Assad’s Chemical Romance

How the Syrian dictator’s cynical and clever chemical weapons strategy outfoxed Obama.


You’ve got to hand it to him. Bashar al-Assad may be a cruel and ruthless dictator, but he does know how to play his cards. His careful, incremental introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian conflict has turned President Barack Obama’s clear red line into an impressionist watercolor, undermining the credible threat of U.S. military intervention. Despite Obama’s statement on Friday that "we’ve crossed a line," Assad knows that the United States does not want to be dragged into a Middle Eastern civil war and is attempting to call Obama’s bluff.

The Syrian regime’s subtle approach deliberately offers the Obama administration the option to remain quiet about chemical attacks and thereby avoid the obligation to make good on its threats. But even more worrying, Assad’s limited use of chemical weapons is intended to desensitize the United States and the international community in order to facilitate a more comprehensive deployment in the future — without triggering intervention. 

The advent of chemical weapons use in Syria should not come as a surprise, and neither should the manner in which Assad has introduced them. The gory details about chemical weapons use are still forthcoming, but one of the first likely instances took place in late March at Khan al-Asal, a regime military facility under siege by rebels. Opposition reports and videos showed symptoms and effects consistent with a chlorine or phosphate-based chemical weapon, which the rebels claimed was delivered by a short-range rocket.

The Assad regime swiftly accused rebels of firing "rockets containing chemical materials" within hours of the attack, which helped outsiders suspect that a chemical-laden projectile had actually been used, and also had the effect of incriminating the usually slow-to-react regime. The chemical rocket attacked a specifically military rebel target at Khan al-Asal and the chemicals used were not highly lethal, although the recent reports from Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials have pointed to the use of more lethal sarin nerve gas.

This subtle introduction of chemical weapons fits the Assad regime’s established model for military escalation. Over the course of the conflict, each regime escalation has started with military necessity and expanded to brutal punishment of the Syrian population. Assad has established a clear modus operandi for ramping up the battle without triggering international intervention: toe the line, confirm Western inaction, and then ratchet up the violence further. At each step Washington’s hollow "we strongly condemn" rhetoric has validated the approach.

Assad’s forces began using heavy weapons to shell Homs in February 2012 because they could not dislodge the rebels with ground forces alone. From the regime’s perspective, military necessity demanded the relatively restrained use of artillery bombardment to soften rebel positions ahead of a ground offensive. Once Assad confirmed that artillery would not trigger an international response, the shelling expanded to target opposition civilian neighborhoods each day — without any attempt to retake these areas with ground forces.

When the Syrian regime’s ground troops became overstretched in June 2012, military necessity once again dictated escalation: Assad unleashed his air force. Assad did not have the troops necessary to respond to rebel advances in northern Aleppo and Latakia, and therefore employed limited helicopter strikes against rebel military targets. By August of last year, Assad had confirmed that his air offensive would not trigger a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone, which allowed him to deploy Syrian Air Force jets against rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, punishing an innocent population for the rebels’ gains.

The cynical pattern continued. The regime introduced ballistic missiles once the rebels became adept at shooting down aircraft and overrunning airbases. The strikes began in December 2012, with small numbers of Scud missiles fired at an explicitly military target, a base overrun by rebel forces. Once again, Assad waited to see what the reaction would be. And once again, it was Western silence. By restricting the initial targets to rebel forces and limiting the number of strikes, Assad desensitized the U.S. and international community to the introduction of a new, strategic weapon that could later be turned against the Syrian people. By January of this year, the missile strikes had expanded to include consistent attacks against densely populated urban areas in Aleppo and Damascus.

And chemical weapons are next. Much like the strategy employed with artillery, air power, and ballistic missiles, Assad’s introduction of weapons of mass destruction intends to pave the way for more lethal and wide-ranging chemical attacks against the Syrian people in the future. Assad’s chemical weapons are not just a strategic deterrent against foreign intervention, they represent a critical tool in the ongoing campaign against the Syrian opposition. Assad’s approach to the conflict has been the inverse of what Western militaries call population-centric counterinsurgency: rather than clear insurgents out of population centers, Assad has sought to clear populations out of insurgent-held areas.

The strategy has successfully ensured that even when the rebels gain territory they lose the population, either literally, through physical displacement or death, or in the hearts and minds department, as civilians bear the brunt of the bloodshed and blame the rebels for their plight. It’s a cynical but effective strategy. The regime’s campaign of air strikes against bakeries, for example, isn’t just sadism or poor aim; it’s a deliberate attempt to ensure that the rebels can’t provide basic services for the people in the areas they control. This approach to insurgency is not new; the Russians have historically adopted this model against insurgents in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Population displacement is central to Assad’s campaign: massacring Sunni villages, bulldozing Damascene neighborhoods, and launching ballistic missiles into downtown Aleppo all fit this overall approach. And chemical weapons fit this strategy. Even their limited use is terrifying, forcing populations to leave areas that the rebels have seized — and sowing fear that more is to come. But in order to use this weapon in greater numbers, Assad needs to be sure that Washington isn’t about to come knocking on his door with bunker busters. So far, there’s no indication that it will.

Russia and China have made sure that United Nations Security Council support for any intervention won’t be forthcoming. And with both Iranian proxies and al Qaeda affiliates already well-ensconced in Syria, President Obama is paralyzed by the fear of repeating the Bush administration’s mistakes, notably dragging the United States into another long campaign in the Middle East (not to mention attacking another Baathist regime over the threat of WMD). But that’s where the parallels end. Unlike Iraq, Syria’s chemical weapons are not a poorly disguised pretext for an ill-conceived war: they represent an imminent threat to the Syrian people.

That said, Syria’s chemical weapons probably do not represent a direct threat to the United States — at least while they remain in Assad’s hands. If Obama calculates that the risks and costs of U.S. intervention are too high, then that’s his prerogative as commander-in-chief. Over the past decade of conflict, the United States has learned the hard way not to underestimate the potential risks of military action (usually referred to as &quot
;second and third order effects" in military parlance). But the trajectory of the Syrian conflict will teach us that inaction also carries risks.

Despite the president’s stated red line, it remains an open question whether that fundamental cost calculus has shifted even after a chemical attack. Worse, it remains unclear what exactly the United States can do about it now. Any feasible campaign to neutralize or secure all of Syria’s chemical weapons would represent precisely the large-scale military intervention that the administration has long feared.

President Obama’s reluctance to entertain military options derives from his recognition that Syrian state failure is likely, his conviction that the United States not become invested in another costly foreign conflict, and his determination that history not blame him for Syria’s implosion. The White House has, for now, urged the United Nations to authorize a "full investigation" — a limp response if ever there was one. But the president has made it clear that he’ll need a big, smoking gun to push him into taking on the responsibility of a decisive U.S. response. Unfortunately, the wily Assad doesn’t seem likely to give Obama such an easy decision.

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