Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
The use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was finally blown open last week. In a letter to U.S. lawmakers, the White House stated that U.S. intelligence agencies believed “with varying degrees of confidence” that Syria had used the nerve agent sarin on a “small scale.” The letter followed others sent to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by Britain and France alleging the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and similar assessments by Israeli military intelligence in the last few weeks.
Still, President Barack Obama’s administration sounded a cautious note. Asked whether Assad crossed the “red line” Obama drew last year that could spur American intervention, a U.S. official replied, “we’re not there yet.” The White House continues to contend that the evidence is not “airtight,” and that it needs further corroboration. In meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan on Friday, Obama stated that “there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used.”
While these are important questions, especially a decade after the intelligence failure in Iraq, the evidence already gathered by Western countries from inside Syria provides significant evidence of chemical-weapons use by the Assad regime. Here is what I have learned about the regime’s use — and logic for the use — of chemical weapons over the past six months.
The Assad regime’s scientists have been experimenting for more than a year with mixtures of toxic and poisonous gasses that could be used to “cleanse areas” of what it calls “terrorists” — the rebel forces it is fighting. Its security and military apparatus has sought to devise methods to use artillery shells or aircraft to deliver chemical weapons in “localized ways” — in areas of one or one and a half square kilometers.
The regime’s logic was that the relentless bombardment of rebel-controlled areas, including in the neighborhoods around the main cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, had forced most civilians to leave. Civilian casualties, in this warped thinking, could therefore be kept to a minimum if chemical weapons were used in these areas. This was important if the regime was to avoid the attention of the international community, especially the United States, which clearly did not want to intervene in Syria.
I first heard this frightening information in the late summer and fall of last year. It came from a small number of privileged Syrians who often travelled to and from Damascus. I had gotten to know and trust them, especially as their information was often corroborated later by other sources and events. All spoke often to current and former senior security officers and regime personalities from the Assad regime’s feared security forces, including the presidential guard, Syrian military intelligence, and Syrian air force intelligence — people they had known in some cases since childhood.
Listening to them, it was clear to me that the regime had the intention to use these horrendous weapons — and that it would do so as it came under further pressure in key strategic areas, especially the major cities in the west of the country.
According to my interlocutors, Assad and those closest to him had been emboldened by the international community’s weak response to his bloody military campaign. The United Nations claimed in February that the death toll from the fighting in Syria was well over 70,000 people, while, during that same month, a lieutenant from Syrian military intelligence informed one of my Syrian interlocutors that the regime estimated that around 85,000 civilians had been killed, with many more thousands “missing.”
Successive statements from Obama and senior U.S. officials, these interlocutors said, had been interpreted by the regime as a “green light” to continue its campaign. The exclusive focus on political and diplomatic solutions, as well as the international community’s rising fear of Islamic jihadists, further reinforced the regime’s belief that “the U.S. and its Western allies did not mind the current military operations,” according to a retired general in Damascus. “Like any war, there are political and diplomatic efforts, while it is the winner that dictates terms in the end.”
In the eyes of the regime, therefore, Obama’s “red line” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons — first drawn last August, in the midst of an election campaign — had to be tested.