Michael Weiss

Crossing the line

bashar al-assad

Following allegations from Britain, France, Israel, and Qatar that the Syrian regime had deployed chemical weapons in Aleppo and Damascus, the Obama administration yesterday confirmed that U.S. intelligence, “with varying degrees of confidence,” shared the same view. In a letter sent to Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, the White House’s Congressional liaison Miguel Rodriguez added that this assessment was “based in part on physiological samples” and that the agent used was most likely sarin. Rodriguez further stipulated that any such use would “very likely having originated with the Assad regime,” although how victims may have been exposed to the deadly nerve agent remains undetermined. According to The Financial Times, two different sets of blood samples were analyzed, one by American authorities, the other by Britain’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory. Perhaps reacting to the initial skepticism of administration officials, anonymously quoted in a New York Times article that threw cold water on the IDF’s foremost intelligence analyst’s claims of sarin use, Israel’s deputy defense minister Danny Danon today told CNN today: “I will not go into specifics, but I can tell you very clear [sic] that we know that Syria has used chemical weapons.”


The attacks almost certainly being independently or jointly investigated by all five foreign governments are the two that occurred last month in Aleppo’s Khan al-Asal and in Oteibeh, a town in the East Ghouta suburb of Damascus. The Assad regime has alleged that there was indeed a chemical agent deployed in Khan al-Asal but insists that it was the rebels – or “terrorists” – who deployed it, firing from Kafer Da’al, about 50 kilometers north. The 25 dead and 110 injured in this attack were mainly attendees of a pro-Assad rally, which the regime has predictably used as propaganda point to implicate the opposition. However, the rebels do not possess rockets that can travel 50 kilometers, much less any outfitted with chemical warheads. Thus far, the only chemical facility to have been seized by the opposition – the al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, to be exact – was the Syrian-Saudi Chemicals Company in Aleppo, which manufactures chlorine.


What probably happened in Khan al-Assal was that the regime aimed at an opposition stronghold in Aleppo and missed, hitting its own loyalists by mistake. The rocket evidently landed about a kilometer away from the army’s Infantry Training Academy, which was too embarrassing a friendly-fire mishap not to spin on state television. Alternatively, rebels have long held that the regime would use chemical weapons in Aleppo and blame them for it. Part of Assad’s PR campaign has of course been to portray the entirety of the opposition as extremists or foreign agents, and his struggle for survival as inextricable from the global war on terror – a campaign that now includes parading so-called jihadists who dream of the caliphate and more attacks on U.S. soil before American news reporters.


Syria had requested that the U.N. investigate this site but refused to allow it to inspect Oteibeh. Russia has predictably backed such forensic obstruction, which should, but probably won’t, change American policymakers’ minds about how these latest disclosures will shame or pressure the Kremlin into abandoning its wholesale support for Damascus at the Security Council.


At the time of the Oteibeh attack, the Syrian Support Group said that a rocket outfitted with Echothiophate, an organophosphate, had been fired from al-Qatifa into Oteibeh, killing between 60 and 70. Victims suffering from convulsions, fascicular contractions, bradycardia, and severe hypotension – all symptoms consonant with exposure to organophosphates or sarin gas – were treated with Atropine, as these videos demonstrate. To date, the regime has not acknowledged the use of chemical agents in Oteibeh.


Yesterday, the Syrian Support Group (SSG) sent out another press release stating that two more chemical attacks were waged by the regime in southern part of Daraya, near the town of Sahnaya, the first at 1 a.m. and the second at 7 a.m. There were 130 victims, 8 serious, and so far no one is dead, although SSG had no information as to the exact agent used. Doctors again administered atropine, oxygen, and pain killers to alleviate the same symptoms exhibited in Oteibeh and Khan al-Asal. According to videos uploaded to YouTube, a large number of livestock were also killed.


One of the floated caveats or questions since the administration copped to being more or less in sync with its allies involves the “strategic” value of Assad’s deploying chemical agents on a “small scale.” After all, these weapons are meant to kill en masse (though they’ve arguably done just that with the alleged dead exceeding 100 in both the Oteibeh and Daraya episodes). Non-proliferation expert Ralf Trapp told Foreign Policy: “From a military perspective, it doesn't make sense to use chemical weapons bit by bit. Why would the regime just put it on a grenade here or a rocket launcher there? It's just not the way you'd expect a military force to act.”


But the Syrian regime is not in the business of satisfying Western expectations, military or otherwise. And WMD wonks would do well to marry their technical expertise to the totalitarian mindset of Bashar al-Assad, who has reportedly told a delegation of March 8 supporters that he believes the United States will simply back the “winner” in any zero-sum conflict in Syria. It doesn’t matter how he wins, in other words; U.S. policy is too “pragmatic” for Obama to wage an intervention to oust him even if he uses WMD. Obama appears to concur.


Furthermore, if you look at how the regime itself views the military dynamics, particularly within eyeshot of its own seat of power, there is grim martial logic to using deadly agents “bit by bit.” In fact, doing so has already benefited the regime.


