Who Ordered Syria's Chemical Attack?

September 11, 2013 Topic: Weapons InspectionsWMDSecurity Region: Syria

Who Ordered Syria's Chemical Attack?

A smart response requires a clear answer.

United States military intervention in the Syrian civil war is driven by Washington's desire to punish the Ba'ath Party-led regime in Damascus for the deaths of several hundred civilians from poison gas on August 21, as well as to deter it from using chemical weapons ever again. The incident appears to have crossed the red line that President Barack Obama laid down almost exactly a year ago: It involved a large-scale release of chemical agents, and was part of an allegedly larger pattern of such attacks. Who may have ordered the attacks? That question is central to determining an effective response.

Secretary of State John Kerry on August 30 accused Syria of launching chemical weapons against defenseless neighborhoods. His charges were based on an intelligence assessment of the incident, which alleges that "the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs on August 21." The report goes on to assert that "President Bashar al-Asad is the ultimate decision maker for the chemical weapons program and members of the program are carefully vetted to ensure security and loyalty."

Furthermore, the assessment claims that U.S. monitors "intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with [sic] the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence." The report also speculates "that the regime's frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons."

Based on the facts of the case, at least five different sequences of events may have led to the release of chemical agents over the Damascus suburbs. First, President al-Assad himself may have issued orders to fire rockets loaded with chemical warheads against the embattled districts. The decision may have reflected either his rising irritation that the regular armed forces had failed to crush the rebels, or his growing confidence that the opposition was crumbling due to the battlefield successes that government troops had enjoyed over the previous three months.

Second, the command to launch a chemical attack may have come from powerful actors inside the regime who were trying to force President al-Asad's hand. In light of the military's recent advances, it had become possible that the president would agree to engage in negotiations over the future of the country, perhaps as part of the Geneva process proposed by Washington. Hard-liners might well have worried that such negotiations would end up removing them from power, and resorted to drastic measures to ensure that talks never got off the ground.

Third, the decision to use chemical agents may have been taken by commanders on the ground, in the heat of battle. This possibility does indeed seem unlikely, given the strictly hierarchical nature of Syria's military command structure. But many long months of furious fighting have no doubt undermined the institutional effectiveness of the armed forces. Whether or not the president exerts full control over all components of the military establishment, all the time, is open to serious doubt. Senior commanders could well have continued to shell the stricken suburbs for three days after the initial attack not to destroy evidence of chemical weapons, but to hide the underlying collapse of discipline.

Fourth, chemical agents may have been released inadvertently, after stores of poison gas were ruptured by the intense rocket and artillery bombardment that targeted rebel-held districts outside the capital during the early hours of August 21. It is highly probable that the Syrian authorities possess a complete and accurate record of all of the weapons dumps scattered across the country, but as U.S. intelligence agencies have pointed out before, these stockpiles have been carted around on a number of occasions. Several tanker trucks or warehouses might have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Fifth, the intense shelling could have detonated stores of chemicals that had fallen into opposition hands. It is not at all surprising that officials in Damascus quickly claimed to have discovered caches of toxic materials hidden in tunnels and bunkers built by their adversaries. And it now seems unlikely that chemical agents were deliberately released by rebel fighters, despite Russian claims that earlier poison gas attacks can be traced to the rebels. Nevertheless, the peculiar combinations of symptoms exhibited by the victims indicate that odd mixtures of toxic materials were involved, rather than regulation formulas.

Which one of these sequences of events actually occurred makes a crucial difference. Punishing President al-Assad for the August 21 incident will only deter him from similar actions in the future if he did indeed issue the fateful orders. If he did not, then inflicting severe damage on government facilities or military installations is apt to push him to adopt even riskier and more desperate policies in response. Moreover, if hard-liners inside the regime ordered the attack, someone like the president's brother Maher al-Assad for instance, then U.S. military intervention is almost certain to produce precisely the outcome that they intended, and repeat performances cannot be ruled out.

Even more chilling, if the August 21 incident resulted from the actions of autonomous commanders in the field, then the potential for further chemical weapons attacks will increase as the capacity of the senior officers to supervise lower echelons diminishes. Syria's civil war has already taken a nasty, overtly sectarian turn. Fighters loyal to the regime can be expected to inflict more brutal and indiscriminate punishment on unarmed civilians if existing lines of command and control are destroyed by American cruise missiles.

Fred H. Lawson is the Lynn T. White, Jr. Professor of Government at Mills College.

Image: Flickr/ZerO 81. CC BY-ND 2.0.