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Will Obama Tolerate Syria’s Sarin Gas Terror?

Doing nothing will tell totalitarians that the word of America means nothing. Related: Obama: Yeah, My Syria Red Line is Still in Effect, But…

Jonathan Spyer


April 26, 2013 - 9:58 am

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.  

But, of course, he needs to know what exactly the U.S. meant when it referred to CW use as a “red line.”  If it turns out that this phrase is empty of content, then the way will be clear for a far larger use of these materials as and when the regime deems necessary.

Much therefore now depends on the response of the Obama administration in the days ahead.

As of now, it seems likely that Assad will not be disappointed. The line currently emerging from statements by senior U.S. officials is that the facts are not yet all in, and so further investigation is necessary before any policy conclusions can be drawn. The U.S. government is now calling for a “comprehensive United Nations investigation” to “credibly examine the evidence and establish what took place.”

The possibility of Assad permitting such an investigation is zero. The regime has already refused – setting absurdly narrow conditions in recent weeks for the entry of an existing team, which as a result has found it impossible to begin its work.

So unless this line changes in the days ahead, it appears the dictator can record that the use of chemical weapons can be safely included on the list of military means to be employed against the rebellion and its supporters — as and when deemed necessary.

In his clearest statement regarding the issue of chemical weapons in Syria, on March 21 of this year, President Obama said: “I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people. … The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”

This statement does not include an explicit threat of force against the regime. But it is nevertheless fairly unambiguous. The key words are “not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.”

Chemical weapons have been used. The latest statements by administration officials indicate that tolerating their use, in the sense of taking no action in response, is precisely what Washington is now set to do.

This will be extremely encouraging for anyone in the Middle East concerned to examine the extent that U.S. threats and cautions need to be taken seriously. There is a long list of such elements. The list is headed by Iran.

No-one should pretend that there are easy options on Syria. The rebellion – also partly because of Western neglect – is dominated by Sunni Islamists, with a large contingent of the most extreme representatives of this persuasion prominent in its ranks.

But options exist even now which could strike a blow at the regime and offer protection to Syrian civilians while avoiding direct support for the Islamists. The list is well-known – a no fly zone, possibly drone strikes, the establishment of buffer zones in the south or north.

None of these seem currently forthcoming. Now, it’s not for this non-American analyst to advocate this or that course of action for the U.S. But it should be understood that this is no longer about Syria alone. Rather, Assad and his use of WMD is now a test case for the credibility of the U.S. and its friends in the region.

Assad and his allies – Iran and Russia – will be pleased to record a Western failure. The consequences of this on a variety of crucial fronts will be soon apparent, and severe.

Related: Obama: Yeah, My Syria Red Line is Still in Effect, But…


images courtesy shutterstock / / Paul Fleet

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).

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Top Rated Comments   
Why does the United States have to do anything about Syrian's using war gas on Syrian's or their foreign insurgents?
I don't care at this point if Muslim's gas each other to death as a matter of fact I wish them the best of luck annihilating each other.
Obama? Barack ain't gonna do squat except move the red line a little farther down the road.
let these folks choke each other to death with their chemicals, I culd care less.
It ain't our fight.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (59)
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Going off half cocked is such a Conservative specialty that it's small wonder that you all are calling for your usual answer to every international problem without thinking through the consequences. Sure landing the Marines in Syria is like sticking your dick in a pencil sharpers but I guess if you're drunk enough, it may seem like a good idea at first.

Compare the low cost in money and American lives of Clinton's intervention in Kosovo and Obama's efforts in Libya with the cost of the decade plus disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan initiated by the brainless right-wing chest thumpers of the Bush administration. Since a Syrian intervention is likely to be a horror story for the U.S., we damned well better think through the consequences and develop a solid military and diplomatic strategy before we commit ourselves. Finesse is required and also the nerve it takes to act deliberately.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Doesn't everyone know by now that Obama is a liar? Nothing he says should be believed by anyone. Unfortunately, our enemies and allies know too well that he can't be trusted.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'll admit that I don't understand this "red line" stuff. Are the victims of gas any "deader" than bullets, bombs or drones? Our president is probably going to threaten Assad with "time out" while he (the president) happily executes people via drone attacks.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And? Why should I care if the Syrians gas each other? They have nothing the USA needs or wants and we have to stop intervening where we are neither needed nor wanted.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All those liberal loons need to think for a minute. If it is true that there was gas used, where did it come from? Ding, ding, ding, ding - Saddam. Guess Bush was right about the Weapons of Mass Destruction. We need to stop giving any Middle Eastern Country money and let them kill each other. Help the Christians escape. Let the land return to its state of desolation.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Actually, Syria has had a WMD program for years. They have their own factories and test facilities. Iraq had little, if any, influence.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
When push comes to shove, the liberal meme about equality, humanity and where spirituality resides according to their depraved notions of identity is completely hollow.

Obama will apologize for colonialism making them do it before he intervenes.

Meanwhile, those countries whose religions routinely paint America as a wh-re house with lots of guns, evidently can't even rise to that standard as Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and all the other ducks in a row sit and do nothing.

Liberals and their Islamist allies who whine about ethnic cleansing in Israel and the West Bank need to step up and tell me how many Arab civilians in the West Bank have died since 1968 and compare it to the last 2 years in Syria.

The truth is, when one is addicted to parsing right and wrong by racial identity instead of principle, those simple comparisons are impossible.

For my part, I don't think we should do a thing. You see, liberals have convinced me there are no WMDs and that the whole thing is a fantasy and a conspiracy. Those doctors are probably CIA plants.

We saved how many tens of thousands of Muslim lives in the Balkans? Not only do Muslims never cite this, we got commercial airliners shoved up our backsides according to Islamic one-sided views of history that strip out context in the exact way liberals do. Did the Balkans make bin Laden happy? Hah!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sorry about the typos. They seem unavoidable in this blog. I meant democracies TEND to not take direct action......also I meant that Israel has never asked for 1 MILITARY person........again, sorry.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Democracies often to not take direct action until the "wolf is at the door." E.g. Pearl Harbor, 9/11, attack on Poland, 1939. It won't be different now. But how different should it be? Since 1945, the US has suffered approximately 120,000 dead and 400,000 wounded in wars that "were vital to American interests."And were they really? In 1949, we told Western Europe that we would be responsible for their protection while they built up their economies and prospered, which of course benefited our nation as well. Same with Japan regarding Red China. As a result our allies spent about 1% of their GDP on defense. Well, that deal is no longer operative. How many more times is our government going to tell American families that it is essential for their loved ones to be put in harms way for another war that "is essential to American interests" while our "allies" sit on the sidelines? Britain, France, and Germany need to re-arm and allign themselves in a defensive pact that could counter a Russian threat to the continent. Japan needs to do likewise with India and Australia. In each case we would have genuine allies, not exposed "friends" who cannot defend themselves. As for Israel, that nation has never asked for 1 single US militaet person to fight it's battles. All they ever requested were arms to do the job themselves. And now they are quite capable to do "carry their own water." This absurdity that America must be in every war that develops, is just that, an absurdity.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Remember Syria has NO OIL.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment

Remind me - were the 9/11 perpetrators:

(1) Sunnis, like the Syrian rebels, and Saudi Arabia); or

(2) Alawites - like Asad's clan and its supporters based along the coast - who are regarded as heretics by the Sunnis, and for that reason face a bloodbatch if the Sunnis take over the Alawite ares of Syria.

The desert equivalent of a "quagmire" is "quicksand".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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