Friday, August 03, 2012

The Syrian regime threatens to use chemical & biological weapons

The real meaning or significance of a speech act is often quite different from, even contrary to, its most literal or straightforward meaning.  Anyone who can pick up irony or sarcasm is familiar with some ways this works.  But here is another example.

About a week ago the Syrian regime held a press conference whose ostensible purpose was to reassure everyone that the regime will not use its chemical and biological weapons to help put down the escalating rebellion against it.  To quote from the Financial Times report below:
While fierce fighting continued on Tuesday in Damascus and Aleppo, a foreign ministry representative told a press conference that “any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used – and I repeat will never be used – during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments.”
But the real points being conveyed, which were not missed by the FT writers, almost certainly lie in two other aspects of this announcement.  First, the Syrian regime "publicly admitted for the first time" that it actually has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons—which, it assures us, are “stored and secured by Syrian military forces."  (Its clandestine nuclear weapons program seems to have been shut down by an Israeli air raid in 2007.)  Second, in the course of denying that the Assad regime would ever consider using chemical or biological weapons against Syrians, the Foreign Ministry spokesman added that they would be used only in the event of "external aggression."  The FT writers say that this "was seen as a thinly veiled threat."  Frankly, that veil looks pretty thin to me.  This was a fairly direct threat that the Assad regime might be prepared to use chemical and biological weapons against foreign military intervention.

How seriously should we take that threat?  I'm not sure, but I suspect that the Syrian regime would like foreign governments (and especially the Turkish army) to think twice about the possibility.  As we all know, the only regime to engage in large-scale use of chemical weapons in recent memory was the other Ba'athist regime in the neighborhood—the one in Iraq, headed by Saddam Hussein, which the US and its allies removed in 2003.  Saddam Hussein used massive quantities of poison gas against both Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians within Iraq.  But even Saddam held back from using poison gas against US and Coalition troops in 1991.  (And by 2003 Saddam's efforts to convince his foreign and domestic enemies that he still had stockpiles of chemical & biological weapons available—while officially denying that he did—turned out to be a bluff.)  So my guess is that the Syrian regime is hoping that this threat will help deter foreign military intervention, but that whether or not they would actually use chemical and/or biological weapons against foreign troops is uncertain.

However, it seems likely that the Syrian regime's official admission that it has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons was intended to convey some not-very-subtle threats, directed at two different audiences.  On the one hand, while the literal content of this announcement was to deny that the Assad regime would use chemical & biological weapons against other Syrians, it is hard to avoid feeling that the real point was to remind the Syrian population that the regime has these weapons available and could use them if its back is against the wall.  On the other hand, the regime wanted to warn foreign governments that if it falls, and its military and administrative apparatus disintegrates, then the result could be a chaotic situation in which all those chemical & biological weapons would be up for grabs.  Who knows where they might wind up?

That last danger, by the way, is a real and genuinely worrisome possibility—though I would not draw the conclusion that the best way to avoid this danger is for the outside world to prop up the Assad regime.  It's an awful regime, with a record of brutal repression and murderous criminality that stands out even in a regional context—along with a demonstrated incapacity to reform itself—and it richly deserves to be overthrown.  But many of its opponents are pretty awful too (it's hard to say more than that, since there are a range of social and political tendencies involved in the revolt, and the overall nature and composition of the opposition remain vague and amorphous), and it's not clear what alternatives to the current regime will actually emerge.

Meanwhile, it seems to me, the most plausible way to interpret the significance of this announcement is that the Assad regime is feeling increasingly anxious and insecure about its situation, but also wants to send a clear message that it will not bow out gracefully.  It wants to let everyone know that if it goes down, it's willing to bring everything else down with it.

=> The larger context for this particular incident is the process by which the struggle for Syria, which has now been going on for a year and a half, has been escalating in scope and violence and will probably go on doing so.  The upheaval began with a wave of mostly peaceful protests that were met by brutal crackdowns, then escalated into a violent insurgency that increasingly sucked in foreign attention and involvement, and may well be turning into a full-scale inter-sectarian civil war.  The prospects for the future remain uncertain, but most of the likely outcomes look extremely unpleasant, even scary—not just for Syria itself, but also for the region more generally.

(A recent Time magazine piece by Tony Karon, "Five Syria Nightmares", offers one plausible overview of some disastrous outcomes that might follow the overthrow or collapse of the Assad regime.  But we also don't know when, or if, that's going to happen—and it's quite possible that the longer this increasingly bloody and bitter conflict goes on, the worse the aftermath will be.)

More on all this soon.

—Jeff Weintraub

Financial Times
July 24, 2012
Syria confirms it has chemical weapons
By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut, Michael Peel in Damascus and James Blitz in London

Syria has publicly admitted for the first time that it possesses chemical and biological weapons, adding to international concern that its stocks could fall into the hands of militant groups as the civil war intensifies.

While fierce fighting continued on Tuesday in Damascus and Aleppo, a foreign ministry representative told a press conference that “any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used – and I repeat will never be used – during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments.”

Such weapons are “stored and secured by Syrian military forces”, Jihad Makdissi said. But in what was seen as a thinly veiled threat, he added that they would only be used in the event of “external aggression”.

Mr Makdissi speculated that “terrorists” might deploy chemical weapons in Syria and try to pin the blame on regime forces.

The White House said “given the escalation of violence in Syria, and the regime’s increasing attacks on their people, we remain very concerned about these weapons.”

A US state department spokeswoman said warnings against using chemical weapons extended not only to the Syrian government but to rebels and any militants who might try to obtain them.

“The warnings that we have given with regard to safeguarding this kind of absolutely horrific and dangerous weapon have been made to regime, to opposition, to anybody who might get their hands on them,” she said.

Heavy clashes were reported on Monday in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, while the regime reasserted control over rebel areas in Damascus. Explosions boomed and gunfire crackled from the direction of the Dahadeel district next to the restive Midan area, which the government retook at the end of last week.

The EU, meanwhile, tightened an arms embargo against Syria, requiring the bloc’s member states to search ships and aircraft suspected of carrying weapons to the country.

The measure was intended to reinforce weaknesses in a previously agreed arms embargo by limiting member states’ discretion to determine whether or not to search suspect vessels in their waters.

While Mr Makdissi later denied on Twitter that his statement constituted confirmation of the existence of chemical or biological weapons in Syria, it marks a radical break with the government’s previous reticence on the subject.

“Its extraordinary that the situation has made them admit it,” said Salman Shaikh of the Doha Brookings Center, a think-tank. “They don’t want them [the US] to think they are being irresponsible with these weapons – I think this would be a real American red line.”

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international watchdog, has called on Damascus for many years to reveal what stocks it possesses. “We have never had any official response,” said Michael Luhan, head of public affairs at OPCW.

Israel has hinted that it might intervene to stop chemical weapons stockpiles from being transferred to Hizbollah, the militant group allied with Damascus.

Brigadier Michael Herzog, formerly a leading figure in the Israeli army, said: “A scenario in which the regime uses chemical weapons against its own people is unlikely. But one cannot rule out that, under extreme pressure, they might do so if they believe they are about to fall.”

Some analysts argued that Mr Makdissi’s statement was intended as a warning to outside powers calling for Mr Assad’s removal from power that the departure of the regime would hurt their own security interests.

“The important message is that it is only us that can secure and safeguard these things – don’t push us too far, we’re responsible when it comes to the one thing you’re most worried about,” said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Others saw it as more of a gesture of reassurance in the face of mounting international pressure.

Additional reporting by Joshua Chaffin in Brussels