Is Assad testing the West on chemical weapons?

McClatchy Foreign StaffMay 1, 2014 

— Allegations that the Syrian military bombed rebel held areas with improvised explosives that contained chlorine gas could reflect an effort on the part of the Syrian government to test the international community’s commitment to enforcing Syria’s agreement to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.

The international body that oversees the world treaty that bans chemical weapons, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said this week that it will send investigators to probe reports that Syrian helicopters dropped so-called barrel bombs containing chlorine on as many as six sites over the course of three weeks in mid April.

Coming at a time when Syria had missed the deadline for completing the shipment of its stockpiles of chemical weapons out of the country, the reports of chlorine use have raised questions about the Syrian commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Syrian government joined last year in the wake of allegations that it was responsible for an Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds.

Joshua Landis of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on the government of President Bashar al Assad said these moves would be consistent with the government’s goal of surviving the country’s civil war, which in more than three years has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 on all sides.

“The fact that Assad has turned over close to 90 percent of his chemical weapons surprised most policy analysts because chemical weapons give him several clear advantages in the present war,” Landis said in an interview. “It seems logical that Assad would hold back a weapon that could be useful.”

Landis pointed out that the Syrian struggle is viewed as a death match by both sides. In that context, it’s not surprising that either side would deploy whatever weapon it needed to ensure that it was not defeated -- “even if it means incinerating entire cities filled with young children and women.”

The inclusion of canisters containing pressurized chlorine gas in barrel bombs could reflect Assad’s desire to use his advantages to push for victory, Landis said.

“One can imagine that Assad may calculate that barrel bombs filled with chlorine will speed up the process of emptying rebel dominated neighborhoods of their inhabitants in cities such as Aleppo,” he said. “They will also reduce the amount of physical destruction to cities by increasing the level of terror and causing people to flee.”

Andrew Tabler, a strong critic of the Syrian regime from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the alleged use of chlorine, which Syria was not required to declare as a chemical weapon, is just one of a number of “tests” Assad is making of international commitment to enforcement. In addition to the alleged use of chlorine and the delay in shipping chemical weapon components out of the country, Tabler cited Syria’s request that it not be required to destroy 12 chemical weapons assembly facilities as among those tests.

A Western military attache based in Beirut who regularly deals with the U.S. as well with Syrian officials said that barring some massive violation of the agreement, he doubts the U.S. will take action against Assad over the chlorine usage, if the OPCW proves the allegations.

“Ukraine. Poland and the Baltics. Russia and Putin. China and the Philippines. Iraq is in open civil war and [the US is] pulling out of Afghanistan,” said the official, listing current areas of American involvement in crises. “How smart does Bashar have to be to look around and see what a small foreign policy priority he is right now? So it’s natural he’s going to see how far he can go without drawing real attention.”

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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