Assad Ups Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria - with Impunity

By Op-ed, Daniel Nisman | The Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Assad Ups Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria - with Impunity


Op-ed, Daniel Nisman, The Christian Science Monitor


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad's stepped up military efforts - new Russian anti-aircraft missiles; imported fighters from Lebanon and Iran; and lately, increased use of chemical weapons - are having their desired effect. Today, Syria's main opposition group announced it will not take part in peace talks even as the regime appears to be gaining in military strength.

Particularly disturbing are reports of the Assad regime's increased use of chemical weapons. Since March, the trickle of reports has become a flash flood. What's now clear is that Mr. Assad, absent outside intervention, is willing to make the use of unconventional weapons more conventional as he seeks to end his government's military stalemate with rebels.

On May 26, rebel fighters and civilians in the Damascus suburbs of Harasta, Qaboun, and Jobar reported that numerous residents suffered from respiratory problems, nausea, and other symptoms of chemical nerve agents. Three people were reportedly killed in the suspected attack while at least 70 others were reported injured. Recently-posted video footage from the area portrayed both Syrian rebels and military troops fighting with gas masks.

On May 16, British media sources claimed to have verified footage of an April 29 chemical weapons attack in the town of Saraqeb. Two canisters were reportedly dropped from government helicopters, releasing gases that caused similar symptoms among residents.

On May 26, French journalists released footage taken on April 13 showing a chemical attack on Syrian rebel positions in the Damascus suburb of Jobar. The footage and other evidence have been passed to French intelligence, which has stated that it will issue a confirmation of the reports in the coming days. The Assad regime denies using chemical weapons.

Currently, the majority of the attacks have been reported in strategic Damascus suburbs being contested by rebels, each of which allows access to either the center of the city or main highways. Other attacks have been reported in the cities of Aleppo and Homs, which are also considered to be highly valuable by the Assad regime.

Combined, these continuous attacks paint a disturbing picture. Assad has resorted to limited, localized attacks using chemical weapon variants in key fronts in the conflict to achieve a far greater strategic goal as his forces gear to launch a major offensive to rid the Damascus suburbs of rebel presence in the coming weeks.

The use of such weapons in a sporadic fashion is an attempt by the Assad regime to offset an ongoing stalemate in the Damascus area, which has remained in place since a rebel advance during the summer of 2012. The Assad regime has since been unable to force a retreat of rebel militias using ground forces or heavy artillery bombardments, although they have prevented them from advancing into the capital's center.

The regime's reported escalation into chemical weapons usage follows a similar procedure used to introduce heavy artillery bombardments and air power at earlier stages of the conflict.

Before employing wide-scale artillery bombardments, the Assad regime tested the international community's reaction by using the tactic in a single instance. The 2012 assault of the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs looks to have been its test case.

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