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Understanding the place of WMDs in chemical Assad's Syrian war strategy
By JONATHAN SPYER
08/29/2013
The US claims it has a "high degree of confidence" that Assad carried out the recent large scale chemical weapons attack but on a number of occasions over the last year, he has used these weapons as a tool of tactical combat.
 
As US and Western forces prepare for what looks like imminent action in Syria, the debate over the chemical strike in Damascus continues.

Why, opponents of intervention argue, would President Bashar Assad have carried out a strike of this kind when he was already making headway in his war against the rebels? And why might he have done so at a time when UN chemical weapons inspectors were in the country? But whatever the advisability of a Western strike on Syria, the notion that a regime attack using chemical weapons in eastern Ghouta is in any way implausible or outlandish is entirely incorrect.

To understand why, it is necessary to observe both the regime’s general strategy for prosecuting the war, and the previous, officially verified instances of its use of chemical weapons.

Regarding regime strategy, it is a misrepresentation to claim that Assad is “winning” the war against the rebellion.

The regime has certainly rallied since the moment, late last year, when it looked like the rebel assault on Damascus was about to commence.

But recent Assad victories in Qusair and Khaldiyeh in the west do not represent a general change in the fortunes of the war. Nowhere in the country is the regime reconquering vast swathes of rebel held territory. Rather, the Qusair and Khaldiyeh battles were about regime consolidation of the lines of control, transportation and communication around the roughly 40 percent of Syrian territory over which it rules. This process is ongoing.

The rebels, meanwhile, have been carrying out a similar consolidation process of their own in recent weeks.

The most significant development in this regard was their capture of Minnagh air base in largely rebel-held Aleppo province this month.

In this context, the notion that Assad’s army might choose the rebel held suburbs of eastern Ghouta as the next battle to be fought is entirely plausible. Largely unnoted by Western media, the rebels have been engaged in an offensive from the eastern suburbs of Damascus city, of which eastern Ghouta forms a part, since July 24.

As a well-connected Syrian rebel source described to this reporter last week, the rebels were making slow headway, pushing from eastern Ghouta further into regime-controlled areas of the city. Assad’s attempts to hit back had proven insufficient. Jobar, the area of eastern Ghouta where the chemical attack took place, is referred to by both sides as the “key to Damascus” – control of which is of crucial importance.

With the Khaldiyeh battle concluded successfully, it would make perfect sense for Assad to then proceed to the next order of business – namely, a concerted attempt to drive the rebels out of eastern Ghouta and away from Damascus.

The chemical attack on eastern Ghouta appears to have formed part of the opening move of this offensive.

Given the scale of the loss of life, some form of miscalculation may have been made, as is now suggested by the latest revelations of intercepted conversations of Syrian officials following the attack.

But the scale aside, it is important to remember that on a number of verified occasions over the last year, the Syrian regime has employed chemical weaponry as a tool of tactical combat.

Sterling reporting work by two Le Monde reporters, who spent two months in the eastern Ghouta area in April and May of this year, revealed several earlier instances of attacks on the area during this period in which chemical agents were employed.

The French government tested materials brought out of the country by the reporters at the government’s Du Bouchet facility. In all, 14 samples were tested; 13 of these came from the Damascus area, and an additional sample came from a chemical attack in Saraqeb in Idleb province. Following these tests, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius concluded there was “no doubt” that the regime and its accomplices had “used sarin.”

Britain, too, has drawn similar conclusions. Journalists from The Times, working in the Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood of Aleppo and the Afrin hospital near the Turkish border this past April, also observed the apparent effects of chemical weapons use.

Items smuggled out of the country and tested at the British government’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down similarly confirmed that sarin had been used.

All of this shows that the assault on eastern Ghouta on August 21 did not represent a departure from previously confirmed tactics employed by the Assad regime, except in the scale of the attack.

It made sense, from the point of view of its own strategy and that of the rebels, for Assad’s army to begin an assault on eastern Ghouta at that time. Previous evidence confirmed by the laboratories of two key Western countries – the UK and France – shows that the regime has used chemical weapons in the past.

So whatever the rights and wrongs of action against the Syrian regime, the attack on Jobar in eastern Ghouta conformed with the observable pattern of regime behavior over the course of this year.

That is to say: Assad has been using his chemical weapons capability to kill his own civilians for quite a while now.

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