Damascene Götterdämmerung (UPDATE: Defeat Doctrine)

This Voice Of America article offers divergent points of view on the question of Syria’s chemical weapons. Given their history as deterrent to Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear force, Syrian stockpiles were never designed for use against Syrian cities. But the chances of that happening go up with each day that Assad’s position deteriorates. We simply don’t know what his response to defeat will be:

But Joseph Holliday, former army intelligence officer and now senior analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said he could see President Assad using chemical weapons against his people.

“Clearly, the chances of that happening increase as the Assad regime nears end game,” said Holliday.  “Right now our deterrence, our ‘red line’ is based really on the psychology of Bashar al-Assad at this point — that he won’t, he wouldn’t dare to use them because that would mean committing suicide.  But if at some point in the future, if the rebel gains continue, and he’s backed into a corner, Bashar may decide that he’s dead either way and the risks of miscalculation increase.”

Meanwhile, rebel-held areas continue to show remarkable resiliency, somehow maintaining civil order and services amid the conflict. But the absence of American firepower, money, and aid leaves a profound vacuum that Islamist elements are only too happy to fill:

Halab al-Shabaa Brigade, one of the larger FSA units under the military council in Aleppo, is considering disbanding. The unit commander, a moderate, told me he knew that the extremist militant group Jabhat al-Nusra had approached some of his men. Jabhat al-Nusra is well-financed: Many of its cells have more food and weapons than recruits, and they are approaching Syrians to expand. Their obvious advantage is that they can provide what more moderate groups and civilian councils cannot: salaries and weapons.

Syria’s uprising has proven three times as deadly as Libya’s. After a nearly two-year experiment in nonintervention, the regime’s downfall shows every sign of turning out much the bloodier for American (and global) inaction. If Assad left the country tomorrow, the United States would have to prop up whatever replaces him just to keep things from collapsing altogether, and it’s not clear that assets are in place to make even that much happen.

Major General Abdul-Aziz Jassim al-Shallal has defected from the regime and reports that chemical weapons actually were used in Homs last week.  The Independent:

Reports from Homs had suggested that a type of nerve agent was used by the Syrian forces in the attack, a point that General Shallal appeared to verify yesterday. Al Jazeera reported at the time that at least seven people had died after inhaling a poisonous gas “sprayed by government forces in a rebel-held Homs neighbourhood”.

“We don’t know what this gas is but medics are saying it’s something similar to sarin gas,” Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, told Al Jazeera.

It is not clear that the substance used in Homs was banned by international law, even the though the General yesterday specifically referred to a “chemical weapons” attack. Nonetheless, the use of non-conventional weapons is considered a “red line” by some in the international community who have been reluctant to intervene directly.

I understand why so many people would doubt reports of regime forces using WMD and worry that they are some spectacular ploy to drag the United States into war. But Syria has chemical weapon stockpiles precisely because the regime wanted to secure its future against threats at home and abroad. If Bahar al-Assad really fears that his regime has no future — and constant high-level defections surely add to that impression — then there is no telling what unthinkable things become possible.

UPDATE 8: Nerve agent delivery warheads seldom create large explosions. Victims of a nerve agent like sarin may not realize anything has happened until they experience a sudden runny nose, headache, and dizziness. They will drool and panic as their respiratory system shuts down. Their muscles twitch, and they have trouble seeing as their pupils dilate, turn red, and tear up uncontrollably.

The nerve agent casualty will understandably exhibit strange and confused behavior. Mostly, they will cough, wheeze, and gurgle while laboring to breathe. The victim will also vomit as they lose bowel and bladder control. Their heart will also beat slower and slower.

Left untreated, the victim will convulse and become unable to move as they pass out and go into respiratory failure. Treated quickly, exposure need not be fatal, but it is never pretty and in fact quite awful to observe. So with that warning in mind: the video below comes from Al-Jazeera, which reports

Seven people have died in Homs after they inhaled a poisonous gas sprayed by government forces in a rebel-held neighbourhood, activists said.

