A number of journalists have asked me if I believe Assad is likely to use chemical weapons. Here is the way I think about it:
Assad is unlikely to use chemical weapons at this time. He must know that as soon as he uses them, he will have written his death warrant. I do not think he is suicidal or about to pursue a “Samson option” as some have suggested.
The Alawite community of 2.5 million that lives in the coastal region of Syria is counting on his army to protect them from possible retribution from the rebel militias. Sectarian hatred has been driven to a high pitch by the brutality of the regime. Syrians have been putting hate in their hearts over the last two years, making the likelihood of some sort of retribution ever more likely and the ethnic cleansing a possibility, even if a small one at this time. Assad and his generals will want to protect their families who live along the Mediterranean coast.
Should Damascus become ungovernable, as I believe it eventually will — although that may be a long time from now — he will have to fall back with his army to the coastal region. Then he will have his back to the wall and the likelihood of his using chemical weapons goes way up. He would most likely threaten to use them should rebel militias begin pushing into the Alawite Mountains or attack the coastal cities. He will want to keep them as a deterrent.
The Chemical weapons scare now going on may be overblown. Speaking to a general at Central Command in Tampa yesterday, I was reminded that chemical weapons are difficult to arm and use. Sarin was used by Saddam in Halabcha, where bombs were dropped by planes, which means that Assad could do the same because he has an airforce. But for the rebels to use them effectively would be difficult, without proper missiles or systems to launch projectiles which are difficult to arm.
Here is a section from Tony Karon’s most recent Time article, which is excellent as always. It reflects my understanding of what the regime’s thinking may become:
Yet, such a fracturing of Syria could, in the minds of some of the hard men around Assad, offer the prospect of salvaging more than they might if the regime is defeated and replaced by a strong, Sunni-dominated central state. Assad’s regime is not so much a personality-cult dictatorship as it is a system of Alawite minority rule and privilege, and its core remains a cohesive, heavily armed and highly motivated Alawite-dominated army that believes it is fighting for the survival of its community. Even once it recognizes that it can no longer rule the entire country, its sectarian communal logic may militate against making a desperate last stand in Damascus, a predominantly Sunni city.
“Nobody knows what they’re thinking in the regime’s inner circles, but to the extent that the regime is making rational decisions, it doesn’t make much sense to take the ‘Samson option’ and use chemical weapons,” says University of Oklahoma Syria scholar Joshua Landis, referring to the Biblical figure who wanted to take down all with him as he died fighting. ”Unlike Gaddafi in Libya, Assad is ruling on behalf of a community, and the key decisions may not be his alone to make. The Alawite strongmen around him don’t want to commit suicide. They want to protect themselves and their families from the violent retribution they fear is inevitable if the regime falls.” That, argues Landis, may make them more likely to favor a retreat to the Alawite heartland along the coast, where they’ll have a greater base of strength than they do in Damascus. If so, the regime, as we know it, will have fallen, but the civil war would be far from over.
If the Assad regime’s Alawite security core, which could field significantly more than 50,000 men motivated by fear for their lives, was to abandon Damascus, its best hope would lie in Syria breaking up into warring fiefdoms rather than reconstituting as a strong Sunni-dominated central government. The regime’s earlier strategic decision to cede control of Kurdish areas to a separatist militia with no intention of bowing to any authority in Damascus appears to reflect a preference for Balkanizing those parts of Syria it can no longer control. The regime will therefore also hope to see its enemies divided by the schism in rebel ranks between more extreme Salafist groups and those deemed secular or more moderately Islamist. Right now, the Syrian opposition coalition recently formed in Doha, Qatar, at Western behest may be recognized by France, Britain and Gulf states as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” but its control over fighting units on the ground remains an aspiration rather than an established fact.
Some of the most striking recent rebel victories in overrunning Assad’s bases have been chalked up by the Qaeda-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra militia, whose numbers are reportedly swelling to the point that its rivals estimate it fields up to 10,000 men, many of whom play the leading combat role on the fronts where they’re deployed.
The announcement by US officials that they are moving to proscribe Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization at this time is a bit confusing. It sends controdictory messages. Whose side is Washington on? Does it want to bring down Assad and support the rebels? Or does it want to start a civil war among the rebels? The latter would would be a boon to the Assad regime.
It sends a message to Qatar and Saudis: “don’t send money to Salafi groups or we will nail you for aiding terrorists and freeze any assets you have in the West.” It would also allow Congress to begin setting policy buy setting sanctions against any militia or regional authority that associates with Jabhat al-Nusra. The Treasury Department’s expanding anti-terrorism branch will also begin to set policy, as it must enforce this sanction.
Here is an NPR clip I did about this yesterday: Syrian Militia Leaders Depend On A Terrorist Faction – “Melissa Block talks with Joshua Landis about the ongoing conflict in Syria and whether the Bashar al-Assad regime has reached a tipping point.”
But it remains to be seen how a U.S.-authored move against the Nusra Front will be received by fighting units to whom the jihadists have become valuable partners in combat, while the U.S. is widely viewed by rebel fighters as having done little for their cause.
Still, the Lebanese paper As-Safir reported Tuesday:
Many expect a fierce battle to break out between the Salafists and the al-Nusra Front on one hand and the other armed groups on the other, under the pretext of uniting the [Free Syrian Army]… The FSA cannot unite without settling the Salafist and jihadist issue once and for all. That may happen if the West puts this as condition for sending arms, some believe.
Civil wars, within civil wars, along the lines of those fought in Lebanon between 1976 and 1992 may be viewed as the best hope of survival by the hard men of the regime who turned Syria’s rebellion into a bloody sectarian war almost two years ago. That war has steadily dismembered the Syrian state; rebuilding it on new terms could take many turbulent years. At least, that’s what the more far-sighted in Assad’s circles may be hoping.
Washington should recognize and support the newly formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The United States has spent the last 21 months insisting on unity in what turns out to be a very fragmented Syrian opposition. This group is as good as it is going to get. It is filled with elite Syrians, who are educated, relatively pro-American, not too anti-Israel and not too Islamist — many of whom have gone to jail for their beliefs. This group will be able to retain popular backing from the West.
The problem is that events on the ground in Syria have largely overtaken this effort at statecraft. Hundreds of militias are bringing down the Assad regime. They have largely driven the Syrian military out of the north and east of the country at a tremendous cost. They tend to look at the coalition as a foreign concoction, selected by unknown hands, and representing only itself.
The Syrians fighting in the militias come from a very different background than those placed at the head of the coalition. They grew up in mostly rural areas and have only basic educations. Salafism is the ideology of the day, taking root with growing speed. Most come from the north of the country and the poorer towns outside of Aleppo, Idlib and Homs. Some have already rejected the coalition, others have said they will cooperate with it on the condition that it delivers money and arms soon, but none are likely to cede it real authority. The president and his two deputies all grew up in Damascus and hail from elite families. None have military experience.
The big question that haunts the coalition is how it will gain control of the armed elements of the revolution. Today, Syria is ruled by guns, radicals and tough guys. It will take a miracle for the U.S. to glue this new exile leadership on top of the militia lords in Syria.
About the author: Syria Comment - Joshua Landis
Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.