The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) is reporting this morning a deadly government aerial attack using poison gas against rebel forces near Harasta, a far suburb northeast of Damascus, at a place (I never heard of) called the A-Kou’ front. Here is the essence:
The Syrian regime used a missile loaded with poisonous substances that we couldn’t identify its type. However, we verified the killing of 7 people in addition to 30 people wounded at least; all of them were rebels. Dr. Hazem, head of the medical center in Harasta and the supervisor of the injured cases, offered us his testimony:
“About 11:00 PM we started receiving some injured people from A-Kou’ after it was shelled, the victims were suffering from psychological disorders, disorientation, eye irritation, and blurry vision. These symptoms were different from the symptoms we came across during the chemical attack against Ghouta back in August. These symptoms suggest the possibility that Al-Assad regime may have used bombs carrying quinuclidinylbenzilate (BZ), however we weren’t able to confirm these speculations. The attack killed seven victims and injured 32 others. They were all treated casually as the injuries were relatively mild, but we are not able at the moment to provide radical treatment because of the siege that has been imposed for more than a year.”
Amjad, a media activist and a Harasta resident, talked to us:
“About midnight, there was a battle between the Syrian regime forces and the rebels at Al- Kou’ battlefront. The Syrian regime found a tunnel that the rebels were using, and targeted it with a missile that carried poisonous gases. After few moments we started to smell something weird, some died and others were injured. We couldn’t identify the used substance.”
If this is true—and the SNHR has been mainly reliable over the past few years—this is a major event that should finally clarify the farce that the “chemical weapons” agreement has been from the beginning.
As I said at the outset of this business, the Syrian regime would not declare all the sites at which chemical munitions were manufactured or stored. It would keep the newer, more usable and lethal munitions and con us into being a hazmat garbage collector for the rest of the militarily marginal toxic junk that had piled up over the decades—and we’d foot the bill.
Moreover, just the other day Secretary Kerry said two things that puts this report in very high relief. First, he told a prying John McCain that the Administration had too ramped up its support to the Syrian rebels, but he also complained that rebel activity was delaying the shipment of chemicals out of the country—and that the U.S. government would be reluctant to provide the rebels with seriously lethal capabilities until they ceased and desisted from interrupting the implementation of the chemical weapons agreement. This tells the Syrian regime that as long as they keep “modulating” the shipment of useless chemical toxins out of the country, we won’t help the rebels in any significant way.
As I (and many others) have pointed out, this kind of nitwit rhetoric vividly illustrates the inanity of the policy: If the regime is the “bad guy”, as U.S. declaratory policy has it, then how can those fighting the regime also be “bad guys”? Maybe they’re just sort of inconvenient guys, that we are supposedly helping with ever-greater vigor, except when we’re not? This is incoherent policymaking at its starkest.
So now, should this report of poison gas use be verified, the Administration will have to explain why the made-in-Moscow arms control charade it has bought into has allowed the Syrian regime to once again cross the President’s own twice-iterated red line. It will have to field questions as to what role Russian advisers in Syria may have played in this, and it will undoubtedly encounter claims that the feckless optic and amateurish signaling it projected over Crimea is what gave the Assad regime the confidence that it could re-cross the President’s red line and pay absolutely no price for it.
I can barely wait to hear how the Administration responds—of which more anon.
I have resisted, successfully until now, saying anything about the Obama Administration’s handling of the Crimea portfolio. I will not repeat what so many others have said and argued over. I merely want to point out how two seemingly small but related tactical issues were handled, because they bear upon the Syria case at hand.
First, at a point relatively early in the crisis, the Ukrainian government asked publicly for U.S. military assistance and the Obama Administration publicly declined to supply it. This was gratuitous diplomatic self-mutilation. The wise thing to have done was to have gotten quickly and privately in touch with the Ukrainian leadership and told them not to pose the question publicly, because the Administration would then have to reject the request—and in so doing hand the Russians a free chit. The intelligent answer, in private, would have been that “we will monitor the situation as it develops and respond as we believe is appropriate.” Ruling out all assistance preemptively, regardless of context, was extremely unfortunate.
Second, we’re told that the President had a conversation with Vladimir Putin, again early in the train of developments, in which he said without qualification that the United States would not use force with respect to……well, was it Crimea only, or Ukraine as a whole? It’s not entirely clear. The point, however, is that while Putin has been a master of studied ambiguity, leaving us flailing about trying to discern his motives and plans, our signaling has been toddler-class clear. This has put us at a significant tactical disadvantage and made it even harder than it was going to be anyway to inject some backbone into our allies’ palate of possible responses.
In short, these guys are still acting the amateurs over there in the White House, like they did back in 2009 when, for one example, the President, on his first trip to Riyadh, sprung unprepared on King Abdallah a request that Saudi Arabia open its air space to Israeli commercial airliners en route to Asia. Of course Abdallah, blindsided and hence slighted, said “no”—an answer that might have been “yes” or “maybe” had the request been properly prepared.
The Syria point? The Obama Administration should watch its mouth. It should say as little as possible about reports of the Syrian regime’s use of poison gas unless it’s prepared to actually do something appropriate to the challenge. Its feckless posturing only drives its credibility further down the crapper. It’s not time to wring hands and blurt out Hamlet-like soliloquies; it’s time to wring necks. Again, if the facts prove that a poison gas attack has occurred and the Obama Administration does essentially nothing about it, it will be open season on every American and allied interest worldwide. It’s nice that Chuck Hagel went recently to Tokyo to calm our Japanese allies down, as though their jitters are not fully justified by the facts; a lot of good it will do, however, if the President does another duck-and-cover over the enormities of the Assad regime.