Method in Assad's madness?

The obvious question raised by today's claims of chemical weapons attacks near Damascus is what the Assad regime could expect to gain, if indeed it was responsible for them.

Many are asking this question out of scepticism about the reports. Why do it when UN weapons inspectors are sitting in their hotel just a few miles from the scene? Why use chemicals when the regime seems to be making progress on the military front by more conventional means?

These are reasonable questions but they don't necessarily reflect the Assad regime's thought processes: the Baathist mentality has its own kind of logic.

Let's suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that the regime did use some kind of toxic agent. What are the UN inspectors going to do about it? 

Precise details of the inspectors' mandate are secret but the New York Times says:

"After months of negotiation with the Syrian government about access to the country, the United Nations said a team of inspectors would investigate three sites, including the village of Khan al-Assal near the northern city of Aleppo, where both sides have accused the other of a chemical attack on March 19 that killed dozens of people.

"The location of the other two sites has not been made public, and the United Nations team has said it will seek to determine only if chemical weapons were used, not who used them."

It appears from this that today's attacks (it that's what they were) are not included, and that even if they were the inspectors would not be empowered to attribute responsibility for them.

The UN can ask to include today's events of course, but the regime could then drag out discussions until there is little or nothing to be found. Evidence may surface through other channels, only to be dismissed by the regime as coming from partisan sources.

The upshot of this is that the chances of the regime being caught red-handed, and convincingly so, are fairly slim. At this stage in the conflict, though, it probably doesn't matter too much to the regime whether it is caught red-handed or not (as I shall explain in a moment).

On the question of what the regime might gain militarily from such attacks, the answer may be very little. But that assumes the regime is thinking only in military terms, when the real purpose could be political. One pointer is this direction (though it might conceivably be nothing more than coincidence) is that the alleged attacks came on the one-year anniversary of President Obama's famous "red line" warning against the use of chemical or biological weapons in Syria – a warning that Obama has been noticeably reluctant to act upon.

As I suggested in a previous blog post, whatever the suspicions about Syrian use of chemical weapons, Obama would probably prefer the charges to remain unproven – in order to avoid difficult decisions over how to respond.

Internationally, the Syrian regime sees itself as part of the "resistance" bloc, constantly giving the finger to the US and other western countries, as well as to its Arab foes. Assad's strategy from the beginning of the uprising has been to ratchet up the violence step by step, to see what he can get away with, before taking it up another notch.

Given this background, Assad may now be calculating that the time is ripe to cross Obama's red line with impunity. It's a risk, but if he succeeds he will have demonstrated once and for all that where Syria is concerned the "international community" is impotent and in total disarray.

Of course, there are expressions of alarm from many capitals, and calls for the UN security council to meet. But it is difficult to see what they can actually do, considering that the public have so far been in no mood for military action. 

There is also, of course, the parallel question of Egypt. If Sisi can massacre people in Egypt with guns while the US dithers over what to do about aid, is it really very different if Assad massacres them with chemicals? Either way, the people are dead.

So a short alternative answer to the question "why?" is that Assad has little to lose now from using chemical weapons and potentially a lot to gain on the political front. He may well be thinking: "If I can get away with this I can get away with anything." And he could be right.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 21 August 2013