French Bombers Were Loaded Up, Syrian Rebels Were Deployed—All Awaiting Obama’s Okay to Attack
U.S. decision not to strike Syrian regime shocked, disrupted allies
by DAVID AXE
In the early hours of Aug. 31, America’s allies had every reason to expect powerful U.S. air and missile strikes on the regime of Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad. The regime had just killed more than 1,400 civilians in a chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus, crossing what the Obama administration had called a “red line” in the nearly three-year-old Syrian civil war.
But the American attack never came. And France and the Free Syrian Army—Washington’s closest allies in the nearly three-year-old Syrian civil war—were left in a lurch. French air strikes were cancelled. A massive rebel offensive was called off.
Instead of ordering U.S. forces into battle, Obama unexpectedly announced he would seek the consent of the notoriously obstructive U.S. Congress. Later the president agreed to a Russian proposal for Moscow to take charge of Syrian chemical weapons, effectively voiding the rationale for military strikes.
But Obama’s alternatives to war have done nothing to end the bloodletting in Syria. And now the best chance for a coordinated intervention on the side of Syrian rebels has been thoroughly wrecked by American indecision.
The French are dismayed. The Syrian opposition is furious — and increasingly drawn to radical Islamists who are also battling Al Assad. American credibility has been deeply damaged.
Cruise missiles loaded
With its strong cultural and diplomatic ties to the Levant, Paris was a proponent of military action against Al Assad’s brutal regime. And as the Syrian civil war entered its 29th month in August this year, it appeared at first that France had a strong partner in the United States.
The U.S. State Department was providing millions of dollars worth of food, medicine and vehicles to the rebel Free Syrian Army. The CIA was sending in some weapons and training a few rebels in the Jordanian desert, where American air-defense missiles and F-16 fighters were on standby.
On Aug. 21 Al Assad’s long-running chemical campaign escalated and 1,400 people died of sarin gas poisoning in Damascus. The evidence was clear, and in short order four American destroyers plus submarines, assault ships and an aircraft carrier sailed within striking range of the Syrian coast.
It was late August and every indication was that America intended to attack. Indeed, French and U.S. planners had been plotting the details of a coordinated air campaign since Aug. 25. In preparation the French concentrated their spy planes in Cyprus, just off Syria’s short coastline.
And on the early morning of Aug. 31, an American official phoned the staff of French president Francois Hollande, telling Hollande to expect a phone call from Obama later in the day—this according to recent reporting by France’s Le Nouvel Observateur. “Everything led us to believe that the big day had arrived,” a government source told the publication.
Assuming that the evening phone call would announce the commencement of U.S. air strikes, Hollande ordered his officers to quickly finalize their own attack plans. Rafale fighters were loaded with Scalp cruise missiles, their pilots told to launch the 250-mile-range munitions while over the Mediterranean, thus avoiding Turkish airspace and avoiding drawing Ankara into the conflict.
French planners were counting on the Americans to hit targets deeper inside Syria, beyond the range of the Scalp missiles.
But in contrast to France’s involvement in the NATO-led Libya intervention in 2011 and the French attacks on militants in Mali earlier this year, Paris would not rely on American logistical support for its Syria raids. French air force aerial tankers were positioned to keep the Rafales’ tanks topped off as they maneuvered to launch their missiles.
Le Nouvel Observateur reported that Hollande also prepared to release the evidence of Al Assad’s Damascus gas attack, in order to legitimize the international intervention.
Paris’ planners assumed the attacks would take place overnight. The French forces—and Hollande’s press releases—were ready to go when the phone rang. “I decided to go,” Obama told Hollande, according to Le Nouvel Observateur. “But I will first seek the approval of Congress,” Obama added.
Hollande was “stunned,” Le Nouvel Observateur reported. “He tried to convince the U.S. president to reconsider his decision — in vain.” Hanging up, Hollande next contacted his planners to tell them to unload the Rafales’ missiles. The French president was not willing to strike alone.
The Free Syrian Army has repeatedly sent delegations to the Americans begging for more support. By late summer 2013 all they had managed to get from Washington was $12 million in “nonlethal aid” — food and medicine, mostly — plus a few weapons and some training by the CIA.
Two hundred thousand strong, secular and broadly representative of the Syrian people, the FSA believes, probably correctly, that it is Syria’s best hope for defeating Al Assad and clearing the way for a new elected government. But the FSA lacks heavy weapons, anti-air defenses and warplanes of its own, putting it at a disadvantage on the battlefield.
The rebels’ weakness was most painfully apparent in the battle for Syria’s Latakia province in August. Latakia, in northern Syria along the coast, is Al Assad’s home province and a regime stronghold. The FSA believed that capturing Latakia would seriously weaken the regime. In early August rebel troops seized several Latakia towns.
But when the inevitable counterattack came the third week of August, the lightly-armed opposition fighters found they could not destroy Al Assad’s tanks and other armored vehicles. They retreated after taking heavy casualties. Abu Abdallah, a top commander in the FSA’s Farouk Brigade, says America is to blame for the defeat.
Washington could provide the missing equipment, but hasn’t. The relative lack of American support has long baffled the rebel army’s leaders. “The Americans are indirectly supporting Assad by not giving us what we need,” says one senior rebel officer, who asked not to be named.
So when it appeared America was on the verge of striking Syria on Aug. 31, the rebels believed their pleas had finally been heard. Washington was finally coming to the aid of the opposition forces it claimed to support. The FSA planned to attack in concert with U.S. air strikes, says Mohamed Moustafa, who helps coordinate the supplies of American non-lethal aid to the rebels.
When America did not attack — and France held back, too — opposition leaders and everyday Syrians felt betrayed. “Obama’s backing down was harder for the Syrian people than the regime’s use of chemical weapons,” Moustafa says.
In the weeks since the abortive raids, the fighting in Syria has only escalated. Al Assad agreed to turn over his chemical weapons to Russia, but easily replaced the gas munitions with incendiary weapons that are only slightly less destructive.
Having stood down its strike force, France has shown no indication it will attack Al Assad on its own.
And the rebels, repeatedly disappointed, have largely given up on getting help from America. “We are tired of repeating ourselves,” the anonymous senior officer says. Instead, the opposition says it will fight alone … and increasingly in concert with the temperamental radical Islamists who have grown more numerous since the FSA’s battlefield defeats earlier this year.