Is Syria testing US resolve by using chemical weapons?

2013-04-29T00:00:00Z Is Syria testing US resolve by using chemical weapons?The Associated Press The Associated Press
April 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 

BEIRUT - The instances in which chemical weapons are alleged to have been used in Syria were purportedly small in scale: nothing along the lines of Saddam Hussein's 1988 attack in Kurdish Iraq that killed thousands.

That raises the question of who would stand to gain as President Bashar Assad's regime and the opposition trade blame for the alleged attacks, and proof remains elusive.

Analysts say the answer could lie in the past - the regime has a pattern of gradually introducing a weapon to the conflict to test the international community's response.

The U.S. said last week that intelligence indicates the Syrian military has likely used sarin, a deadly nerve agent, on at least two occasions in the civil war, echoing similar assessments from Israel, France and Britain. Syria's rebels accuse the regime of firing chemical weapons on at least four occasions, while the government denies the charges and says opposition fighters have used chemical agents in a bid to frame it.

But using chemical weapons to try to force foreign intervention would be a huge gamble for the opposition, and one that could easily backfire. It would undoubtedly taint the rebellion in the eyes of the international community and seriously strain its credibility.

Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, said it would also be difficult for the rebels to successfully employ chemical agents.

"It's very difficult to weaponize chemical weapons," he said. "It needs a special warhead, for the artillery a special fuse."

In the chaos of Syria's civil war, pinning down definitive proof on the alleged use of weapons of mass destruction is a tricky task with high stakes. President Obama has said any use of chemical arms - or the transfer of stockpiles to terrorists - would cross a "red line" and carry "enormous consequences."

Already, the White House's announcement that the Syrian regime appears to have used chemical arms has ratcheted up the pressure on Obama to move forcefully. He has sought to temper expectations of a quick U.S. response, saying too little is known about the alleged attacks to take action now.

Analysts suggest that a limited introduction of the weapons, with little ostensible military gain, could be an attempt by the Syrian government to test the West's resolve while retaining the veil of plausible deniability. This approach would also allow foreign powers eager to avoid a costly intervention in Syria to remain on the sidelines, while at the same time opening the door for the regime to use the weapons down the road.

The slow introduction of a weapon to gauge the West's response fits a pattern of behavior the Assad regime has demonstrated since the uprising began in March 2011, according to Joseph Holliday, analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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