocated the use of air strikes in White House meetings in early June preceding an announcement of military aid to the rebels, a person familiar with the talks said. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey argued that such a mission would be complex and costly.

The White House on Friday reiterated Obama's position that he did not intend to put "boots on the ground" in Syria, and an administration official said Thursday's meeting also steered clear of the idea of enforcing a "no-fly" zone there.

Another possibility would be to authorize sending heavier U.S. weaponry, such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets, to the rebels in addition to lighter arms approved in June. But even those limited supplies have yet to start flowing to the rebels.

The top Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee urged Obama on Friday to order air strikes against Assad's government.

Representative Eliot Engel cited Obama's statement that the use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces would cross a "red line" and cause the United States to act to halt such violations of international law.

"If we, in concert with our allies, do not respond to Assad's murderous uses of weapons of mass destruction, malevolent countries and bad actors around the world will see a green light where one was never intended," Engel wrote in a letter to Obama and obtained by Reuters.

'CREDIBILITY ISSUE'

With Obama's international prestige seen on the line, a former senior U.S. official said the suspected chemical attack was likely to prompt Obama to use limited force, but he did not expect him to try to topple Assad.

"They will feel obliged to do something because the credibility issue is very high here," the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Something like a finite use of stand-off force is quite possible here."

Obama's failure to confront Assad with the serious consequences he has long threatened would likely reinforce a global perception of a president preoccupied with domestic matters and unwilling to act decisively in the volatile Middle East, a picture already set by his mixed response to the crisis in Egypt.

The consensus in Washington and allied capitals is that a concerted international response can only succeed if the United States takes the lead.

But Obama has shown no appetite for intervention. Polls by Reuters/Ipsos and others have shown that most Americans, weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are increasingly aware of the Syria conflict but remain opposed to U.S. involvement there.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason, Andrea Shalal-Esa, Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Vicki Allen, Eric Beech and Peter Cooney)




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