Daraya adjoins the Mezze Military Airport and military bases just to the northwest that belong to the Fourth Armored Division, one of Assad’s praetorian divisions. East Ghouta lies just south of Harasta, where the Republican Guard’s 104th and 105th regiments are headquartered. For months, rebels have resisted being expelled from this crucial district in southern Damascus in spite of shelling and regime raids. East Ghouta is also the base of Liwa al-Islam, the rebel brigade that planned and carried out last July’s crisis management cell bombing, which killed Assef Shawkat, Hassan Turkmani, and Dawoud Rajha and maimed Maher al-Assad. That operation cannot have taken place without Liwa al-Islam agents having either successfully infiltrated the cell or coordinated with secret regime sympathizers working on the inside – likely the same actors close to Shawkat who had once sent jihadists now signed up with the brigade into Iraq.


If you’re Assad, having such a knowledgeable and resourceful group of conspirators lying in wait at the edge of the lion’s den is a significant threat that fighter jets, attack helicopters and Scud missiles have so far been incapable in eliminating. And, as Joe Holliday, formerly of the Institute for the Study of War, reminds us, Assad is gradually running out of Scuds and aircraft. So what comes next?


Perhaps more significant is Oteibeh’s own strategic value as a main portal for rebel weapons supply lines coming in from Jordan. Many of the recoilless rifles and anti-infantry guns imported from Croatia on Saudi Arabia’s dime have wound up here, just to the east of where the “Battle of Armageddon” is set to commence. In a recent interview with pro-regime Turkish journalists, Assad issued this warning to King Abdullah: “We would wish that our Jordanian neighbors realize that... the fire will not stop at our borders; all the world knows Jordan is just as exposed (to the crisis) as Syria.” Spraying the recipients of Jordanian largesse with poison gas is a nice way to drive home the point. Also, it has had a demonstrable effect already: The rebels were flushed out of Oteibeh four days ago after more than 37 days of intense fighting. Most ran out of ammunition, but how many fled fearing another rocket loaded with an unknown but lethal substance?


Why would Assad use a little and not a lot in these locations? Well, for one thing, they’re both fairly close to downtown Damascus and the presidential compound in the Qassioum mountains where, unless he’s pitched a tent aboard a Russian naval ship, he himself still resides. Using a lot would be suicidal; a little minatory to rebels who might otherwise try to advance farther.


Nevertheless, many still question the credibility of four separate nations’ intelligence assessments and have offered up theories that only superficially service the president’s reluctance to intervene but actually hint at more worrying developments. Might the rebels have attacked a regime chemical weapon in transit? (This is what the White House intended in its letter by referring to the indeterminate “chain of custody” of Assad’s chemical arsenal.) An unintentional hit might have happened once, but if it did so repeatedly, then that would strongly suggest that many chemical stockpiles are now in transit throughout Syria, which would also constitute a clear violation of Obama’s “red line.” And if by referring to the movement of “a whole bunch” of WMD, the president made his policy contingent on the proportion of chemical mobilization, at what point does multiple instances of “small scale” attacks become a worrying size-matters problem for his administration?


Could the regime have “accidentally” launched one or more chemical warheads that were wrongly labeled conventional artillery rounds or surface-to-surface rockets or other types of munitions? That seems unlikely, but if the regime is so careless with the cataloging of its own arsenal, then more accidents are bound to happen. As it happens, the Syrian military has had some bad experiences with trying to fill conventional artillery rounds with chemical compounds. In the 1970s, soldiers “experimented” in just this way, only to have the results literally explode in their faces. What if the next time Assad makes a mistake, he accidentally sends a VX warhead to Hezbollah? If the regime has not learned to be more careful since, then should it not be alleviated of the overtaxing burden of having to differentiate between WMD and mere W? 


All of this academic speculation ignores obvious intentionality. Wired magazine reported last December that the Syrian military had already outfitted rockets with chemical warheads. “Physically, they’ve gotten to the point where the can load it up on a plane and drop it,” one quoted intelligence official said, and he did not add that these were in any way errors of judgment or categorization.


When asked why Stalin ordered even his old friend Marshal Yegorev shot during the purges, the Russo-Hungarian historian Tibor Szamuely, who grew up in the Soviet Union, responded: “Why not?” Much of the difficulty in wrongly anticipating Assad’s behavior and concocting policy prescriptions (“peaceful transitions,” “comprehensive investigation”) that only enable the continuance or worsening of that behavior is rooted in asking the wrong questions about Syria. During the days of the Cold War, this malady was known as “mirror-imaging,” the West’s reading of an inscrutable foreign despotism’s designs through the prism of its own epistemology. Yet as Orwell, ever more an authoritative guide than any National Security Council, observed: “Anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another.” 


Many refused to believe that in the 21st-century another Ba’athist tyrant in the Middle East – this one partly educated in London and married to glamorous wife – would dare to gas citizens of his own state. Despite mounting evidence to suggest he has already done that several times, many of our policymakers and analysts are still in disbelief and willing to find reasons to corroborate their skepticism. If Assad had wanted to better communicate his true objectives to the United States, he’d have said from the start that no option is, or ever has ever been, off the table.

The Syrian president is toying with the West. (AFP photo)

"There is grim martial logic to using deadly agents 'bit by bit.' In fact, doing so has already benefited the regime."

  • Vlad Tepes

    I only read the very beginning of this long, pointless, drawn out mini-novel you wrote. I like how YOU, a blogger sitting on a soapbox somewhere exclaims that all the happenings in Syria based on your limited "knowledge", are fact. The fake rebels are not a bunch of adaptive, poor Lowlifes. They are supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, al-Queda, and others who have much of the capabilities you pretend these "rebels", don't have. Good for a laugh though!

    May 1, 2013