There is a fundamental question concerning President Bashar Assad’s decision to launch the devastating chemical attack on the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21, that led to as many as 1,300 fatalities, according to opposition sources. What was his motivation? The New York Times ran a headline this week saying “Confident Syria Used Chemicals,” indicating that the attack showed that Assad was sure of his own standing.
But there could be another interpretation of his decision to resort to chemical weapons on such a scale. Lt. Col. Jonathan Halevi has written that contrary to the conventional wisdom, after his successful operations against Sunni rebels in Qusair and Homs, Assad did not feel he was on the verge of winning the Syrian civil war.
Qusair, after all, was a Shiite village inside of Syria so that it is no wonder Assad’s Hezbollah allies were successful in taking it. Moreover, Assad’s Sunni opponents moved the battle shortly thereafter to the countryside of Latakia, the port city which is in the heart of the Alawite area of Syria.
According to this view, Assad’s decision to use chemical weapons last week was because, to a large extent, he is already feeling that his back is against the wall. After all, he used his chemical arsenal against a rebel stronghold not in some remote region but right outside of Damascus, that could have become the springboard for a final offensive against the regime.
An important indicator of Assad’s situation is his dependence on foreign fighters from Shiite communities in neighboring countries, beyond the Lebanese Shiites of Hezbollah. The Assad regime has been using Iranian security forces for some time, and has employed pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiites as well. But all these forces have not been sufficient for providing Assad with a decisive outcome. Presently, Tehran appears to be spreading its search for Shiite allies to more distant areas, like Pakistan.
There are Shiite communities in the Gulf, in places like Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, that have been backed by Iran as well. The Shiite insurgency in Yemen, known as the Houthi rebellion, has been supplied by Iranian weapons ships. The fact that Assad and his Iranian allies have not been able to win the war, despite all the assistance they have received to date, indicates that Assad’s situation must be much worse than it seems on the outside.
As the U.S. considers the scale of its intervention in Syria, it needs to consider the impact of any action it takes on the future course of the Syrian Civil War. Up until now, by not using force of any kind, the West has paid a price that it will likely feel in the years ahead.
While Iran pours Shiite militias into Syria, rival Sunni jihadist forces have built up their military capacity,as well. After 9/11, the financial backers of the Sunni terrorist networks in the Gulf reconsidered their partnerships with groups like al-Qaida and its affiliates. Walter Russell Mead correctly observed in The Wall Street Journal last week that the recent revival of al-Qaida, due to the Syrian Civil War, has led to the oil-producers in the Gulf reconnecting with the jihadists fighting Iran’s allies.
Moreover, in the years ahead, Syria could well become a far more dangerous sanctuary for jihadist organizations than Afghanistan, ever was. Syria, after all is situated on the Mediterranean, right across from Europe, while the bases of bin Laden in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan or the tribal regions of Pakistan were far more remote. Failure to take any action would probably deepen these trends creating a far more dangerous Middle East in the future.
The real danger from doing nothing about Assad’s chemical attack is that it signals that there are no boundaries in modern war that the Great Powers insist on. Because the international community places chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons into one category — namely, that they all belong to the family of weapons of mass destruction — any tolerance of a Syrian chemical strike also lowers the international barriers against the use of biological and nuclear weapons.
This will have enormous significance for the future strategies adopted by the affiliates of al-Qaida and especially by Iran.
Going back to Syria specifically, why is the question over whether Assad used chemical weapons because he felt strong or because he is really weak still important? If Assad is indeed weaker than anyone thought and his chemical attack was more an act of desperation rather than a statement about his self-confidence, then U.S. military action, depending on its scale, could potentially accelerate the end of his regime.
For example, if Assad is stripped of his air force, then the dynamics of the civil war will undoubtedly change. Moreover, if Assad feels his regime is nearing its end, then his propensity to continue to use chemical weapons will increase.
Clearly, before the U.S. and its allies decide what course of action to adopt, what is needed is an accurate picture of Assad’s situation on the ground, for in many respects that will dictate the political impact within Syria of any military option.