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Chemical Watershed

Momentum Shifts again in Syrian Civil War

The US has stepped back from an immediate response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria on Aug. 21. But Washington continues to profess certainty that Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad is behind the attack. The situation on the ground provides clues as well.

By and
Monday, 9/2/2013   06:10 PM

Two and a half years after the beginning of the uprising, Damascus has become an eerily empty city. The streets were deserted last Friday evening in the remaining regime-controlled districts -- from Bab Tuma in the east to Mezzeh in the west -- where there is still electricity, running water and phone service.

The Syrian capital was bracing itself for the worst. Last Thursday alone, over 10,000 people reportedly fled across the border into Lebanon, and hundreds of families of soldiers have left their apartments.

The headquarters of the intelligence agencies had been largely vacated and, according to one guard on duty, nearly all Alawite officers and generals had headed for the port city of Tartus and the surrounding area.

And Mount Kassioun, which overlooks the city and has been used by the 4th division to shell rebel positions in the suburbs, was said to have been completely evacuated. Instead, artillery had been deployed in residential districts and aimed at the mountain amid growing fears that the rebels could take the stronghold.

Already last Wednesday, the army had ammunition transferred to the National Museum, while the most precious exhibits have apparently been moved to the basement of the central bank. Local witnesses said that tanks had been dispatched from the international airport to surrounding villages.

Residents in Homs also reported that an exodus into the surrounding mountains had begun from districts loyal to the regime. Only Assad's notorious militia, the Shabiha, remained behind, at least according to one of the few locals who is still holding out in the city. "The Shabiha are looting people's apartments," he said, adding that what he saw was a mixture of an orderly evacuation and general chaos.

The power of dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime seems to have been called into question, not only in the capital and Homs, but also in large parts of the country. Panic began spreading among many of Assad's loyal followers, fueled by the fear that those Syrians who were long branded as "terrorists" and "vermin" could soon take revenge -- and also fueled by fear of the military superiority of the West.

The 'Red Line'

Indeed, late last week it looked as if one of the most brutal attacks in this most brutal conflict of the Arab Spring could mark the beginning of the end for the dictator's clan. According to a US government report, at least 1,429 people died on Wednesday, August 21, when rockets with chemical warheads rained down on a number of Damascus suburbs. At least 426 of the casualties were children.

The US government noted that this clearly crossed the "red line" that President Barack Obama had drawn months earlier.

But then, after a week of US saber-rattling, Obama made a fateful decision that not even his top national security advisers had seen coming. After a 45-minute walk on Friday night, he decided to seek Congressional approval before taking military action in Syria.

Within hours, some elite units of the Syrian military returned to Mt. Kassioun to resume shelling opposition areas. In other parts of the country, witnesses reported scenes of confusion, while a triumphant Syrian president crowed that Syria "is capable of confronting any external aggression." His surreal propaganda channel Dunya TV added that the first two US warships had defected out of fear of Syrian reprisals.

The US administration had not been interested in forcing regime change in Syria in the first place. The American people are far too afraid of being drawn into yet another bloody and hopeless conflict, in which the US has little to win, but much to lose. For the Americans, it's more a question of restoring their credibility. To do so, they will have to make it clear to Iran -- Assad's protector -- that warnings from Washington are to be taken seriously in the ongoing dispute over Tehran's controversial nuclear program.

The idea was to win back a degree of moral superiority. The Americans have to show the world that truth backs their threats of war -- and that there is such thing as a just cause, from their perspective at least. Consequently, acquiring proof that the poison gas attack was actually ordered by the Assad regime is of crucial political importance. After all, Obama ran for office as a president who intended to end wars, not start them.

Most Important Document of the Decade

The president's about-face means that it is now unclear if there will be any response at all, and if there is, when it might come. As of last Friday, Obama's national security team hadn't even established a plan for seeking Congressional authorization. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Congress won't "turn their backs on all of our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norms with respect to the enforcement of the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons." Still, many lawmakers were openly skeptical that Obama would get the approval he has requested.

The report on evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons is "the most important single document of the decade" for US intelligence agencies, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington. At stake here is the overall credibility of American foreign policy, he says.

Since the Iraq War in particular, which was launched in response to Saddam Hussein's presumed weapons of mass destruction, Washington has had a credibility problem. The alleged evidence that then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell spectacularly revealed before the United Nations Security Council all came from American intelligence agencies -- and it was all wrong. The Iraq campaign "remains to this day an open wound for this country," says a veteran US diplomat.

Now the Americans are again looking for weapons of mass destruction -- and once again the justifications for military action are based on information from intelligence agencies. And, once again, the US government has committed itself. Last Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry presented the evidence in Washington.

He said the US intelligence community was "more than mindful of the Iraq experience," adding: "We will not repeat that moment." But he said that history would judge the US harshly "if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction." And he noted that Obama will ensure that the US "makes our own decisions on our own timelines."

There was no "smoking gun" among Kerry's evidence -- nothing that would hold up in a court of law. Rather, the Americans collected a chain of evidence that begins on August 18, three days before the use of poison gas. On that particular Sunday, the regime allegedly began to make initial preparations in the Damascus suburb of Adra. Sarin gas was purportedly made ready for use until the morning hours of August 21. Afterwards, gas masks were reportedly distributed to government troops. This evidence stems primarily from sources on location.

Stocks of Poison Gas

A high-ranking government official revealed a map drawn up by the US government that shows 12 neighborhoods in the northeastern part of the capital that are all under the control of the opposition. Then he produced aerial photographs that he said depict where the rockets were fired from, and where they landed: launched from areas under the regime's control and landing in the 12 target regions. While Obama's secretary of state was speaking, a team of inspectors hired by the UN was in Syria trying to establish precisely which toxic substances had been used.

Even after Kerry's presentation, however, it still remains unclear whether, and to what extent, leading figures in Assad's regime were involved. As a sign of high-level responsibility, Obama's experts point to an intercepted phone call made by a government official who allegedly speaks of the impact of the poison gas after the attack. The Obama administration also says there are indications that high-ranking representatives of the chemical weapons program had prior knowledge of the operation.

According to experts in Western governments, the most compelling piece of evidence is that the regime is the only power in the region that has the required stocks of poison gas along with the necessary rocket launchers. They say that nothing indicates that the rebels have managed to capture one of the Syrian government's chemical weapons depots. The experts also note that the insurgents would hardly be capable of mixing the diverse chemical components and deploying the weapons correctly.

What's more, shortly before the chemical gas attack the rebels were reportedly massing their forces into larger units for an offensive on Damascus. Sources say that groups of fighters had already infiltrated the capital and the Syrian army was preparing to defend the city. In this situation, everything seems to suggest that the troubled Syrian regime resorted to chemical weapons.

Syria reportedly has up to 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents. They were originally intended as a deterrent, and as a last resort in a war with Israel or other external enemies. The chemical warheads were to be delivered to their targets by large Scud missiles, which are crude weapons ill suited for pinpoint strikes.

Recently, Syrian chemical weapons experts appear to have been working on alternatives. Just last September, SPIEGEL reported on the testing of new delivery systems for chemical warheads: According to mutually independent sources, in late August last year, five or six empty shells designed for chemical agents were fired at a desert testing ground called Diraiham.

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