North Africa, West Asia

“Why would Assad do it?” Debunking the abstract theories surrounding Syria’s chemical attacks

The April chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma provoked widely-circulated theories questioning why the Assad regime would use chemical weaponry. But do they really hold?

Omar Sabbour
4 June 2018

Satellite photo of the Shayrat Airfield in the Homs region of Syria. Picture by USA TODAY Network/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In essence, the theories that circulated questionning the Assad regime's responsibility for the April chemical attack on Douma rest on two core claims: Firstly, that the Assad regime has been ‘winning the war’, and hence has no need to deploy chemical weapons; and secondly, that the attack ‘conveniently’ came after a US declaration that it was withdrawing from the conflict. Here, the rebels would benefit from such an attack if it brought intervention against the regime

Each of these theories, in turn, are based on crucial assumptions.

“Assad was already winning the war”

1. One of the main assumptions on which this notion rests is that there have been effectively only ‘three’ chemical attacks that the regime has been accused of ‘by the west’: Ghouta 2013, Khan Shaykhoun 2017 and Douma 2018. According to this reading, on each occasion western powers have jumped on these incidents to launch an attack on the Syrian regime

In reality, there have been hundreds of chemical attacks in Syria reported since 2012 - including up to 85 merely in the past year since Trump’s ‘airfield strike’ of April 2017 (according to Human Rights Watch) - most of which only garner marginal media coverage and provoke little media and online commotion.

Indeed, there have been several chemical attacks even in the past few months since Trump’s ‘airfield strike’, including in Ghouta (taking place across January, February and March as well as repeatedly in 2017) and Idlib. These have been largely ignored in the various English-speaking ‘mass media’ outlets (whether ‘mainstream’ or ‘alternative’ platforms: whereby a shared proclamation of a “new campaign of bombing Syria” - with “Syria” comprising empty buildings belonging to the Assad regime - has arguably provoked more coverage and opposition than thousands of US-led airstrikes on non-regime-held “Syria” since 2014).

The vast majority of Syria’s chemical attacks have gone unnoticed and unchallenged

In reality, the vast majority of Syria’s chemical attacks have gone unnoticed and unchallenged. It is only the largest of these ‘mass casualty single incidents’ - often involving the use of Sarin or nerve gas (though there have been incidents reported of these which have gone unpunished) - that have forced a response. It seems that the more graphic footage of children foaming from the mouth (rather than simply struggling for breath from Chlorine attacks), has greater success in garnering western media coverage and making the frontpage of newspapers.

Whilst most of these occasions were Chlorine gas attacks, once described by President Obama as “not historically a chemical weapon”, there have also been reported incidents of Sarin gas attacks that have gone unpunished, as took place for instance in 2015. Indeed, in December 2016, the Syrian regime used Sarin gas again in Palmyra. The western response wasn’t only to ignore the atrocity, but the US led Coalition actively supported a regime offensive on Palmyra, dominated by foreign militias including Hezbollah, months later.

Indeed, in 2015 the US Obama Administration blocked a newspaper investigation into Syria’s (continued) chemical weapons stockpile after a reported Sarin attack, whilst it has been revealed earlier that the UK had exported the chemicals used by the Syrian regime to make the nerve agent.

2. Secondly: a general trend of ‘winning’ in a protracted conflict does not equate progress in a specific battle (nor does it negate real conflict dynamics and difficulties on the ground). The rebel group in Douma, Jaish al-Islam, happened to be the single largest individual brigade in Syria, being substantially equipped with heavy weaponry (by stark contrast to most FSA groups) as well as tanks captured from the Syrian regime. Its ‘Hamas-like’ military parades propelled it to fame as one of Syria’s strongest rebel outfits. Unlike the FSA faction Failaq al-Rahman (which controlled the Ghouta suburb of Jobar) and Ahrar al-Sham (which controlled Harasta), the group refused to evacuate Douma as part of the agreed evacuation deal with the other two factions - preferring to hold out for a separate and better deal specifically adapted to their (self-perceived) greater military weight.

Whilst other groups chose to relocate to other rebel-held areas - leaving behind heavy weaponry and only taking light arms - it has been reported that Jaish al-Islam by contrast offered to “reconciliate” as a local “police force” without heavy weaponry - something allegedly accepted by Russia, but refused by the Assad regime. Indeed, tensions surfaced between the regime and Russia regarding the negotiations, with the regime releasing a pointed statement declaring that “any negotiations held now are [to be] with the Syrian State exclusively” (despite Assad having previously delegated this authority in interviews).

