This time, for Assad, something went terribly wrong

For a year, the Syrian president’s forces have used small chemical warheads to clear strategic areas of civilian inhabitants; last week, someone slipped up

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative photo of Israeli security personnel in chemical protection suits training during a chemical attack exercise in 2007. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of Israeli security personnel in chemical protection suits training during a chemical attack exercise in 2007. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

The US strike against Syria has yet to begin, and doubts abound regarding the scope and effectiveness of any such attack.

Most pressing for Israel is the question of what happens in the hours and days after an American strike. But several other important questions have been left unanswered in all of the analyses and scholarly articles written in the nine days since the chemical attack on civilians in the suburbs of Damascus.

First, when will the US strike and how far will it go? Other than publishing the precise targets for attack, American intelligence appears to have done everything possible to make it clear to Bashar Assad that the US has no intention of overthrowing his regime. It won’t overthrow Assad, but it certainly wants to deter him.

Second, what will happen in Syria on the morning after the attack? This question may be impossible to answer, but it appears to be one of the key factors in the US decision not to overthrow Assad. Syria now seems to be on the verge of utter collapse — 60-70% of its territory is in the hands of militant forces devoid of organized leadership, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda, with only a small portion of the country remaining under the president’s control. These militant groups may manage to obtain deadly weapons, including chemical ones, at any given moment.

The third question — and the most worrying from Israel’s perspective — is how Assad will react to the offensive. Will he attack Israel in response, or will he exercise restraint?

And, finally, what on Earth led the Assad regime to decide to launch a widespread chemical attack on civilian populations in the suburbs of Syria’s capital?

The first step in any attempt to predict Assad’s actions on the day after an attack is to understand what actually happened on August 21 — when his forces fired missiles with chemical warheads at suburbs on the outskirts of Damascus.

The attack was launched early last Wednesday morning, just as the special UN investigation committee arrived in Damascus to inspect earlier reports of the regime’s use of chemical weapons.

The attack took place one year to the day since President Barack Obama’s speech about the “red line” that Syria must not cross — that of widespread use of weapons of mass destruction. The Syrians had every reason in the world not to fire chemical warheads that morning, but they did so nonetheless.

The initial explanation by US analysts was that Assad had decided to call the Americans’ bluff. He knows that military intervention in the Middle East is a sensitive issue in the US, and ignored the warnings from Washington. One of his objectives was to make it clear to his opposition that they could count on no one for support.

This analysis presupposes Assad’s contempt for the confused policies of the White House vis-a-vis Syria. The Syrian president and the military fired chemical-armed missiles simply because they could.

The theory is supported by Syria’s history. The Syrian army has used nonconventional chemical weapons multiple times since Obama defined his red line. The best-known attack occurred on March 19 in Khan al-Assal, on the outskirts of Aleppo, in which 25 people were killed. The opposition claimed that the regime used chemical weapons against the rebels, while Damascus said the opposite was true: that Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, had used chemical weapons against innocent civilians.

Most Western governments blamed Assad for the chemical attack, yet the incident failed to elicit an American response.

Alleged use of chemical warfare was reported before and after the Khan al-Assal incident too, though the international community chose not to intervene.

Prof. Eyal Zisser, dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Syrian politics, explained that Syrian strategic logic demands that all means shall be used to achieve the objective of a significant battle. “If the goal is to purge a certain region of the rebels, and this can be achieved with chemical weapons, then that is exactly what they will use. It began a year ago with a small-scale attack launched by the regime. In some cases, there was no proof of what had happened and the regime realized that its solution worked. That’s how it all started,” said Zisser.

“But this time, in al-Ghutah a-Sharqiya last week, something went wrong. All it took was one rocket in the vicinity of a large number of children — in addition to a video camera or smartphone to document the hit — to create an image that the world could no longer ignore,” Zisser continued.

In earlier incidents, nonconventional weapons were used on a much smaller scale. Regime forces fired shells with limited destructive capability rather than Scud or Fateh-110 missiles. According to various analyses, the objective in these incidents was to force local civilians out of areas critical for the regime. In other words, if civilians remained in their homes after a conventional attack, the sight of two or three people choking and writhing after a chemical attack was enough to invoke widespread panic and cause thousands to flee.