Does the above description of a nerve agent casualty fit this video? It purports to be of a gas victim being treated, but has not been independently verified.

UPDATE 7: President Obama will formally recognize the Syrian opposition. Because you can’t separate goats from sheep unless you recognize the sheep:

“Not everybody who is participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people that we are comfortable with,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on the ABC program “20/20.” “There are some who I think have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda.”

But Mr. Obama praised the opposition, known formally as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, for what he said was its inclusiveness, its openness to various ethnic and religious groups, and its ties to local councils involved in the fighting against Mr. Assad’s security forces.

Even if Assad left the country tonight, the opposition would still be left with a disaster to manage. The refugee count is now at a half-million displaced persons, with many in field camps at wintertime. The only good news is that there has been no new activity with Syria’s chemical weapons.

UPDATE 6: The fight has been raging all day inside Damascus.

Syrian rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad clashed in Damascus, with some exchanges less than a mile from the presidential office amid an intensification of the 20-month civil conflict, an opposition group said.

Sporadic gunfire and explosions were heard in Salhiyeh, a neighborhood close to the president’s office, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mail today. Fighting was also reported throughout the city, the Observatory said.

With the United States unwilling to give the Syrian rebels arms, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have filled the power-vacuum — so we shouldn’t be surprised that Islamists are dominating the rebellion’s military structure:

(Reuters) – Syrian rebels expect greater military help from Gulf Arab states after they announced a new command structure which aims finally to unite President Bashar al-Assad’s armed opponents, rebel commanders said on Monday.

[...] Abu Moaz al-Agha, a leader and spokesman of the powerful Gathering of Ansar al Islam which includes many Islamist rebel brigades, said the new, Islamist-dominated military command elected in Turkey over the weekend could change that.

“What we need now is the heavy weapons and we expect to get them after the formation of this. The anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons are what we are expecting,” he told Reuters by Skype from Turkey before heading to the Gulf.

“The Qataris and the Saudis gave us positive promises. We will see what will happen,” he said, adding that officials from Western countries, who also attended the meeting in Turkey, had not mentioned arming the rebels but talked about “sending aid”.

War is the end of good foreign policy choices. With the Syrian conflict 21 months old, it took until September for Google search traffic to shift to the term “civil war.” It’s almost as if all our best and most peaceful intentions have been predicated on pretending there are still good choices in Syria. There are only bad ones, which means separating the greater and lesser evils:

The Obama administration is declaring a Syrian rebel group with alleged ties to al Qaeda as a terrorist organization. It’s an effort to blunt the influence of extremists as the U.S. steps up cooperation with the Syrian opposition.

The State Department’s action blocks Jabhat al-Nusra’s assets in the U.S. and bars Americans from doing business with the group.

Is it too little, too late?

The problem is that many Syrian rebel groups work closely with the Nusra Front precisely because its skilled fighters have been so effective at storming fortified Syrian positions and leading other battalions to capture military bases and oil fields.

Some say the terrorist designation could backfire by pitting the United States against the rebel forces. Others have argued that one way to marginalize the jihadi groups is for the United States to arm the moderate and secular rebel groups or even establish a no-fly zone that would forcibly ground the Syrian Air Force. (Emphasis mine)

Fox News has spotted black flags. Expect concern-trolling.

ADDING: The AP is just now calling it official: Syria is a “war” — who knew?!!

ATME, Syria — Syria’s uprising has shifted from popular street protests against President Bashar al-Assad to a full-fledged war, increasingly influenced by armed Islamists, in a far cry from the idealism of the Arab Spring.

I’m so glad we got that cleared up.

UPDATE 5: If anything, the siege of Aleppo is even worse than the siege of Damascus.

Rebels told NBC News producer Ghazi Balkiz that a large government base nearby was under attack. “We can hear bombs going off right now,” he said.