A military campaign on Douma would have likely cost the regime much in materiel and manpower, and probably have taken months to complete if the rebels decided to stay rooted. Two days before the chemical attack, the rebels declared that they would not leave the area. A day after, they reversed the decision.

3. Thirdly, part of the main reason the regime has been ‘winning’ the war is precisely the consistent use of such chemical weapons that terrorise local communities and place psychological pressure on local rebels to withdraw. This is what took place in Douma. Repeated chemical attacks are also used by the regime to ensure its supporters’ (crucially including businessmen and local capital) continued loyalty, since the message it sends is that “there is no intervention coming” and it makes sense to ‘hedge bets’ on the regime. Simultaneously, the same message is sent to the armed opposition and its civilian constituency: “no one is coming to save you”, and this in turn has been one of the key backdrops to various “reconciliation agreements” agreed by exhausted rebel pockets with the regime (these have often simultaneously included the forced displacement of thousands who otherwise risked death on the regime’s recapture of the area).

Indeed, this was alluded to by the reporting of Iran’s ‘Al-Alam’ TV, Lebanese correspondent Hussain Murdata, who threatened in a ‘selfie video’ taken from a hill overlooking Douma (whilst celebrating the pounding of the district behind him) that if the rebels refused to withdraw, they “would see a big thing today that they have not seen before” during the battle. The video has been since widely-circulated for its potential implications.

4. “From Chlorine to Sarin”: The regime often escalates its chemical weapons use following perceived positive signs from the US administration.

During at least three different points in the conflict, there has been a noticeable tendency for the regime to escalate its chemical weapons from the ‘allowed’ medium of Chlorine to Sarin or nerve gas - following certain statements by the US administration. The first such example took place in December 2015, when the Syrian regime re-used Sarin for perhaps the first time on record after the ‘chemical weapons deal’ of 2013. This incident took place only one week after John Kerry released a series of pointed statements within the space of a few days (that US policy in Syria was “not regime change”, that the rebels could cooperate with the Syrian Army against ISIS even before Assad stepped down, and a reminiscent interview in which he recalled Assad was ready to make peace with Israel before the conflict started). The attack went ignored. The second incident took place in April 2017, when the Trump administration declared that it was “no longer focussed” on pressuring Assad to resign, and finally the third attack followed Trump’s recent announcement of US ‘withdrawal’.

The Trump strikes were forewarned and targeted already evacuated bases

On both of the latter occasions, the Trump strikes were forewarned and targeted already evacuated bases. Indeed, in the case of the former, the US-led military command explicitly declared that the intention of the strikes was “not to render the Shayrat airfield inoperable” (that is, even a single airfield; and indeed the regime was back to bombing from Shayrat the next day) and the advance warning was meant “to minimize the risk to Russian and Syrian personnel”.

In other words, even the comparatively ‘assertive’ Trump administration (vis a vis Obama) struck empty buildings after indirectly assuring the regime that it did not have much to fear.

In reality, the military support provided by the US administration to the Assad regime, whether by allowing the influx of tens of thousands of fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) backed by the Coalition in Iraq, or by returning former ISIS territories exclusively either to factions collaborating with the regime (the SDF) or the regime itself, has been infinitely more valuable.

5. Finally, the questioning of why an authoritarian regime - which has already deployed an unprecedented degree of violence in a 21st century conflict - would use a different form of violence because it is ‘winning the conflict’, can be a strange one. ‘Winning’ the conflict following little deterrent against this degree of violence - including a historically rare use of an airforce by a government inside its own borders - will of course embolden the regime’s authoritarianism, since it presumes its victory is a foregone conclusion and there is no need for restraint.

History is filled with such examples. The US dropped nuclear bombs on Japan when the war had already been won. The ‘rape of Germany’ by both allied and Soviet forces after the Second World War is indicative of this ‘victorious’ sense of impunity. The effective questioning of why a party would use disproportionate violence against another party betrays an implicit notion that the accused has an interest in not alienating the local population. Ironically, such arguments denying the ‘rape of Germany’ by supporters of the allies would have undoubtedly been repeated in the same terms: “why would our forces do this when we had already won?”.

Whilst this line of reasoning has been heavily deployed by unabashed regime apologists, it has also been put forward by those who posit ‘objectivity’. In this regard, groups such as Stop the War Coalition and the Labour Party have asked for an ‘independent investigation’ into the attack at Douma, whilst never having commented on the previous independent investigation which found the regime guilty of the Khan Shaykhoun attack. Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the UN (all of whom have heavily criticised the rebels) have consistently found the regime responsible for attacks. This has happened in 2014 (where the UN confirmed the repeated use of Chlorine by the regime on 8 occasions during two months), 2016, 2017 (where a minimum of 34 occasions were recorded, with much higher numbers likely due to restricted access) and 2018.

