The Assad regime seems to have come to the realization that despite having the support of the Russian air force and Iranian militias, an outright military victory may not be possible against a population which is willing to suffer considerable affliction to see a Syria that is free of the Baathist regime.
With an out-and-out military victory off the cards, Assad also seems to have realized that the only way he can achieve control over Syria in its entirety, is if the population tires of the war believing the cost has become too high and simply surrenders.
Therefore, to facilitate and speed up the surrender process the people have to be thoroughly and regularly terrorized. And nothing quite terrorises like sarin gas.
The use of chemical weapons, and possibly nerve agents, is therefore not a tactical battlefield decision which furthers territorial gain but a strategic calculation. The aim is not to kill large numbers of people per se but to kill in the most brutal fashion as a lesson for other Syrians as to what to expect.
Victims lose control over all bodily functions resulting in drooling and foaming at the mouth, vomiting, urination and defecation. The objective is to watch your loved ones slowly lose their dignity before they lose their lives.
A decisive and clear signal must be sent that reverberates around the globe that the use of chemical weapons will never go unchallengedDr. Azeem Ibrahim
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria believes Assad has used such chemical weapons at least half a dozen times though many NGOs on the ground put the number much higher.
Assad it seems did not destroy his chemical weapons stockpile as famously stated by President Obama when he claimed to have achieved a significant triumph by “not following the Washington playbook” and refused to enforce his own red line.
So it is not surprising that Assad feels untouchable. Russia has used its veto for the 12th time to protect Syria from any penalty. Four times it was used to halt UN investigations into the use of chemical weapons and once to thwart sanctions on Syria for using those chemical weapons.
So we now have a situation where the use of chemical weapons is being normalized with the key lesson to all global despots that there will be no international repercussions as long as you have a powerful patron to veto any international consequence.
It’s easy with hindsight to argue counter-facts but this situation was completely avoidable. A retired US Air Force General I spoke to in 2013 told me it would take less than a day for the US to destroy the entirety of Assad’s air force and create a no fly zone putting an immediate end to the barrel bombs which continue to kill indiscriminately.
A safe zone could also have been established on the Turkish-Syrian border to arrest refugees overflowing into Europe.
Before Russia and Iran entered the Syrian domain, a strong military response to Assad’s brutality would quite likely have forced him to the negotiating table – especially when you consider his regime, according to many insiders, was only weeks away from collapse.
He would have been forced to take the Geneva Peace Talks seriously and could have even been pressured to step down and take a dignified retirement to Latakia province after agreeing a federalized solution similar to Bosnia.
Not ideal, certainly, as there can be no peace without justice but ending the conflict would have required uncomfortable compromises on all sides. Unfortunately, there are no longer any good options. Any military action now has to be calculated with Putin in the equation.
It is highly unlikely Putin would be willing to risk war with the US for Bashar al Assad. Nevertheless, a decisive and clear signal must be sent that reverberates around the globe that the use of chemical weapons will never go unchallenged.
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.