Assad’s Chemical Romance

How the Syrian dictator’s cynical and clever chemical weapons strategy outfoxed Obama.

You've got to hand it to him. Bashar al-Assad may be a cruel and ruthless dictator, but he does know how to play his cards. His careful, incremental introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian conflict has turned President Barack Obama's clear red line into an impressionist watercolor, undermining the credible threat of U.S. military intervention. Despite Obama's statement on Friday that "we've crossed a line," Assad knows that the United States does not want to be dragged into a Middle Eastern civil war and is attempting to call Obama's bluff.

The Syrian regime's subtle approach deliberately offers the Obama administration the option to remain quiet about chemical attacks and thereby avoid the obligation to make good on its threats. But even more worrying, Assad's limited use of chemical weapons is intended to desensitize the United States and the international community in order to facilitate a more comprehensive deployment in the future -- without triggering intervention. 

The advent of chemical weapons use in Syria should not come as a surprise, and neither should the manner in which Assad has introduced them. The gory details about chemical weapons use are still forthcoming, but one of the first likely instances took place in late March at Khan al-Asal, a regime military facility under siege by rebels. Opposition reports and videos showed symptoms and effects consistent with a chlorine or phosphate-based chemical weapon, which the rebels claimed was delivered by a short-range rocket.

The Assad regime swiftly accused rebels of firing "rockets containing chemical materials" within hours of the attack, which helped outsiders suspect that a chemical-laden projectile had actually been used, and also had the effect of incriminating the usually slow-to-react regime. The chemical rocket attacked a specifically military rebel target at Khan al-Asal and the chemicals used were not highly lethal, although the recent reports from Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials have pointed to the use of more lethal sarin nerve gas.

This subtle introduction of chemical weapons fits the Assad regime's established model for military escalation. Over the course of the conflict, each regime escalation has started with military necessity and expanded to brutal punishment of the Syrian population. Assad has established a clear modus operandi for ramping up the battle without triggering international intervention: toe the line, confirm Western inaction, and then ratchet up the violence further. At each step Washington's hollow "we strongly condemn" rhetoric has validated the approach.

Assad's forces began using heavy weapons to shell Homs in February 2012 because they could not dislodge the rebels with ground forces alone. From the regime's perspective, military necessity demanded the relatively restrained use of artillery bombardment to soften rebel positions ahead of a ground offensive. Once Assad confirmed that artillery would not trigger an international response, the shelling expanded to target opposition civilian neighborhoods each day -- without any attempt to retake these areas with ground forces.

When the Syrian regime's ground troops became overstretched in June 2012, military necessity once again dictated escalation: Assad unleashed his air force. Assad did not have the troops necessary to respond to rebel advances in northern Aleppo and Latakia, and therefore employed limited helicopter strikes against rebel military targets. By August of last year, Assad had confirmed that his air offensive would not trigger a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone, which allowed him to deploy Syrian Air Force jets against rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, punishing an innocent population for the rebels' gains.

The cynical pattern continued. The regime introduced ballistic missiles once the rebels became adept at shooting down aircraft and overrunning airbases. The strikes began in December 2012, with small numbers of Scud missiles fired at an explicitly military target, a base overrun by rebel forces. Once again, Assad waited to see what the reaction would be. And once again, it was Western silence. By restricting the initial targets to rebel forces and limiting the number of strikes, Assad desensitized the U.S. and international community to the introduction of a new, strategic weapon that could later be turned against the Syrian people. By January of this year, the missile strikes had expanded to include consistent attacks against densely populated urban areas in Aleppo and Damascus.

And chemical weapons are next. Much like the strategy employed with artillery, air power, and ballistic missiles, Assad's introduction of weapons of mass destruction intends to pave the way for more lethal and wide-ranging chemical attacks against the Syrian people in the future. Assad's chemical weapons are not just a strategic deterrent against foreign intervention, they represent a critical tool in the ongoing campaign against the Syrian opposition. Assad's approach to the conflict has been the inverse of what Western militaries call population-centric counterinsurgency: rather than clear insurgents out of population centers, Assad has sought to clear populations out of insurgent-held areas.

The strategy has successfully ensured that even when the rebels gain territory they lose the population, either literally, through physical displacement or death, or in the hearts and minds department, as civilians bear the brunt of the bloodshed and blame the rebels for their plight. It's a cynical but effective strategy. The regime's campaign of air strikes against bakeries, for example, isn't just sadism or poor aim; it's a deliberate attempt to ensure that the rebels can't provide basic services for the people in the areas they control. This approach to insurgency is not new; the Russians have historically adopted this model against insurgents in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Population displacement is central to Assad's campaign: massacring Sunni villages, bulldozing Damascene neighborhoods, and launching ballistic missiles into downtown Aleppo all fit this overall approach. And chemical weapons fit this strategy. Even their limited use is terrifying, forcing populations to leave areas that the rebels have seized -- and sowing fear that more is to come. But in order to use this weapon in greater numbers, Assad needs to be sure that Washington isn't about to come knocking on his door with bunker busters. So far, there's no indication that it will.

Russia and China have made sure that United Nations Security Council support for any intervention won't be forthcoming. And with both Iranian proxies and al Qaeda affiliates already well-ensconced in Syria, President Obama is paralyzed by the fear of repeating the Bush administration's mistakes, notably dragging the United States into another long campaign in the Middle East (not to mention attacking another Baathist regime over the threat of WMD). But that's where the parallels end. Unlike Iraq, Syria's chemical weapons are not a poorly disguised pretext for an ill-conceived war: they represent an imminent threat to the Syrian people.

