The US Friday, Sept. 6, ordered the withdrawal of non-emergency workers and their families from the embassy in Beirut and the consulate general in Adana, southeast Turkey, and warned Americans against traveling to those areas amid looming threats to their security. The State Department posted these advisories after an unscheduled 20-minute one-on-one meeting between Presidents Barack and Obama and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 at St. Petersburg. No information was released on results of their conversation, but the staff withdrawals from Beirut and Turkey pointed to the two leaders remaining at loggerheads as much as before amid a mounting buildup of Russian naval might around Syria.
Moscow announced earlier that the Nikolai Filchenkov landing ship was on its way to the Mediterranean, stressing that it would first put in at Novorossisk port on the Black Sea to pick up “a special cargo.”
This cargo was widely identified as advanced Russian S-300 interceptors for warding off a US attack on Syria.
DEBKAfile’s military and US sources reported Friday that President Obama had resolved to expand America’s operation against Syria’s chemical weapons to include air strikes as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from warships.
Read the earlier DEBKAfile report of Thursday night.
There was never much hope that the 20 most influential national leaders in the world meeting in the Russian town of St. Petersburg on Sept 5-6 would occasion a thaw in the icy relations between the American and Russian presidents and some sort of accord for stopping the bloodshed in Syria.
In his opening statement, Thursday, Sept. 5, Vladimir Putin announced an open-ended discussion would start over a working dinner and go on into the small hours of Friday. The Russian leader was clearly setting the stage for a showdown with the US president, having loaded the dice in Moscow’s favor with the opposition of most of the Asian and European leaders to US military intervention in Syria. The only exceptions were French President Francois Hollande and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Tense eyes were trained on the G20 venue as Thursday night wore on to see the upshot of this weighty conference, which started out with the two parties solidly entrenched in their positions – the US president determined to exercise military force against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its people, and the Russian president equally determined to oppose it.
But even after Putin managed to isolate Obama diplomatically by carrying a majority motion against US military intervention, he must still have to face up to the failure of his policy to stop the United States carrying out its second military offensive against an Arab nation in two years, after the 2011 Libya campaign.
As for Obama, the longer a decision to go forward in Syria drags out, the greater the pressure by lawmakers in Congress, whose votes he needs, and military imperatives, to embark on a broader operation against Syria than the narrow missile assault he first contemplated.
Had he wished to stick to his original plan, he should have instantly fired off a number of Tomahawks at the Syrian forces as soon as they gassed the eastern outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. Instead, he let ten days go by before suddenly deciding on Aug. 31, to put the operation on ice for congressional authorization.
Had he acted expeditiously, the whole issue of US military intervention in Syria would have been behind him by the time he reached the summit in Russia.
The American assault will now have to be expanded and revised to cover widely-dispersed targets distributed across large areas in view of the following developments:
1. The Syrian government has scattered the chemical units responsible for the atrocity, along with its chemical stocks in dozens of hideouts across the country to minimize damage.
2. The recommendation by Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, cited by President Obama to justify the delay in the offensive – it could take place “tomorrow, in a week or a month” – hasn’t held water.
The chief of US naval operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, commented Thursday that the four US destroyers off the coast of Syria are “fully ready” for “a vast spectrum of operations, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Syria and protecting themselves in the event of retaliation.”
And indeed, the Senate Armed Forces committee, in backing US military force in Syria, gave the president up to 90 days to finish the job.
3. The certainty voiced by some US intelligence sources that they can locate the hideouts of Syrian chemical units and weapons overstates the capabilities of even the most sophisticated spy technology at their disposal.
4. Not just the Russian leader, but Syria’s Bashar Assad and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have bought enough time to set up military, intelligence and political ambushes for the Americans, and will be ready to pounce when the US operation goes forward.
As the G20 summiteers took their seats in St. Petersburg, three Russian warships passed through the Bosporus in their way to the Mediterranean.
DEBKAfile’s military sources identitied them as the SSV-201 intelligence shipPriazovye and two landing craft, the Minsk and the Novocherkassk, which carry 200 marines and 10 amphibious tanks.
All three leaders have issued a constant stream of threats to deter Washington from striking Syria:
a) They could supply Syria with highly-advanced arms capable of catching US forces by surprise;
b) Russia and China could transfer advanced cyber warfare measures to Damascus via Tehran, which Iranian cyber experts could operate in Syria and Lebanon.
c) The Russian president has indicated that if the Americans attack Syria, he might sell Iran super-weapons on the premise that the strike on Syria would be the precursor to a US attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
5. The basic presumption in Washington and Jerusalem at the outset of the US plan to use military force in Syria last month was that Hizballah would stay out of it. In the interim, the Lebanese Shiite militia has begun mobilizing for defending Syria and for cross-border reprisals against Israel from Syria and Lebanon.
Thursday night, Iran’s National Security Council inner group held a secret meeting in Khamenei’s inner sanctum on the ramifications of the forthcoming US action against Syria.
DEBKAfile’s Iranian sources report that Revolutionary Guards commanders spoke out in favor of activating the mutual defense treaty binding Iran and Syria.
President Hassan Rouhani objected. In his view, Tehran must continue to issue vague and general statements without showing its hand on military action against the US. He warned that a vast American military and naval force was piling up in the region and Iran must beware of provoking a military response in which it would be quickly bested.
Khamenei did not wait for the G20 to reach conclusions. He issued a public statement saying: “We believe that the Americans are committing a folly and mistake in Syria and [they] will accordingly take the blow and definitely suffer.”