Sunday, September 8, 2013

Is the U.S. Falling Into Assad’s Trap?

From The Clarion Project.

Is the U.S. Falling Into Assad’s Trap?

A U.S. attack that does not threaten Assad's survival provides Assad with an excuse to escalate using WMD's to win the civil war.

The U.S. is headed towards limited military action against the Syrian regime as soon as next week, but a serious question needs to be asked: Are we falling into a trap set by Assad? Even as a supporter of the non-Islamist Syrian rebels, I am disturbed that this possibility is not being discussed or, apparently, prepared for.

Last year, the Assad regime publicly admitted what the world already knew: That is possesses chemical and biological weapons—but this announcement came with curious language. The Foreign Ministry spokesman said:

“No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria. All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and [under] the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.” [emphasis mine]

This pledge was always meaningless because the regime has portrayed the rebels as agents of “external aggression” from the very beginning, but it gives insight into Assad’s playbook.

The Syrian regime has felt secure enough to use chemical weapons on a small scale at least 14 times prior to the August 21 incident that killed 1,500 people. Assad judged that the West would not enter a politically unpopular conflict over these minor incidents and that large-scale use wasn’t necessary.

So, what to do when large-scale use of chemical weapons does become necessary?

The Assad regime is aware that it cannot plausibly blame the rebels when its full capabilities are used. It therefore needs a pretext, preferably one that dramatically fulfills its own “red line” for chemical weapons usage as outlined by the Foreign Ministry. Assad recently used the same language of "external aggression" in describing potential U.S. action.

A direct U.S. attack that does not threaten the regime’s survival could actually be desired if the Assad regime’s feels that using its WMDs is the only way to win the civil war.

Last December, Clarion reported on signs that the Assad regime was preparing a chemical attack using aerial bombs. The stage was being set for the bombings themselves to be attributed to the rebels or, perhaps, for the bombings be “retaliation” for an alleged rebel chemical attack.

Around the time that the Assad regime was filling bombs with sarin gas, it publicly claimed that “terrorists” had seized a factory capable of producing chemical weapons. The announcement coincided with the posting of a video online that of alleged “jihadists” testing chemical weapons on two rabbits. For reasons I explained then, the video seemed right out of Assad’s propaganda shop.

One defector from Assad’s army, Captain Abdul-Salam Abdul-Razzaq, warned that the regime was planning on blaming the rebels for future WMD use. He said that Iranians had helped test chemical weapons in eastern Aleppo and pamphlets had even been printed blaming “terrorist gangs” for their use.

The Russian government is in on the act. President Putin is emphatic that the rebels carried out the August 21 sarin gas attack, in keeping with Assad’s script.

In June 2012, the government-financed Russia Today stated, as a fact, that the Syrian rebels were going to use chemical weapons obtained from Libya and blame it on Assad. A couple of months later, a Syrian channel claimed that a plot had been discovered where the Syrian rebels, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Yemen and the Al-Arabiya news outlet would blame a chemical weapons attack on Assad to justify NATO military action. Shortly after the August 21 incident, Assad’s state-controlled television claimed that his forces discovered the rebels’ chemical weapons in tunnels.

Kerry argued that it is “common sense” that the regime is responsible. In his passionate August 30 speech, he said:

“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations.

“And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.

“We know that these were specific instructions.

“We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time. We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.

“We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid that they would be discovered.”

The Assad regime initially denied the U.N. access to the area and massively bombed the area for four days. Inspectors were then let in but their access was “restricted and controlled.”

Assad is hoping that President Obama’s adversaries, foreign and domestic, believe that Obama is so evil that they will trust Assad’s word over his, even though the administration has nothing to gain politically from militarily intervening in Syria.

He is also hoping that limited U.S. action won’t threaten his regime’s survival or alter the balance of power against him on the ground. At the same time, the minimal military action could give him the green light to escalate as he sees it.

Assad is trying to get the best of both worlds. If he is planning a final offensive with chemical weapons to crush the rebels, he’ll want to do it in a way that blames the U.S. and his enemies for it.

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