Chemical Attack Doesn’t Alter Syria’s Dynamics
On the sixth anniversary of the uprising in Syria and a day after the US representative to the United Nations announced that the US is no longer prioritising the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Information continues to trickle out of the latest chemical weapons attack by the al-Assad regime. Speaking to Middle East Eye from Idlib, Ibrahim al-Seweid, 26, said he arrived at the attack site at about 11 am, on Tuesday 4 April, about three hours after the initial strike. “I found bodies scattered all over the area. The local hospital wasn’t prepared for the number of dead. They hit a residential area, the vast majority of the casualties were civilian. And it was clear it was some sort of chemical attack — the way the victims looked, and there was foam on their faces. he said.” The chemical weapons attack took place on the town of Khan Sheikhun in Idlib, northwestern Syria. Despite Bashar’s use of chemical weapons, it will not alter the strategic landscape across Syria.
The al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons has now occurred so many times it has become a regular feature of the battle for Syria. The deadliest attacks were the Ghouta attack in the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013 and the Khan al-Assal attack in the suburbs of Aleppo in March 2013. Several other attacks have been also taken place, the UN mission found the use of the nerve agent sarin in the case of Khan Al-Asal (19 March 2013), Saraqib (29 April 2013), Ghouta (21 August 2013), Jobar (24 August 2013) and Ashrafiyat Sahnaya (25 August 2013). In August 2016, a confidential United Nations report explicitly blamed the Syrian military of Bashar al-Assad for dropping chemical weapons on the towns of Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin in March 2015.Syria is not a signatory to either the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). As a result, Syria began developing chemical weapons in the 1970’s and made serious efforts to acquire and maintain an arsenal of such weapons. Its Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, at a news conference shown live on Syrian national television on July 2012, confirmed Syria’s possession of chemical weapons.
Prior to the uprising Syria reportedly manufactured Sarin, Tabun, VX, and mustard gas types of chemical weapons. Western non-proliferation experts identified 5 production and storage facilities at Cerin, Hama, Homs, Latakia and Palmyra and one suspected weapons base at Al Safir. Independent assessments indicated that Syrian production was a mere few hundred tons of chemical agent per year and its stockpiles prior to international export controls were likely to have been long exhausted.This is due to Syria’s inability to internally produce many of the necessary precursors to create chemical weapons and its dependence upon importing them; a fact that was documented by the CIA and seen in declassified acquisition report to US Congress. As military commanders learned during World War I and the Iran-Iraq war, chemical agents are volatile, quick to vaporize, and tend to dissipate quickly. Therefore, it will be challenging for the regime to amass enough quantities of chemical agents to cause significant damage in a real-world setting.
In all the cases of chemical weapons use by the regime they were mainly used against civilian targets and not against the rebel groups. They were used in urban areas where significant populations reside in close proximity. The nature of the uprising in Syria is that it took place all over the country. Many of the rebel groups did not have fixed positions such as military bases or large stocks of weapons. As a result chemical weapons in this context would have little impact on the groups, using artillery to disperse chemical agents have had little impact as they are dispersed around the country. Al-Assad is fighting an unconventional rather than conventional force that uses asymmetric tactics, which is hard to target through a missile or the use of unconventional weapons without self-annihilation. In Syria there are too many rebel units to target. This is why the rebels have never needed to match the regime’s forces’ numbers or firepower because they compelled the regime to across the country.
But Chemical weapons are a weapon of mass fear rather than mass destruction and as their previous use by the regime has shown they have done little to alter the strategic picture
As the US ambassador gave Bashar the green light it would appear he has resorted to this type of attack. Recent rebel offensives in Hama and elsewhere in Syria have challenged the forces of Bashar al-Assad, despite the victory in Aleppo back in December 2016 and it would appear the chemical attack took place in this context. But Chemical weapons are a weapon of mass fear rather than mass destruction and as their previous use by the regime has shown they have done little to alter the strategic picture. It still remains the fact that Bashar cannot defeat the rebels and it is Iran and Russia who are still doing the heavy lifting to keep him in power. The political cover necessary is being provided by the US and the regional countries are playing their role and pursuing their narrow interests as the ummah is slaughtered in Syria.
After six years of war Bashar should really know better that even the use of chemical weapons has done little to the masses that arose to overthrow him. The selective outrage demonstrated by the Western Media and Government’s only confirms that some lives matter more to them than others. The surrounding Muslim regimes hold the largest share of culpability for failing to come to the aid of the people, but instead they have pursued their own narrow interests.
Author is a political analyst, author and activist who specializes in international affairs. Having a background in International Business and Economics, his research includes a focus on how an Islamic Economic system would function in the Muslim world. He is based in the United Kingdom. His twitter handle is @AdnanIntlissues