Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why would the Syrian regime want to use chemical weapons? (Frida Ghitis)

One of the clearest and most illuminating (brief) considerations of this question that I have run across is the piece by Frida Ghitis below.  Rather than elaborate, I'll simply pass it on.

=>  By the way ...  It does remain hypothetically possible (very hypothetically) that the poison gas attacks on August 21 were not carried out by Syrian government forces, but instead by rebel forces hoping to generate atrocity propaganda for international consumption.  But despite some claims to the contrary, there seems to be no serious evidence to support those speculations. So far it looks almost certain that the Assad regime was, in fact, responsible; and there is strong evidence that they had already used poison gas, on a smaller scale, on previous occasions. It's also possible that when Syrian government forces launched those poison gas attacks on August 21, they did not expect them to kill so many civilians.  As David Romano put it, these poison gas attacks may have turned out to be "much more effective than originally intended."  Historians will presumably have to sort all that out.

However, arguments that it simply wouldn't make sense for the Assad regime to be using poison gas, because that wouldn't be "rational" in terms of any possible cost/benefit analysis, are entirely unconvincing—as such arguments (based on what the analyst finds "rational") usually are.

—Jeff Weintraub

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World Politics Review
September 5, 2013
Why Syria’s Assad Would Use Chemical Weapons
By Frida Ghitis

Among the harshest critics of President Barack Obama’s push for military intervention in Syria are skeptics who question the very foundation of the claim that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on Aug. 21, the day intelligence agencies in several countries say Syrian forces carried out a massive nerve gas attack.

The critics declare themselves unpersuaded by the evidence made public so far and say it simply does not make sense from a tactical and strategic vantage point for Assad to have used the internationally proscribed weaponry. If chemical agents were used, they argue, it makes more sense for the rebels to have done it, seeking to trigger international support.

Despite the skeptics’ arguments, there is a strong case to be made that using nerve gas fit neatly into Assad’s civil war playbook.

To be sure, using sarin gas, which the U.S. accuses Assad of having done, came with a number of complications. Most evident of all, it risked triggering an international response, as we have seen. In addition to political risks, the use of chemical weapons also entails tactical problems. Their dispersal pattern is unpredictable, as fighting forces discovered during World War I. A shift in the wind can blow the poison in unintended directions, even sending it back to those who launched it.

And yet, Assad and his advisers may well have concluded that the benefits outweighed the risks.

On the political side, the American president’s warning that chemical weapons use constituted a “red line” looked increasingly empty. Intelligence services in a number of countries have concluded that Assad used chemical weapons on several occasions. Even U.S. intelligence said months ago that Syria had already crossed that line, but the Obama administration did not respond. That sent a signa—incorrectly, it turns out—that Obama’s preference for staying out of the Syrian conflict would protect the Syrian regime from Western intervention.

On this particular occasion, the alleged use of sarin fits the Syrian army’s practice. The pattern for regime forces has been to bomb rebel-held areas from a distance, with conventional artillery or from the air, occasionally adding chemicals to that assault. After softening the target and flushing out the opposition, government forces go in with tanks and infantry to secure the areas and return them to government control.

That seemed to be exactly what was going on in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.

The use of WMD would fit the Syrian military’s practice of pounding rebel areas before sending in tanks and infantry. Ghouta had become a particularly stubborn target in an area crucial for its access to the capital and communications with other government-held areas.

Chemical weapons not only work to flush out rebels from their position, they also serve the sinister purpose of spreading fear among the population, killing civilians—including hundreds of children in this case—which sends a message to fighters and nonfighters alike. To the rebels it says, “Your families will not be safe.” To the neighborhoods watching the unfolding horror, it says, “You’d better keep the rebels out of your streets.”

The rebels have captured large tracts of territory, mostly along the north of the country. At one time, they had made big gains in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, closing in on Assad and his forces. But the addition of large contingents of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon has given Assad a powerful boost. Hezbollah helped the government win the crucial battles for Qusayr and Kaldiyeh in the West.

Pro-Assad forces have also succeeded in pushing the rebels out from positions around the capital, with the notable exception of the eastern suburbs where the chemical attack came that day.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem admitted the government conducted a military operation, important enough to have a code name, trying to root out opposition fighters from eastern Ghouta. Mouallem strongly denied Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, saying “Operation City Shield” amounted to a “pre-emptive strike” against rebels, who he says were on the verge of launching an attack on Damascus.

Syria admits chemicals were used, but blames the rebels. Western experts believe the Syrian army's 4th Armored Division, commanded by Assad's younger brother, Maher al-Assad, is the only unit that possesses launching devices for chemical weapons.

The U.S. says Assad’s forces killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children in an attack using sarin nerve gas. In France, the government published a nine-page report concluding that “on Aug. 21, 2013, the Syrian regime launched an attack on Damascus suburbs held by opposition units, bringing together conventional means and massive use of chemical agents.” France says the target zone was held by rebels and “the launch zone of the rockets” is under regime control. France counted at least 281 deaths from the attack. Unlike previous chemical attacks that sought simply to terrorize, according to France’s national intelligence synthesis, this attack was “aimed at regaining territory.”

In Britain, the joint intelligence committee report concludes that “it is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a chemical attack on this scale.”

Assad’s regime is known to possess one of the world’s largest stockpiles of such weapons and undoubtedly has the capability to utilize them. Whether the rebels have that ability is another matter. The opposition would conceivably have a motive to conduct a chemical attack, by drawing in outside help in their fight to overthrow Assad. But it is hard to argue this particular attack made a lot of sense for the opposition. While Assad would want to send a message of fear to neighborhoods sheltering rebels, the rebels have every reason not to inflict huge civilian casualties in key areas under their control, particularly in the pivotal Ghouta section of Damascus.

Syria’s stockpiles of WMD have been at the center of Western and Israeli concerns during the civil war. Those governments have been sharply monitoring the movement of WMD within Syria. And the Ghouta attack was not a minor incident. It was much larger than any previous use of poison gas, requiring relatively large quantities, which need mixing and preparing for launch. That is a more challenging operation for members of the opposition, and one that would have been very difficult to carry out without being detected.

Using chemical weapons did not amount to an irrational move by Assad and his forces. The Assad regime had the means and the opportunity to carry out the attack. And despite the skeptics’ claims, it had reason to do so.

Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.

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