Analysis: Damascus does not realise gravity of chemical weapons attack

There have been some clues as to what Obama’s next move might be

An activist wearing a gas mask is seen in the Zamalka area, where activists say chemical weapons have been used by forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.  Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

An activist wearing a gas mask is seen in the Zamalka area, where activists say chemical weapons have been used by forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 01:00

Why would the Syrian regime kill more than 1,000 civilians, as is claimed, when a UN team investigating past chemical attacks sits in a Damascus hotel a few kilometres away?

The exact number of dead from last Wednesday’s attacks is unknown but believed to be more than 1,000, with several thousand more injured if Syrian opposition sources are to be believed. Signs of a chemical connection in footage from activists are undeniable: dozens of bodies with no signs of physical injury are laid out on the floor of what appears to be a makeshift clinic; children fighting for breath, a white foam flowing from their mouths.


Syria’s backers
Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s most important backers, have said only rebels would benefit from such an incident and said opposition forces were, in fact, responsible for the chemical attacks.

However, given the enormous strain rebels in the area face every day simply to maintain control of territory, as well as their apparent lack of experience in operating chemical armaments, that seems unlikely.

If true, Wednesday’s attack would not be the first time the regime has been accused of striking out against its opponents under the noses of international observers.

The day after Arab League observers arrived in the Syrian capital in December 2011 two car bombs killed over 40 people in the city centre. And in May 2012, the massacre of hundreds of civilians apparently by pro-Assad militias in the town of Houla took place with a UN observer team in situ in nearby Homs.

Prof Fawaz Gerges, an analyst and long-time Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, said yesterday that if the Syrian government granted access to the UN observers already in Damascus, it would pre-empt any potential international action against the regime and wipe out the threat of a future foreign military campaign against his regime. But by not doing so Damascus doesn’t seem to realise the gravity associated with Wednesday’s attacks.

Analysts hold little doubt that US intelligence agents are working in close contact with opposition forces on the ground and – if so inclined – could find and extract samples from the areas in question to ascertain the validity of the chemical attack claims. Some say that given the sheer number of dead from Wednesday’s attack, the international community is a step closer to carrying out air strikes on government targets.

What now for the international community?

Looking at President Obama’s comments on Syria in a CNN interview yesterday, in which he said: “As difficult as the problem is, this is something that is going to require America’s attention,” could be construed to suggest the White House has finally come to the conclusion that Syria will simply not go away. The cancellation of the state department’s daily press briefing on Friday may offer more clues.

Perhaps Washington, London and Paris have finally come to the conclusion that the unrest and violence the Syria conflict has exported – including dozens of dead in a mosque bombing in Lebanon yesterday – and will fester like an open wound unless actions are taken to help enforce a solution.


Burying hundreds
Regardless of who the international community thinks or says is responsible for last Wednesday’s strikes, the people of Douma, Ghouta and Modamiyeh – those left behind to identify and bury hundreds of friends and family members – have no doubt as to who is responsible.

For that reason, a war that has divided Syrians along sectarian and political lines is unlikely to be solved by air strikes, better armed rebels or greater international involvement. Efforts to unite Syrians who today support and oppose the Assad regime could take a generation, and can only be achieved by Syrians themselves.