Chemical warfare in Syria: who and why?

Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer
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There is a reason to be cautious. Both sides in the Syrian civil war have committed atrocities and both sides have misrepresented photos and falsified reports. But the burden appears to be on the government’s side.

Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), which is above partisanship as well as devoted to saving lives, has reported that the hospitals it supports in Damascus have treated thousands of victims for neuro-toxicity. Their reports say that the symptoms are a result of the presence of Sarin gas.

A former British Army chemical weapons expert says that the scale of the attack, the numbers affected and the consistency of symptoms observed on videos provided to world media by opposition websites is a staggering enterprise. The expert emphasised that it is difficult to imagine that rebel forces would have the resources to have undertaken a fraudulent staging of the dead and the wounded.

Sarin gas kills and disappears quickly. If the Syrian Army did not launch this attack and it was the fault of the rebels, then why didn’t the Syrian regime allow, indeed encourage, the U.N. inspectors, staying in a hotel only an estimated 15 minute drive from the massacre, to go to the site last Wednesday instead of delaying permission? What’s more, immediately after the alleged chemical weapons attack took place, the Syrian Army launched an offensive and heavily shelled the area.

So if it is reasonable to assume that this attack was carried out by an artillery unit of the Syrian Army, the puzzling question is “why?”

Chemical warfare, forbidden by international law, is a desperate measure.

Abdallah Schleifer

Chemical warfare, forbidden by international law, is a desperate measure. A prime example of this level of desperation was demonstrated by Saddam Hussein who, in 1979, ordered the use of poison gas against Iranian forces.

The Assad regime was not desperate. Over the past month or so the regime has launched a major offensive, reclaiming Homs back from rebel control, pressing forward towards Aleppo as well as having overrun other important positions held by rebel forces. It is true that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a number of other opposition groups staged a brief counter-attack over running Alawi villages in Latakia, the Assad family’s district of origin, but those villages were quickly recaptured by the regime. Furthermore, the strong support the rebels garnered in the West and the Arab world has been neutralized. This wavering support is in part due to the growing presence of Salafi-jihadist groups associating themselves with al-Qaeda. At the very least it’s due to reports of the opposition fighting as Islamists rather than Syrian nationalist forces.

Dwindling support

This issue has become more apparent in recent months with the increasing number of Salafi-jihadists streaming into rebel parts of Syria from Egypt and other Arab countries, encouraged by calls to jihad from Sheikh al-Qaradawi and any number of other sheikhs, be they Salafi-jihadist or pro-Muslim Brotherhood.

Last Tuesday I was in Amman participating in a three-day conference organized by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought and King Abdullah II took the opportunity to speak to participants. They were predominantly Islamic scholars and Muslim intellectuals from all parts of the Muslim world – at a luncheon he hosted. Now, until recently, Jordan has quietly and discreetly provided support for some of the rebel forces, particularly defectors from the Syrian Army which is good for the rebels and better than having jihadist, extreme Sunni sectarians or warlord types.

The speech was a surprise due to the level of uncertainty (rather than enthusiasm) it highlighted for the rebel cause. The King stressed that religious scholars –be they Sunni, or Shia, or Sufi or Salafi or Alawitte, I repeat “Alawitte,” must sit down together and do everything to end the sectarian motivated conflict with a negotiated settlement.

That speech must have made headlines throughout the Arab world or at the very least resonated in the chambers of al-Assad’s power. And yet, the next day the Sarin gas attack took place. Go figure.

Suddenly and predictably, President Obama, who has done everything to avoid any military action, even in the earliest months when there was strong feeling within his administration for just that, is now hinting at some sort of military response. U.S. warships equipped with missiles are streaming towards Syrian shores and Britain, France and Turkey have also indicated re-thinking the issue of involvement and partaking in some sort of military action.

For me, the distancing from the rebel cause that has been so obviously apparent among columnists and think tank analysts has become more serious. This is in part due to the actions of a militant Islamist group who sent a suicide bomber into a Damascus mosque to kill Sheikh Muhammed Said al-Buti.

Al-Buti was a leading member of the Syrian ulama (Islamic scholar) and professor of Islamic Studies at Damascus University. He was well known for his Sufi perspective.

From the beginning al-Buti opposed the rebellion revolution precisely because he feared it would generate the sort of terrorism that would in time take his life along with about 40 others in the mosque. The feeling of ambivalence, on my part, towards the rebellion since the murder of al-Buti was reinforced last week when an Islamic council in the rebel head portion of Aleppo outlawed the croissant as anti-Islamic. This is because it was allegedly created by Viennese bakers to celebrate the failure of the first Ottoman siege of Vienna some five or so centuries ago. This is so absurd and frightening.

Again, with the global public opinion shifting away from the rebel cause why did the Syrian regime carry this attack? In the heat and anger of war, which transcends political insight, it is possible that a rogue officer might have ordered the attack.


Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspondent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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