Syrian Government Split Over Use of Chemical Weapons
Advisors to Syria's President Assad are divided over the question of whether or not to use chemical weapons on rebels who have begun to circle the capital city of Damascus.
Sources in Iraq say Syrian President Bashar Assad's inner circle is engaged in "intensive debate" between those who advocate using chemical weapons as a last resort and those who warn of the dangers of such a step, Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah reported on Thursday.
The debate comes amid growing Western fears that a desperate Assad could turn to chemical weapons as rebels close in on Damascus.
Al-Seyassah said its reporters spoke to a "prominent figure in Iraq's Islamist Sadrist movement" in Baghdad. The movement, led by popular Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is supportive of Assad but has previously denied reports it has sent fighters to Syria to help put down the uprising.
Assad's security and intelligence chiefs believe the rebels' convergence on the capital provides a unique "opportunity to exterminate them," the source said.
The Iraqi Sadrist leader said the Syrian regime's political military and security factions have become more desperate as rebel forces converge on Damascus, and therefore the regime won't hesitate to use "any weapon" against the opposition, Al-Seyassah reported.
This faction, led by Gen. Ali Mamlouk, Assad's special security adviser and former head of the General Security Directorate (GID); his deputy Gen. Abdel-Fateh Qudsiya; current GID chief Maj.-Gen. Mohammed Dib Zaitoun; military intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Rafiq Shahada; and Gen. Rustum Ghazali, the head of the Political Security Directorate, believe such a move could help quash the uprising once and for all.
According to Al-Seyassah, its Iraqi source said that Iran has discussed the use of chemical weapons with Moscow, and Tehran supports their use "widely and extensively."
Moscow believes the Syrian regime could resort to limited use of chemical weapons as a deterrence if it were forced to act to stop Damascus from falling into the hands of the armed opposition, especially in the suburbs of Douma, Moadamiyeh, Zamalka and Kafr Batna, where intelligence shows there are more armed groups including those affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), the source said.
Russia running interference for Syria on their use of chemical agents against their own people? It's possible, according to this report. Indeed, given Russia's reliance on their client in the Middle East, they could hardly do anything else -- as long as the use of the weapons could be seen as a "last resort" to preventing "terrorists" from taking over Syria. Mass civilian casualties might make Moscow hesitate to support Assad, but again, where else can they go?
Iran's position, if accurate, is appalling. But they, too, have invested heavily in the Syrian regime and a removal of the Alawite minority from power would be a huge blow to Tehran's regional aspirations. It would nearly disarm Hezbollah and make serious resistance by Hamas problematic. Not being able to effectively use their proxies against Israel would put Iran in a very difficult position.
And what about President Obama's "red line?" We'll see just how serious Obama is about making good on his threat to intervene if Assad uses chemical weapons. Questions have been raised about Obama's commitment to intervene if WMD is used in Syria as a result of a meeting last week between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian foreign minister Lavrov, and UN Special Envoy to Syria Brahimi. No mention of WMD was made after the meeting, but Hillary Clinton seemed to edge a little closer to the Russian position that only talks between Assad and the opposition will solve the crisis.
There was another meeting today of the three principles, giving urgency to the notion that time is running out on Assad and he may see the use of chemical weapons as his only recourse to save the regime:
Russian and U.S. diplomats are meeting Sunday with U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for more talks on the civil war in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, adding that the Americans were wrong to see Moscow as softening its position.
Russia agreed to take part in the talks in Geneva, he said, on the condition there would be no demand for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.
"We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad," Lavrov said Sunday. "All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor."
Lavrov met last week with Brahimi and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Dublin. Afterward, Clinton said the United States and Russia were committed to trying again to get both sides in the Syrian conflict to talk about a political transition. Clinton stressed that the U.S. would continue to insist that Assad's departure be a key part of that transition.
Russia and the United States have argued bitterly over how to address the conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war. The U.S. has criticized Russia for shielding its closest ally in the Middle East, while Moscow has accused Washington of encouraging the rebels and being intent on regime change.
Russia's foreign minister said Sunday that after he agreed to a U.S. proposal to have his and Clinton's deputies "brainstorm" on Syria, the Americans began to suggest that Russia was softening its position.
"No such thing," Lavrov said. "We have not changed our position."
Without some kind of acknowledgement from Russia that Assad must go if he uses chemical weapons, how firm is the president's "red line" threat? It is doubtful he would risk a confrontation with Russia over Syria, hence, the idea of American forces going in to affect regime change is probably a non starter without Russian approval or, at the very least, disinterest.
Rebel progress toward Damascus is steady and appears unstoppable at this point. But Assad still commands formidable forces, including his air force and armor -- two elements the rebels lack. The use of chemical weapons probably isn't imminent, but its appearance on the horizon cannot be dismissed.