Syria CW Use: Who crossed whose red-line? | Charles Duelfer

Syria CW Use: Who crossed whose red-line?

Did Bashir cross Obama’s redline, or the other way around? The perspective in Damascus may be different.

The Syrian situation has taken yet another turn for the worse. Which is to say it has become even more unpredictable.
The apparent use of a large coordinated chemical weapons attack on civilian targets by the Bashir regime whilst the UN inspection team was sitting in a hotel in Damascus suggests that deterrence has failed. But who was deterring whom?
I can not pretend to understand the mindset or logic of Bashir, but however he calculates costs and benefits or risks and gains, he seems to think ramping up defiance of the international community and increasing terror among Syrians is the path to take at the moment.
One possible explanation could be linked to Bashir’s previous statements that he would not use CW so long as there was no external intervention. Perhaps in his mind, there has been external intervention in the form of the infiltration of opposition forces trained in Jordan by the US, French and possibly the Israelis as reported in Le Figaro (22 August 2013). Bashir may have concluded that the outside world (and indeed the US) had crossed his redline, not the other way around.
For Washington, the Syrian war cannot be separated from the further complexities of grating tensions in the rest of the region. Jordan is extremely vulnerable and if it King Abdullah loses control of Jordan, then the chaos in the region will have gotten vastly worse.
For the White House, Syria also cannot be separated from domestic politics. President Obama has to be able to say he is doing something about Syria. The chemical weapon attack videos will force this even more.
Chemical weapons use stands out among the intersecting dynamics that no one can understand. Latching on to that salient element is perhaps unavoidable because it is tangible and the videos are so horrible. But, it is only one aspect of a tragedy that is spinning out of control.
In some ways Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is correct in condemning intervention because we cannot really predict the consequences. His comments that perhaps Syrian rebels caused the chemical weapons attack may seem ludicrous, but his objective is to thwart action military action that has no clear outcome.
Lavrov, it is worth remembering, was Russian ambassador to the UN during the key crises between UN weapons inspectors and Iraq in the 1990’s. At one point he accused the UN weapons inspectors of introducing nerve agent samples into Iraq—in effect planting evidence. It had the desired effect of shifting rational debate in the Security Council away from Iraq—whom Russia was supporting. Lavrov is very shrewd and has purpose behind his statements.
In the days ahead, I would carefully watch for Lavrov’s reactions. Russian dialogue with Damascus will have far more influence over Bashir’s behavior than statements from the White House.
Finally, the use of chemical weapons also indicates that the chemical stocks are no longer concentrated at a small number of secure sites. The risk of the dispersal or complete loss of control of these weapons in the Syria is growing. The US cannot confidently bomb these sites to destroy them. There are too many and the aftermath would likely make any accountability for the weapons impossible. In a sense, this risk allows Bashir to deter the US.

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