Why did Assad use chemical weapons? Because he can
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Analysis

Why did Assad use chemical weapons? Because he can

With Russia behind him and the US in retreat, the Syrian leader knows no one will take a stand against his actions, no matter how unconventional -- and deadly -- they may be

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.

This image made from video released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a medical worker giving toddlers oxygen through respirators following an alleged poison gas attack in the opposition-held town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria,  April 8, 2018. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)
This image made from video released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a medical worker giving toddlers oxygen through respirators following an alleged poison gas attack in the opposition-held town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, April 8, 2018. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

An announcement Sunday by the Jaish al-Islam organization, which is directing the rebel campaign in the area of Eastern Ghouta and the town of Douma, explains why the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad again is reported to have directed chemical weapons against the country’s citizens.

According to reports in Arab media, Jaish al-Islam announced that it was ready to hold negotiations with the Syrian regime on an additional ceasefire. The situation for the rebels in Douma, near the capital Damascus, was dire even before the alleged chemical weapons attack on Saturday, but one can guess that the terrible photographs of victims and the enormous number of injured as a result of the mysterious gas got the message across: The rebels understand they cannot survive more fighting against the Syrian army.

On the other hand, the suspected chemical attack raises the question: Why was it so urgent for Assad and his army to utilize chemical weapons on a front where victory is imminent and all but assured? For that, there are a number of answers.

This image released Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a child receiving oxygen through respirators following an alleged poison gas attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian rescuers and medics said the attack on Douma killed at least 40 people. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

Firstly, because Assad can. The Syrian president understands that in light of the recent announcement by US President Donald Trump that America intends to pull its forces out of Syria soon, there is no one standing in his way.

The Russians are giving full military and diplomatic support to Assad, the Iranians and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah are on his side anyway, and there is no state body that can act as a counterweight to Moscow or even Tehran in the contest for the future of Syria. Assad knows that he is free to slaughter, murder, bomb, and lay waste to every opposition enclave, large or small. Even if he needs to use chemical weapons again.

It is likely the Syrian leader will pay the price in the form of a few US Tomahawk missiles hitting one of the regime military bases, but it is abundantly clear the Americans won’t go further than that. The UN Security Council won’t take action as long as the Russians are backing Assad, and the “international community” is a phrase that has been rendered meaningless in the Middle East (aside from in connection with Israel).

This image released early Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a rescue worker carrying a child following an alleged chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

So much has been reported and said in the Western media about the events in the Gaza Strip and on the nine Palestinians who were shot dead by the Israel Defense Forces on Friday. There was even a demonstration by a few thousand people in London on Saturday against Israel against the events in Gaza. Will those same thousands take to the streets and will those same media outlets also report on the criminal chemical attack that reportedly killed anywhere from 41 to 150 people?

Assad is violating the agreement to remove unconventional weapons from Syria that was reached between previous US president Barack Obama, Russia and Damascus after a large-scale chemical attack in 2013. But who cares?

Last week, the Haaretz newspaper reported that the Syrian army deployed forces in areas where it is prohibited to operate, such as the Golan Heights region. Why? Again, because he can and there is no one to stop him.

Smoke billows in the town of Douma, the last opposition holdout in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, on April 7, 2018. (AFP)

Moreover, the current use of chemical weapons can be expected to shorten the fighting — not only in the Douma region or Eastern Ghouta. It will also be a significant factor in decision-making by the rebels in the area of Idlib and the Golan Heights.

Already, it is clear that the next steps by the Syrian army will be directed at these two regions in an push to entirely cleanse Syria of rebels. The images of those women and children frothing from their mouths sends a message to rebels everywhere: This will be your fate if you decide to fight the regime.

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