“In this area, the rebels control the countryside and open roads, and the Syrian army only controls the bases and the skies,” he said on the telephone from an area north of the country’s commercial capital. “In a 20-mile radius there are three bases, and the rest is controlled by rebels.”

Reports from defectors speak of low morale. Here’s a clip from NBC News:

The Christian Science Monitor reports the regime elite are leaving the capitol:

Furthermore, there appears to be a steady and discreet trickle of families of pro-regime Alawite army officers leaving the upmarket Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus for the coastal mountains.

“More and more regime supporters and, or their families are moving up the coast, and there are persistent rumors that at least part of the government now sits in Tartous,” the European diplomat says. “All indications are that the regime’s fallback position is to retreat to the coastal area of ​​Tartous and Latakia.”

Significantly, units of the rebel Free Syrian Army operating north of Damascus appear to be limiting ambushes to south-bound military traffic heading to the capital along the main highway, the sources say. Vehicles heading north are left unmolested, raising the possibility that the highway, which leads to Tartous, is being offered as an escape route for the regime to prevent a protracted and bloody last stand in Damascus.

And remember Libyan rebels building armored fighting vehicles out of pickup trucks? Syrian rebels have gone one step further to build their own tanks.

UPDATE 4: CBS says “The battle for Damascus and its airport might prove to be the bloodiest in more than 20 months of Syria’s brutal civil war.” Call it the final boss fight of this conflict:

A rebel takeover of the airport would also cut off weapons supplies from regime allies like Iran, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“It has the country’s longest runways,” he said. “It’s from that location that jets from Iran land carrying a lot of sophisticated weapons. So knocking that location out, taking it over and holding it would allow the rebels to begin their push to Damascus without having the threat of resupply from the Iranians.”

Of course, the regime still has its loyalists — and most of them live in the capitol:

Support for Mr Assad is in many ways fed by fear of the alternative. Faced with a Sunni-dominated rebellion, Syria’s minority groups, including Christians and Mr Assad’s own Alawites, fear they will at best live as second-class citizens, or at worse be massacred if the revolution succeeds.

“Bashar al-Assad cannot leave now. But if he does fly away, we will fly away too,” said Samir, an Alawite who lives in a loyalist suburb of Damascus, close to the Shiite Saida Zainab shrine.

Syria’s army officer corps is 85% Alawite. There is simply no way this fight rages on for another two months without turning into another cauldron of ethnic and religious homicide. Can anyone engineer a faster denouement? Because I have zero faith in solutions cooked up by the “Big Powers” and impressed on Assad.

UPDATE 2 – The Syrian capital is a war zone. I watched Der Untergang again last night to get in the mood for this news cycle:

Syrian troops battled rebels near Damascus on Saturday and launched air strikes on opposition strongholds in the south of the capital and on its northeastern outskirts, a watchdog said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave an initial toll of 49 people killed nationwide, including 16 civilians and 16 rebels killed in Damascus province alone.

And it turns out that non-intervention has a cost in power and influence. When it comes to weaponizing an insurrection, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t, because power abhors a vacuum:

So far, the administration has been exquisitely cautious; officially, the United States provides only “non-lethal aid” to the opposition. But that has sent the rebels begging elsewhere for weapons and ammunition — something they’ve done quite successfully. They have obtained guns from captured Syrian government stocks and from neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan. And they have bought weapons from Syrian soldiers and international smugglers, with cash from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Here’s the problem: By refusing to supply weapons, the United States has been left with little say in which rebel groups receive arms. Consequently, much of the weaponry has gone to militant Islamist groups favored by Saudi and Qatari donors rather than to the Free Syrian Army, the military organization the U.S. favors. (Emphasis mine)

Since this conflict began, I have said the Syrians would have to win their own war so that they might own it. Nevertheless, the United States wants a friend in the new Syria if possible; the nightmare is yet another lawless tribal zone full of ethnic and religious conflicts.

