WASHINGTON – The US and its allies concluded months ago that, since at least
Christmas of last year, Syria’s nominal president Bashar Assad has tested
chemical weapons intermittently on his own people.
The attacks have been
small enough that the death toll from any single incident – never more than 40 –
has blended in easily with your average day in Syria, where a two-year civil war
between Assad and the diverse rebel groups fighting for his ouster has led to
over 100,000 deaths.
US President Barack Obama vowed throughout the first
year of the conflict to act if Assad dared to use chemical weapons, which are
internationally banned from all battlefields. Obama’s attitude toward chemical
weapons is similar to his stated position on nuclear weapons: Their
proliferation and use sets a dangerous precedent and must be
But with reports surfacing on Wednesday that just outside
Damascus, in the suburb of Ghouta, Assad’s chemical weapons may have killed
upward of 1,000 in a single attack, the US president’s idealist policy, his
pragmatism and his distaste for Middle East wars may be approaching an important
Obama’s reaction to the small chemical attacks was
intentionally muted, and the policy more muted still. Three months after
announcing that the US had indeed verified the use of sarin gas on multiple
occasions in Syria through its own intelligence-gathering, the Obama
administration is only now beginning to ship small arms and ammunition to
Small arms will not shift the tide of the war, which has
swayed in Assad’s favor since Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon committed fully to
his cause. And since that policy was first announced in June, Assad has only
been emboldened, writing off a political solution to the conflict and charging
that “there are no exceptions to any means” to end the crisis – comments read
widely as an allusion to his willingness to continue chemical attacks.
confirmed, a large-scale chemical attack like Ghouta is unlikely to change the
calculus of Obama or his national security team on how best to approach Syria.
Nor will the Pentagon’s assessment change: US intervention would cost a fortune,
upward of $1 billion a month, and there would be no guarantee of a favorable
outcome. Securing Syria’s chemical weapons sites would require tens of thousands
of troops – a fullscale invasion, which no one in Washington will seriously
Obama has publicly voiced concern over conducting strategic
air strikes on Syrian air bases or weapons caches. They may be stocked with
chemical weapons already, he says, and the US would then be complicit in
releasing their toxins.
The only change might be on the diplomatic front.
Western powers might successfully appeal to the better angels of Russian and
Chinese leaders, and action at the UN Security Council may finally gain
But ultimately Assad may have determined that the toxicity of
his war is too much for the Americans to handle. If that is the case, do not
expect Wednesday’s alleged incident in Ghouta to be the last gas attack of its
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