Last week, the weapons were different. This time, they fired lethal weapons instead of the low-impact shells used in previous cases.

Last Wednesday, Foreign Policy magazine presented its version of the “smoking gun” that the American government had identified as proof of Assad’s responsibility for the event. The Foreign Policy version, though, seems to support the claim that the August 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs was not coordinated with the heads of the Syrian regime.

According to this report, a senior official in the Syrian Defense Ministry made several urgent phone calls to the commander of the chemical warfare division in the hours immediately after the attack. The government official reportedly demanded information from the commander about the nerve gas attack that allegedly killed over 1,000 people.

These calls are presented by Foreign Policy as proof of the government’s involvement in this incident. However, these phone calls — if they did, in fact, occur — actually indicate that the government did not order the use of chemical warfare in this case and that it was dissatisfied with the army’s decision. It seems clear that Damascus gave those in charge of the chemical weapons arsenal permission to use those weapons tactically.

So what actually happened last Wednesday? The most likely scenario, based on Foreign Policy’s version of the events, is that one of the commanders in the field took the initiative of firing chemical missiles in order to achieve his objective: clearing the region east of the Syrian capital of civilians. It is likely that the missiles fell at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong weather conditions. The combination of these factors caused more severe harm than anticipated to the local civilian population.

But whether or not the Syrian regime intended to kill so many people, the deed was done, and now Assad will have to pay the price.

What will Assad do in the wake of US-led action? It is difficult to comprehend how a leader’s mind works. This is true of any ruler, but especially of the president of Syria. In recent years, Assad has been cruel, cold and collected in the face of the attempted revolution. He has not hesitated to murder tens of thousands of people in order to guarantee his own survival. His key goal is just that — to maintain his regime.

It is therefore difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Syrian president decides to launch a suicidal attack against Israel that would undoubtedly cost him his regime, his life — or both. On the other hand, it is difficult to rationalize a chemical attack at such a dangerous time for the regime, and yet that’s precisely what happened. So while the probability of Assad responding to a western attack by firing missiles at Israel is low, it does exist.

“As long as the Americans attack on a small scale,” said Zisser, “Assad may be able to contain it. It’s an entirely different story if he feels threatened. In past years, he has been careful to avoid clashes with external enemies. He has overlooked activities by foreign parties on Syrian soil several times, so why would he shoot at us now?”

Yet the Syrian president may choose to respond indirectly. Assad can always give the green, or yellow, light to one of his supporting organizations in Damascus — such as Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, or even Islamic Jihad — instructing them to do the dirty work for him by firing missiles at Israel without leaving his fingerprints. Even if these missiles fall in unpopulated areas in Israel, the Syrian president will celebrate them, announcing to the world, “Not only did I survive; I even dared to fire at an external enemy.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere

While the bedlam in Syria might have contributed to the international community’s reduced interest in Egypt, this might also be due to the relative quiet that has been restored to the country.

Surprisingly, the military has once again succeeded in restoring something akin to calm to Egypt’s cities. Though scattered demonstrations have been reported, and two people were killed last Tuesday in clashes between military forces and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the overall situation in Egypt has been stabilized.

The army has continued its operation in Sinai, as well as the war it has declared on the Muslim Brotherhood in the mainland, despite reports of renewed dialogue between the two sides.

Another front that has drawn less interest recently — despite dramatic developments there in the past week — is the West Bank. Three Palestinians were killed in an undercover IDF operation in the Qalandiya refugee camp north of Jerusalem just six days after a similar incident in Jenin.

But the most unexpected event occurred last Tuesday night in a third refugee camp — Askar, near Nablus — and it received little if any coverage in the Israeli media. A Palestinian was killed there as well, though in this case by Palestinian security forces.

Palestinian police officers en route to arrest a drug dealer in Askar were stoned by dozens of incensed young Palestinians. Like the incident that occurred just a day earlier in Qalandiya, one of the police officers opened fire, hitting 37-year-old Amjad Odah.

While this chain of events may be entirely coincidental, something deeper may be happening. The West Bank, and particularly the refugee camps, are beginning to stir — and both Israel and the PA are legitimate targets.

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