Perhaps what is more astounding for such theories, is that the UN’s “Independent International Commission of Inquiry” on Syria found the regime responsible for chemical attacks in the same area of Ghouta, only a month ago.

Indeed, the regime has often denied such attacks to have happened in the first place, as was notably the case in Khan Shaykhoun. On that occasion, Assad declared that the victims had been acting and the attack had been a ‘fabrication’; only to be contradicted by the Russians who declared that toxic gas had been released after a ‘rebel chemical factory’ was struck. The UN found the regime guilty of chemical attacks, with the OPCW confirming that the substance used was Sarin (in the process disproving the widely circulated theory of ‘fertilisers’ put forward by Seymour Hersh).

It stands to question, therefore, what the point of asking for repeated investigations is if their findings are consistently ignored. By contrast, groups such as Stop the War Coalition and the Labour Party did not wait for independent investigations during their unequivocal apportion of ‘war crimes’ to the Turkish-backed rebel operation in Afrin, or Saudi war crimes in Yemen.  

The attack coming after US announcement of withdrawal

Another common refrain is that the regime attack came "immediately after the US announced its withdrawal from Syria". This understanding rests on the notion that US policy in Syria has been one of "regime change", and that in so acting the regime has inexplicably given the "excuse the US wanted" to act against the regime (presuming the past seven years were not enough).

The implication that the US military presence in Syria has been ‘supportive’ of the rebels - rather than being anything but drastically detrimental - is another symbolic example of how far such narratives are removed from the reality on the ground. Here, one only needs to look at a map showing the areas captured by rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS in which US airstrikes have taken place. These are non existent. Indeed, the original ‘pre-ISIS’ areas controlled by the Syrian rebels since the start of the US-led intervention in 2014 have been halved:

Post by Omar Sabbour | "US essentially stole vast swathes of Syria," gave it to YPG

— James Miller (@Millermena) August 15, 2016

In Manbij, US Special Forces present on the ground have repeatedly exchanged fire with FSA forces attempting to get them to evacuate. The US military presence in Syria has effectively transferred the ownership of vast swathes of territory liberated by the rebels from the regime in 2012-13 (and which were the hotbeds of the 2011 protests) to the YPG; a group which has declared its willingness to become part of the regime army in exchange for regional autonomy. This is not surprising: former US Secretary of State John Kerry declaredly raised the prospect of rebels fighting alongside the Syrian Army against ISIS even before a departure of Assad.


The US has only supported ‘rebels’ that don’t rebel

In other words, the US has only supported ‘rebels’ that don’t rebel. This has led to certain oxymorons, not least headlines (from none other than pro-regime sources) proclaiming ‘US backed rebels declare neutrality with Assad’ and ”set up joint operations room with the Syrian Army”.

In certain areas such as Manbij and Tel Rifaat, the ownership was then further transferred back to the regime, meaning that towns and villages which constituted the epicentres of the 'Arab Spring' protests and later the FSA's ‘natural constituency’ (as with the regime in areas such as Latakia and Central Damascus, and the YPG in areas such as Afrin and Kobane) were indirectly transferred under the auspices of the US military, back to the regime. In other ex-rebel territories such as Deir al-Zor and Palmyra, where US airstrikes helped foreign pro-regime militias recapture areas from ISIS, this transfer was even more direct.

Indeed, one of the biggest ironies of the conflict is that in the fight against ISIS, there have been more recorded occasions of the US-led Coalition supporting pro-regime militias than there have been of active anti-Assad groups. The only opposition ‘coloured’ groups that the US has supported are those that have agreed to suspend their fight against the regime, such as the Arab factions of the SDF, anti ISIS only factions at the al-Tanf border garrison (groups which fought pro-regime militias around this area were subjected to US-approved regime airstrikes, as well as being allegedly threatened with direct US airstrikes), and the often-cited ‘Division 30’ fighters of the Pentagon’s ‘Train and Equip’ program.

More conclusively, the rebels left Douma, starting their exit even before the ‘punitive’ strikes took place. If the plan was to conduct a ‘false flag’ to wait for a decisive intervention, they would certainly (and indisputably) not have surrendered the last rebel bastion around Damascus threatening the regime after six years of control.

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