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

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 https://t.co/MRZ9BAVzF7 pic.twitter.com/o9IQfLYgLl

— 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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