Last week, president Obama issued another warning to Syria’s embattled dictator against making the “tragic mistake” of using chemical weapons (CW). There remain a number of real scenarios in which we could see Bashar al-Assad use these weapons down the road. But whether he does so any time soon or not, Washington’s reaction to his latest trial balloon with the CW provided him with the answers he sought at this point. The White House’s response has likely, if inadvertently, emboldened Assad to continue to wield the threat of using CW, if not really use them. Here's the strategic upside as Assad sees it.
The Syrian president realizes that his chemical arsenal is the ace up his sleeve. From the beginning of the Syrian revolution, it was amply demonstrated to him that his CW capability separated him from Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi. Syria is not Libya, the mantra went. The usual justification pointed to Assad’s air defenses, but it’s clear that the major reason was precisely Syria’s CW stockpile. Assad understood that his deterrent worked.
Moreover, Assad figured that as long as he held this card, he would remain politically relevant. This was reinforced by the public messages the Obama administration kept sending him.
Assad’s stunt last week wasn’t the first time he tested the waters by moving chemical weapons around. In July, US intelligence noted such movement and declared that it would “hold accountable” those responsible. Then, in a curiously worded statement, the administration said that it expected “the Syrian government … to safeguard its stockpiles.”
The US position was contradictory. A year earlier Obama said Assad had lost legitimacy and called on him to “step aside.” And now the US was asking him to maintain control and safeguard these CW sites.
Assad put his finger on the essential incoherence of Washington’s policy. He smelled that the US was still not certain about the endgame in Syria. In as much as the US wanted him to go, it remained uneasy about what would come next. Assad understood, therefore, that Washington had a fear he could exploit, perhaps giving him a bargaining position down the road, as regime-controlled territory contracted.
In addition, this episode proved to Assad that playing around with chemical weapons could grab Obama’s attention as it seemed nothing else could, not even the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians. In other words, Assad figured he had leverage on the US. Up until that point, Obama had made very few statements on Syria. But a month later, in August, the US president directly addressed the situation. Although his comments at the time were viewed as a stern warning to the regime, a closer reading shows why Assad saw an opening to keep pushing.
“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said. This reinforced the State Department’s wording, emphasizing that the problem was not the fact that these weapons were under the control of Assad, a man who had ordered the slaughter of Syrians, facilitated the killing of Americans in Iraq, supported terrorism throughout the Levant, and constructed a secret nuclear arms facility. Rather, the problem was the prospective loss of his control over these arms. Indeed, a senior administration official emphasized to the New York Times that Mr. Obama’s warning “was aimed at large-scale transfers of weapons that would make them vulnerable to capture by radical forces, not movements by the government intended to secure the arsenal.”
Even Obama’s “red line” was not aimed exclusively at Assad, but also at “other players on the ground,” presumably those same “radical forces.” The red line covered further “moving around” of CW as well as their possible use.
But a month later, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that CW were being moved again. However, he added that the regime was relocating them in order to better secure them. So, although Assad had clearly defied Obama’s red line, Assad still got a pass, setting the stage for this month’s episode.
As observers have noted, this time around, Obama slightly shifted the previous red line, removing any reference to “moving around” CW, as Assad had already crossed that line with no consequence. The red line now is only about actually using the weapons.
There are plausible scenarios in which Assad would use CW in a tactical manner against his domestic enemies—and it’s not at all clear that he wouldn’t get away with it. Assad will fight tooth and nail to maintain control over Damascus, while also securing the route from Homs to the coast (an area that witnessed regime ethnic cleansing attacks). As I noted in July, the CW are Assad’s insurance policy to protect his retreat into the coastal redoubt.
At the time, some in the administration had a similar reading, placing the potential use of CW in the framework of a “targeted ethnic cleansing campaign” by Assad, and proposed that he could use “the threat of a chemical attack [to] drive Sunnis … from their homes.” Seen this way, CW could work just as well to maintain a grip on Damascus by forcing hostiles out and keeping them out.
It’s true that the administration has warned Assad against using CW against his people, but it’s doubtful that Assad finds Obama’s threat credible. For one, the administration has loudly made it known that securing the CW sites would require 75,000 troops—effectively ruling it out as an option. Besides, Assad has seen Washington ignore other benchmarks—such as the use of fixed winged aircraft, cluster and incendiary bombs, and now apparently Scuds or “Scud-type” missiles—and has probably concluded that Obama is unlikely to send in the cavalry should a few more hundred Syrians perish in a tactical chemical attack.
What’s more, Obama has now offered Assad another loophole with the designation of the Jabhat al-Nusra group as a terrorist organization. As soon as news came out that the designation was forthcoming, the regime rushed to claim that rebels had seized control of a toxic chlorine factory in east Aleppo, and may now use these chemicals in an attack. Such bogus stories set the stage for a possible attack in the future and provide Assad, and his backers in Moscow, with enough to muddy the waters.
Similarly, there have been opposition claims that Assad has already used CW. It’s difficult to verify these claims, but that’s all Assad needs. Recall how at the time of the Houla massacre, many paused and wondered if this wasn’t an attempt by the opposition to force an intervention. Others claimed it was the opposition’s own doing. There were no good guys in Syria, after all, just like there were no “good options.”
The question Assad likely asks himself is: Would the US really intervene over a deniable incident, the facts of which may not be clear, and that might claim the lives of a couple hundred Syrians when it has sat idly by as 40,000 were killed?
Assad is banking that the basic parameters of US policy will remain the same. The administration’s performance this past week, going back to July, probably reinforced his conviction that not only are his CW a useful bargaining asset, but also that the odds are decent he could get away with it if he used them shrewdly.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.