The United States government has now acknowledged that it is “most likely” that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that “the U.S. intelligence community assesses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.”
This assessment brings Washington’s take into line with those of Israel, Britain, and France. Soil samples, visual evidence, and the testimony of survivors point to the use by the regime of powerful chemical agents against civilian populations in rebel-controlled areas. The chemical agent used, according to the testimony of Israeli Brigadier-General Itai Brun, was Sarin, a powerful nerve gas.
The two instances in which the use of this weapon appears to have been confirmed took place in the Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood of Aleppo, and in Ateibeh in the eastern Ghouta area, close to Damascus. In both cases, the usage of Sarin seems to have been on a small, tactical scale.
The strategy of the Syrian regime in its war against the rebellion is to abandon large areas of lesser importance, while concentrating its forces in the urban areas it deems essential for its survival, and the transport links between them. The confirmed uses of Sarin gas took place in two zones of central importance for the regime – the capital city of Damascus, and Aleppo.
In these cities, the regime is fighting for survival. The use of the gas suggests that in areas deemed crucial, the regime will not flinch before employing chemical means against its own civilians.
The small scale use of the weapons, meanwhile, indicates two things.
The first, quite simply, is that the regime’s situation has not yet reached the point of desperation. Government forces are not in headlong flight. Regime troops have made significant gains against the rebels in the past two weeks both in the Damascus area and in the west of the country.
The second is that the use of Sarin on this small scale may well have been a kind of test. The U.S. administration defined the use of chemical weapons as a “game changer.” Assad evidently sees CW as a useful weapon should events reach existential proportions from his point of view.