UPDATE 2: Watch the throne! This is why Bashar Assad is scared:

(G)overnment and rebel forces were locked in sustained battle, particularly to the south of Damascus, where in recent days the airport has been caught up in fighting for the capital’s suburbs and has been closed to civilian flights for days at a time.

CNN explains:

Opposition fighters are waging “ongoing military operations” there because Syrian forces “get military supplies and reinforcements” through the airport, FSA spokesman Louai Miqdad said. He insisted “the FSA will never target” the airport because it a civilian facility that serves the entire country.

The LCC said late Friday that “regime forces (had) closed all entrances to the capital” amid clashes. Syria’s government maintains control of Damascus, while the rebels have taken large parts of northern Syria, including parts of the most populous city, Aleppo.

The rebels have been empowered as their ranks grow daily from military defectors. And their arsenal has become more powerful, with weapons purchased or captured from the army or reconstructed in makeshift workshops.

That airport is Assad’s most important base. The facility carries more than just symbolic value: by taking and holding it, the rebels would cut off an exit route for the regime as well as deny it an important logistics center for the national capitol. Assad must feel cornered.

UPDATE 1: An American aircraft carrier battle group has reportedly parked in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The multipurpose nuclear attack carrier the U.S.S. Dwight D Eisenhower is leading the naval assault group which has arrived in the eastern Mediterranean.

It is in close proximity to the coast of Syria. On board the ship are 70 fighter-bombers and a total 8,000 US servicemen.

The Dwight D Eisenhower joined the amphibious assault helicopter carrier Iwo Jima, which has been in the area for almost two weeks.

In all there are now 17 American warships off the Syrian coast.

ORIGINAL POST

The Assad regime is losing its grip, otherwise it would not even contemplate using chemical weapons long enough to deploy them from storage. This is not a drill, and the fat lady is singing:

Concerns were raised this weekend after U.S. intelligence uncovered movements on or near Syrian airfields, the senior U.S. official said.

According to the official, the U.S. believed that Syria loaded components of sarin gas into bombs near or on those Syrian airfields.

The bombs were not loaded onto aircraft. Though it is assumed that is what the intent may have been, the official said there was no way to know for certain.

The Syrian civil war has consumed an estimated 40,000 lives, but a few chemical strikes can easily double this number. High explosive artillery fire is devastating, but concrete structures tend to become shelters of resistance once the windows are blown out. Chemical weapons, on the other hand, turn even hardened structures into deathtraps. The bullet-ridden cities of Syria probably lack many buildings that can be sealed against such a holocaust.

President Obama would be perfectly justified in taking action at the first sign of sarin bombs being mounted on wings. It would be far better for unilateral American intervention to leave runways cratered, radars destroyed, and planes burning on the ground than for any of these weapons to get airborne. I’m fairly sure the Israelis and Turks would prove cooperative and uncomplaining.

Yet I am not convinced that Bashar Assad is actually insane enough to use these weapons. By raising the stakes of the crisis, he may be trying to cover an orderly retreat for his regime, possibly to Latin America. Once mixed, the sarin reportedly lasts 60 days before expiration. Assad’s government probably shares the same expiration date.

The video below is disturbing, but relevant.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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  • Anonymous

    As I said over at Bob’s on Thursday (http://bobcesca.com/blog-archives/2012/12/syria-could-get-really-really-bad.html#comment-729505645), I’m not convinced Bashar al Assad won’t order chemical strikes. I’m even less convinced now.

    If Assad feels cornered, he’s less likely to hold back, which makes wonder about Syria’s military commanders. Will they obey orders to use chemical weapons? What will it take for them to mutiny—or, better question, are they so tainted by their association with Assad that they’re dead men no matter what happens?

    I fear the situation in Syria is going to get a lot worse before it gets even a little better.

    –alopecia