Whether its components were high-grade or OTC, it seems increasingly likely that some kind of chemical agent was recently deployed in Syria on a fairly large scale. However, there is a disturbing tendency among media pundits and many analysts to essentially conflate the proposition “there is strong evidence a chemical weapons attack occurred” with “there is strong evidence that said attack was carried out by the al-Asad government.”
Despite the growing influence of al-Qaeda within Syria and throughout the region, and the UK’s own assessment that al-Qaeda in Syria is working tirelessly to obtain the regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the possibility as “vanishingly small” that affiliates such as the al-Nusra Front could have been responsible for the recent chemical attacks. The CIA might beg to differ: in a 2007 report titled, “Terrorist CBRN: Materials and Effects,” the agency asserted:
“Al-Qa'ida and associated extremist groups have a wide variety of potential agents and delivery means to choose from for chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) attacks...however, most attacks by the group—and especially by associated extremists—probably will be small scale, incorporating relatively crude delivery means and easily produced or obtained chemicals, toxins, or radiological substances…Analysis of an al-Qa'ida document recovered in Afghanistan in summer 2002 indicates the group has crude procedures for making mustard agent, sarin, and VX."
Their capacity has grown substantially in the subsequent years. In fact, al-Qaeda has a long and well-documented history of obtaining, developing, and deploying chemical weapons—even in the Syrian theater. In May, Turkish authorities disrupted a Jahbat al-Nusra cell and discovered Sarin gas in the possession of the militants; it is worth noting that this is the precise chemical agent supposedly used in the small-scale attacks in April, which the Obama Administration attributed to the al-Asad regime. Following closely after this event in Turkey, the Iraqi government claimed to have disrupted another major al-Qaeda plot involving chemical weapons, these to be deployed on a massive scale. It is clear that al-Qaeda and its affiliates within and around Syria have access to chemical weapons, as well as the intent to deploy them.
There do not seem to be many positive outcomes which could emerge from greater involvement.
As it relates to the evidence against the al-Asad regime, after reviewing all of the intelligence the United States and its allies provided in April, the United Nations experts declared that it was not up to UN standards and ordered their own investigation. Subsequently, Carla del Ponte, the chief UN investigator, declared the evidence her team had gathered suggested strongly that the rebels had carried out the attacks in question (using Sarin gas). After calling for the al-Asad regime to allow UN inspectors to investigate the most recent chemical weapons attack, following the Syrian government’s surprise decision to facilitate the investigation, claiming they could prove the attack was launched by the rebels, the United States, France, Britain and Israel expressed a total disinterest in any subsequent findings by the investigators, and an unwillingness to wait on the UN report: they have already decided that the regime was the perpetrator. Britain has gone so far as to suggest this coalition may choose to intervene in Syria without a UN mandate.
Unfortunately, the intelligence related to chemical weapons seems to be heavily politicized. It is telling that the only parties to robustly endorse the “evidence” against the Syrian government are those which had been calling for further intervention long before these allegations surfaced. In a similar fashion, following the chemical weapons incident in April, the White House declared the al-Asad regime had crossed their “red line,” and that the U.S. would respond by sending arms to the rebels. However, the Washington Post would later reveal that the White House had decided to arm the rebels weeks before the reports of chemical weapons use had surfaced—the deployment of chemical weapons provided the Administration with a pretext to carry out the deeply unpopular decision it had already committed to. In fact, CBS News reported that these efforts were actually already underway before the chemical attacks occurred. These facts insinuate strongly that policy is informing the Administration’s evaluation of intelligence, rather than having the intelligence guide its policies.
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It is noteworthy that the Administration’s previous reappraisal of the chemical weapons intel followed shortly after the fall of al-Qusayr, and at a time when the Syrian Army was gearing up for a major assault to retake Aleppo. Saudi Arabia and France argued vehemently that some kind of immediate intervention was needed to interrupt these efforts, which were otherwise likely to be successful—and devastating for the rebellion. Incidentally, the new chemical weapons incident happened to occur at a moment when the regime is on the verge of a general de facto victory over the insurgency; accordingly, the Syrian government has absolutely no incentive to deploy chemical weapons.
In the lead-up to this incident, international attention had been consumed by the crisis in Egypt, and the momentum was on the Army’s side—according to NATO reports, the government was not just winning on the battlefield, but also in the “hearts and minds” of the Syrian people. The regime stood poised to quietly “close the deal” for all intents and purposes; the very last thing al-Asad would want would be to rekindle major international attention on the conflict, or to risk greater international intervention. He would be especially hesitant to deploy chemical weapons at a moment when UN investigators had just arrived in the area to follow-up on the earlier incidents. For these reasons, Damascus perhaps rightly described the accusations as “illogical;” no satisfying answer has been provided as to why the al-Asad regime would undermine and jeopardize its own campaign at such a critical moment. The government has no need to deploy chemical weapons, there would be little to gain from such an attack, and a lot to lose.
It is disquieting that these chemical weapons incidents seem to occur at these critical moments of progress for the regime, when the rebels find themselves in desperate need for more assistance. That is, not only do the al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria have the means to carry out a chemical weapons attack, and a history of doing so—unlike the Syrian government, they also have strong motivations to resort to these tactics. And the rhetoric of the Obama Administration may inadvertently make this option more compelling:
Part of the problem with “red line” talk is that it could incentivize the rebels to deploy chemical weapons and blame the regime in the hopes of spurring Western intervention. The Syrian government has repeatedly accused the rebels of attempting this. If, in fact, the rebels were behind the attacks in April, the Administration’s use of the incident as a pretext to increase critical aid is tantamount to rewarding a crime against humanity—thereby encouraging the militants to plan further, larger attacks. It could be that the events in Ghouta are a reflection of this calculus on the part of the rebels, in this moment of desperation. And if this is the case, and the U.S. and its allies again respond by providing greater support, we can expect chemical attacks to grow more frequent and more severe going forward. Setting “red lines” for intervention creates these moral hazards, even as the Administration’s rhetoric increasingly paints them into a corner on how to respond when such events occur.
As it stands, the Pentagon is moving US naval assets in anticipation of a strike and preparing up to 20,000 troops for deployment in the Syrian theater. However, there do not seem to be many positive outcomes which could emerge from greater involvement. According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a no-fly zone would be expensive (costing up to $1b per month), risky, unlikely to be a game-changer, and would almost certainly lead to mission-creep. Even a more limited strike would likely trigger complex blowback as a result of any collateral damage against civilians, and could further de-legitimize the rebels who are already seen as a largely expatriate and foreign movement; Western or Israeli involvement would only reinforce the regime’s narrative on this point. As far as securing Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, there is no way to accomplish this without boots on the ground for an indefinite period and a heavy risk of allied casualties and mission-creep. Gen. Dempsy would go on to assert that even if the U.S. and its allies managed to forcibly overthrow President al-Asad, the rebels are in no position to govern Syria in his stead. Accordingly, there seems to be no options for forcible “regime-change” that would not also herald a total collapse of the state and a radical exacerbation of the conflict within and around Syria.
In the absence of good options or a well-defined end-game, it is likely that doing something simply for the sake of “taking action,” would be much worse than doing nothing at all: under the shadow of the Iraq war, U.S. credibility and interests would be damaged much more by being mired in another indefinite and ill-fated campaign in the Middle East—especially one the Administration chose to justify with sketchy and politicized intelligence of WMD’s.