The tactical use of chemical weapons in Syria

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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Of all the horrors of the Syrian war, the most peculiar is the regime’s use of chemical weapons. They are used even when they have no discernible strategic advantage, and they carry a heavy political cost, making it harder for the international community to consent to a continuation government led by Assad after the end of the civil war.

This has not always been so. As far as we can tell, when the first attacks were reported, the use of chemical weapons was a provocation towards the West, authorized by Russia. Russia moved into the conflict theatre, and then they, and the Assad regime, wanted to test the West’s resolve.


The driving factor behind these attacks seems to be the fact that Assad, the Russians and the Iranian-backed militias are still surprisingly far from stamping their authority onto the broken country

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The West failed that test when the UK Parliament and the Obama administration decided against enforcing their chemical weapons “red line”, and in doing so, they have effectively written themselves out of the conflict. It was an extremely high risk maneuver, but it ultimately carried a very high payoff.

But as the things on the ground stand now, there is no strategic reason for using chemical weapons, as has happened recently in eastern Ghouta. The strategic way forward for Assad and the Russians would be to persuade the West to acquiesce to Assad’s de facto win in the civil war, so that arrangements can be made towards the normalization of the security situation on the ground, as well as the normalization of Syria’s international position. Further chemical attacks are making this less likely.

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The driving factor behind these attacks seems to be the fact that Assad, the Russians and the Iranian-backed militias are still surprisingly far from stamping their authority onto the broken country.

Even after three years of Russian involvement, with large scale devastation of civilian targets like Aleppo, the routine violation of international humanitarian taboos like the targeting of hospitals and humanitarian convoys, and the use of mass starvation sieges as a routine tactic of war, the rebellion is not broken. It has been beaten back to a small number of areas and provinces, and their prospects are not at all bright, but they are not capitulating.

Chemical weapons

In this context, the use of chemical weapons is a sign of frustration, if not desperation from the Assad regime. The stark military superiority of his coalition of allies is failing to make the desired impression upon the rebel-held areas. So the Assad forces seem to have resorted to trying to terrorize the population into submission. And there are few things that can terrorize quite like sarin gas, or chlorine.

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The wisdom of this tactic, however, is highly dubious. The Syria people rose up in 2011 largely in response of a decade-long policy of terrorizing the population into submission by the Ba’athist government led by the Assad dynasty. Further terror is not likely to crush the spirit of the rebels.

Given that the rebellion was, at least in part, an act of defiance against state terror, these attacks may in fact have the exact opposite effect, and galvanize the nearly-exhausted rebels.

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Secondly, even in the optimistic scenario where these terror attacks on the civilian population in the rebel-held areas actually speed up Assad’s ultimate military victory, they make winning the peace impossible for his regime – and indeed, for his ally, Russia. Assad’s Syria is already a pariah state. Russia is working very hard to becoming a pariah state too.

But what these attacks do is to further entrench that status for both regimes, possibly for decades to come. They may not think this is the most important consideration at the moment, but in the medium-to-long term, this will be devastating for their prospects, both politically and economically. Assad seems to be taking after his sponsor, President Putin: all tactics, and very little strategy.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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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