The regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad has once again made use of chemical weapons in Syria’s bloody civil war, which has cost over 100,000 lives since it began in March 2011.
An aerial bombardment of several communities in the suburbs of Damascus apparently killed over a thousand people. Videos show numerous corpses with no sign of external injury, as well as bodies of people who died of asphyxiation.
The Assad regime has already crossed all moral lines in this war, and is committing genocide against the Sunni Muslim population by indiscriminate bombardment of civilian targets, mass executions, the torturing to death of thousands of detainees and prisoners, and mass acts of rape.
In the regime’s view the war against the popular insurrection and rebel forces is a zero-sum game; giving up the reins of government would likely entail the genocide of the Alawite minority by the Sunni majority. That majority is now led by radical Islamic organizations that mostly share the aim of establishing an Islamist regime in Syria that would implement Shari’a law.
In recent months the Syrian army has made several gains on the battlefield, managing to reconquer the town of Qusayr on the border with Lebanon and the Al- Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs. These gains were made possible by the growing cooperation between Syria and its allies Iran, Iraq, and Hizbullah, which are assisting the Assad regime with money, weapons, and fighters.
As the regular Syrian army’s ranks are thinned by heavy and ongoing losses, it has been replenished by fighters from Hizbullah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as well as Shiite volunteers from Iraq and, apparently, Pakistan.
The victories in Al-Qusayr and Al-Khalidiya did not, however, alter the balance of power. Redeploying and launching attacks in other areas, the rebel organizations have made impressive gains in the Aleppo area (conquering the Menagh military airport), in the Alawite enclave in the Latakia district (conquering over twenty villages), and in the Damascus suburbs. Rebel ranks were also reinforced in the Homs district, where they succeeded to check the advance of the Syrian army.
The rebels are mainly seeking to thwart what they see as a strategic effort by the regime to set up an Alawite state. This putative entity would be based in the enclave of Latakia-Tartus, in Damascus the capital, and in the Homs district near the Lebanese border.
With the rebels’ advances in the Latakia district and the Damascus suburbs creating a tangible threat to the regime’s survival, it was apparently a sense of distress that prompted the decision to use chemical weapons in the Damascus area on the night of August 20-21. (While the use of such weapons has not yet been officially confirmed, the photographs and videos make it appear highly likely.) Despite what the regime claimed, the aerial attack was not directed at “terrorist dens” but at a civilian population, and its goal was apparently to damage the rebels’ morale and convey a clear message about the regime’s determination to fight for its life at any price.
The Syrian regime well knows that the results of a chemical-weapons attack cannot be covered up. Its decision nevertheless to perpetrate one reflects its assessment that, under current political conditions and with its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian backing (including threats of revenge attacks in the Persian Gulf), the international community is incapable of dislodging it.
The attack, however, has not discouraged the rebel forces but instead intensified their motivation to fight. It probably will also increase the flow of foreign volunteers, some from Western countries, seeking to join the ranks of the rebels.
When the rebels debated in the past whether to exact retribution against the Alawite minority, the decision adopted by the mainstream was to refrain from acts of mass vengeance, despite the regime’s massacres. The hope was to encourage the Alawites to repudiate the Assad regime, thereby facilitating his overthrow. U.S. and international pressure also played a role. This approach, however, may now be reconsidered, especially in light of the rebels’ advances in the Latakia and Damascus areas.
Given the rebel forces’ gains and the ongoing attrition of the Syrian army, the Assad regime is experiencing a sense of existential threat and is no longer foregoing doomsday weapons in its effort to survive.
War crimes and crimes against humanity – indeed, constituting a form of genocide – have been carried out in Syria on a large scale and before the eyes of the world. The lessons of the Second World War have not been learned. Even in the era of modern communications, with daily documentation of the atrocities, genocide can occur under conditions where the international system is paralyzed by interests and rivalries between the powers.
The international impotence in the face of these events weakens deterrence against the use of nonconventional weapons and has implications in the Iranian context as Tehran continues on its determined march toward nuclear weapons.
In the wake of the latest attack, the likelihood of revenge attacks against the Alawite minority has grown – possibly using chemical weapons that may fall into the hands of rebel forces.
The Syrian regime has shown that it has no moral inhibitions about using chemical weapons at a time of strategic distress. It is therefore possible that, in an extreme scenario where there is an immediate danger of its overthrow, it will resort to attacking Israeli civilian targets with chemical weapons.
The Syrian crisis will continue to deepen the Sunni-Shiite rift in the Muslim world. This may well lead to reciprocal revenge attacks in the Middle East and East Asia, and even in Muslim communities in the West.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. – See more at JCPA