Syria – a chilling hypothesis

Immediately after the chemical attacks near Damascus on August 21, the first reaction of many people – apart from horror at the mass slaughter – was to ask what the Assad regime could have hoped to gain from it. 

Some asked the question out of sheer puzzlement, others because they doubted the regime could have been responsible. Surely it would be madness to do such a thing while UN weapons inspectors were in their hotel just a few miles from the scene. How on earth could the regime expect to get away with it?

It's worth revisiting this question because we know somewhat more now than we did then, and trying to find an answer may give some pointers to the regime's future behaviour.

The chemical attacks on August 21 were by no means the first of the Syrian conflict. According to last week's US intelligence report, for example, the regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs. The British government's intelligence report, also published last week, said the regime had used chemical weapons on at least 14 occasions in the past.

A recent article in Le Monde provided details about how such weapons were allegedly used in earlier attacks – basically to crack resistance in the areas of toughest fighting.

Up to a point, the August 21 attacks fit this established pattern – except that none had previously caused casualties on such an enormous scale. What we don't yet know is whether the huge number of deaths was unintentional – the result of careless use of chemical weapons – or deliberate.

Even though the UN inspectors were in Damascus at the time, the regime had little reason to fear them. They had arrived three days earlier with a very restricted mandate that had taken months for the UN to negotiate. 

During a two-week stay they were due to visit Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, where rebels said the regime had used chemical weapons last March, plus two other sites which had not been publicly named. Khan al-Assal had since fallen into rebel hands and there were doubts as to whether they would actually get there.

In addition to that, under the UN's agreement with the regime they were allowed to investigate whether chemical weapons had been used, but not who used them.

With the inspectors thus confined in their straitjackets, the regime may have felt confident enough to carry on using chemical weapons regardless. If so, it was wrong. Once the scale of the Damascus attacks became clear, it had little choice but to let the inspectors visit – since refusal would amount almost to an admission of guilt. It delayed them for a while, though, possibly in the hope that evidence would be lost.

As with the attacks themselves, the question this raises is whether it was a cock-up or deliberate. Did the regime expect that the inspectors' presence would not be a problem, or was it trying to make a mockery of them?

Since the Syrian conflict began, Assad has escalated the violence ruthlessly but skilfully, stepping it up a notch at a time and each time getting away with it. In this way the world has become inured to it and reacts less strongly to further increases.

Even so, mass killing with chemical weapons is a big step, especially after Obama's "red line" warning a year ago. But here's a chilling hypothesis.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the regime is looking for a way to break the deadlock between its own forces and the rebels, that it has decided the only way to do this is with chemical weapons, and has calculated that other countries will not intervene to stop it.

I know many readers will think this is far too fanciful, even where the Assad regime is concerned. But there is a precedent. It happened once before, in Iraq during the 1980s. Take a look at 
this article by Steve Coll in the New Yorker which begins:

Early in 1987, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi President, decided to clear out scores of Kurdish villages, in order to undermine separatist rebels. He asked Ali Hassan al-Majid, a general and a first cousin, to lead the project. 

In tape recordings later produced by Iraqi prosecutors, Majid told Baath Party colleagues that the novelty and the terror of chemical weapons would “threaten” the Kurds and “motivate them to surrender.” 

On April 16th of that year, Iraq became the first nation ever to drop gas bombs on its own citizens; the gassing campaign lasted two years and killed thousands of people. 

“I will kill them all with chemical weapons!” Majid told his colleagues. “Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community and those who listen to them!”

The article goes on to say:

Saddam saw great value in chemical arms during the nineteen-eighties, and his twisted logic bears examination in the light of Syria's deteriorating conflict. Saddam first used gas bombs to thwart Iran’s zealous swarms of "human wave" infantry. Chemical terror broke the will of young Iranian volunteers, a lesson that informed Majid’s subsequent Kurdish campaign. 

The Reagan Administration's decision to tolerate Saddam’s depravities proved to be a colossal moral failure and strategic mistake; it encouraged Saddam's aggression and internal repression, and it allowed Iraq to demonstrate to future dictators the tactical value of chemical warfare.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 1 September 2013