There are growing indications that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is using some form of chemical agent against areas held by the opposition.
Speculation has been rife for months that Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons — thought to be one of the largest in the world — will be deployed against the opposition. United States President Barack Obama warned in August of last year that his administration’s “calculus” would change if the Syrian regime moved or used its chemical weapons, saying it would be “a red line” for the US.
See also: The Quick Guide to Chemical Weapons
Since then, it has become evident that some of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons have at least been moved and it may be playing a cautious game of testing Washington’s “red lines” to see how much it can get away with. In early December, the regime fired Scud short-range ballistic missiles for the first time, targeting areas in northern Syria with warheads filled with high explosives. Given the relatively poor accuracy of Scuds, they are not the most effective weapons to employ against what is essentially an insurgency. But the launchings stirred concern in the West, mainly because Scuds are well-recognized as among the possible vehicles for delivering chemical munitions. Then in mid-December, the US and Russia reportedly sent stiff warnings to Syria after satellite imagery suggested that dozens of 500-pound aerial bombs were being loaded with chemical agents at a military base.
The latest apparent “red line” testing was the alleged use of a non-lethal chemical agent in Homs in December, a development that was investigated by US diplomats in Turkey and picked up by Foreign Policy magazine.
While the US consul general in Istanbul reported that consulate staff could not say definitively whether chemical weapons had been used, a US official told Foreign Policy that Syrian contacts had made a “compelling case” that a gas known as ‘Agent 15’ was employed — an incapacitator that is not generally regarded as lethal. The US National Security Council downplayed the Foreign Policy report, however, saying it did not correspond to US intelligence assessments. There have been some further questions raised as to whether the gas allegedly used in Homs was Agent 15 or possibly a weaponized form of insecticide.
There have also been alleged uses of a similar chemical agent near the rebel-held town of Qusayr, eight kilometers northeast of the Lebanese border. During a night-time battle in mid-January in Jusiyah village just south of Qusayr, rebel fighters were incapacitated by some kind of smoke apparently released by a bomb dropped by a passing jet. The fighters were described as “paralyzed”, some were choking and most could not speak, according to other rebels who carried them away from the battle.
If the Assad regime were testing the waters by employing non-lethal incapacitating agents to judge the reaction of the West, then it would be grimly satisfied with the response.
Despite the report from one of its own consulates and the widespread conviction among rebel fighters that chemical weapons have been used against them, Washington has chosen to play down the affair. The Obama administration has shown a reluctance to play a more active role in Syria since the beginning of the uprising. From a US domestic perspective, that hesitation is quite understandable. The US withdrew combat troops from Iraq a year ago and is presently drawing down in Afghanistan. The American people are more concerned about the economy and are sick to death of the Middle East. Obama was never going to wade into Syria during an election year and now wants to concentrate his second term’s foreign policy goals on the Asia-Pacific theater.
However, the past year has seen the struggle in Syria morph from an uprising by peaceful protesters against a repressive regime into essentially a Sunni-Shiite/Alawite civil war which has allowed Al Qaeda to establish a presence through groups like Jabhat Al Nusra. There are few good choices for the West in Syria, and given the evident reluctance to become more involved in shaping the country’s destiny, the door does not seem closed against the possibility that the Assad regime could up its chemical ante.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London