That said, Syria's chemical weapons probably do not represent a direct threat to the United States -- at least while they remain in Assad's hands. If Obama calculates that the risks and costs of U.S. intervention are too high, then that's his prerogative as commander-in-chief. Over the past decade of conflict, the United States has learned the hard way not to underestimate the potential risks of military action (usually referred to as "second and third order effects" in military parlance). But the trajectory of the Syrian conflict will teach us that inaction also carries risks.

Despite the president's stated red line, it remains an open question whether that fundamental cost calculus has shifted even after a chemical attack. Worse, it remains unclear what exactly the United States can do about it now. Any feasible campaign to neutralize or secure all of Syria's chemical weapons would represent precisely the large-scale military intervention that the administration has long feared.

President Obama's reluctance to entertain military options derives from his recognition that Syrian state failure is likely, his conviction that the United States not become invested in another costly foreign conflict, and his determination that history not blame him for Syria's implosion. The White House has, for now, urged the United Nations to authorize a "full investigation" -- a limp response if ever there was one. But the president has made it clear that he'll need a big, smoking gun to push him into taking on the responsibility of a decisive U.S. response. Unfortunately, the wily Assad doesn't seem likely to give Obama such an easy decision.



China’s Black Hole

Let's face it: We have little idea what's actually going on in Xinjiang and Tibet.

On Tuesday, or so it seems, 21 people were killed in the region of Xinjiang in northwest China. According to Hou Hanmin, a Xinjiang propaganda bureau spokeswoman, a gang of 14 "suspicious people" took three community workers hostage. When police and officials rushed to the scene, the gang attacked them with axes and large knives, murdered the hostages, and then set the house on fire. Hou told the New York Times that the 14 assailants were all Uighurs who "had been influenced by ‘religious extremism' and had been plotting a ‘jihad' since the end of last year, though there was no evidence they were working with foreign forces."

Many of the Western reporters who wrote about the incident noted the unreliability of the government's version. "As with many such events in Xinjiang, details of the fighting on Tuesday remained murky even a full day after the violence had transpired. Some elements of the official accounts were bizarre," wrote Times correspondent Ed Wong. It's possible that the deadly violence occurred just five days after the United States discovered that Muslim extremists were responsible for a series of explosions at the Boston Marathon that killed 3 and injured more than 170 -- though the timing is certainly fortuitous. After the United States declined to condemn the Xinjiang attack, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that its "refusal to do so showed double standards, considering that it had been the recent victim of a terrorist attack."

Like with many events in Xinjiang, and in nearby Tibet, what actually happened remains unknown. "Fifteen people were killed in their house? That's very suspicious to us," said Alim Seytoff, President of the Uighur American Association, an advocacy organization. "They said they were armed with knives and axes -- to kill so many people in such short time is unbelievable." A Uighur activist in Germany told the Associated Press that local residents reported the police had sparked the incident when they shot a Uighur youth. The problem is that no Western reporters have been able to go in and investigate for themselves.

Beijing's media blockade has been successful. Instead of allowing some access to Western reporters, Beijing a few years ago resumed an old strategy and restricted their ability to enter Xinjiang, and almost entirely banned them from entering the mountainous, 460,000-square-mile Tibetan Autonomous Region. Millions of Tibetans live in the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu, so with some difficulty, journalists have been able to visit Tibetan areas in those provinces. But on the whole, Western journalist are extremely curtailed in their ability to report on these regions, which has implications for American understanding of Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as for the worrying situation on the ground.

Just how bad is it? Xinjiang, a resource-rich region of 22 million people, often erupts in ethnic violence between the roughly 45 percent of the population that is of the Turkic-speaking Uighur minority, and Han Chinese, most of whom have migrated to the region since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Tuesday's alleged incident was the deadliest since riots in July 2009 killed nearly 200 people. Tibet is worse. The independent watchdog organization Freedom House annually ranks countries and territories on their level of political rights and civil liberties. The group's most recent report, released Jan 2013, included Tibet in its "Worst of the Worst" category, joining North Korea and Somalia. More than 100 Tibetans have immolated themselves in protest since 2011; three apparently did so on Wednesday, though details are sparse. AP reported on the story from Beijing, and sourced "exiled Buddhist monks and reports." "Even Pyongyang has foreign journalists coming and going," says Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, a project affiliated with the activism organization Students for a Free Tibet. "It's appalling."

In March 2012, Peter Ford, a veteran foreign correspondent for Christian Science Monitor, published an article entitled "In China, reporting on Tibetan and Uighur unrest is nearly impossible." Though allowed to visit Xinjiang, he "found very few Uighurs brave enough to risk the punishment they feared if they were found to have talked to me. Never, in 30 years of reporting from five continents, have I found it so difficult to be a journalist." Fear "prevents them from speaking their mind and reporting what is happening to them," explains Nicholas Bequelin, Hong Kong-based senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "You can go around the media restriction in Xinjiang, but you can't go around that people are terrorized in fear of getting caught."

Since Ford's article, journalists have gone to Xinjiang, but it appears that only one Western publication managed to send anyone to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In October 2012, the Economist ran a story from there on the boom in Chinese tourism, entitled "Strangers in a strange land," which featured no interviews with Tibetans. China's strategy to keep Western reporters out is an "acknowledgement that the Chinese government knows that not a single Tibetan or a single Uighur won't complain about state policy," says Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.

The lack of access has taken its toll on the Tibetan cause. Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, says that the region was more open in the 1990s. Tethong, of the Tibet Action Institute says, "I've been working full time on the Tibet issue since 1999, and there's never been a time when things have been this locked down."

Freeing Tibet is not as popular as it was in the 1990s, when Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys organized Tibetan Freedom Concerts, when Free Tibet patches were common on backpacks and guitar cases in college campuses across the United States, and when Western government officials could meet with the Dalai Lama without the fear of a sizable reduction in trade with China. "The Tibet Movement is in a difficult stage right now. A lot of people have lost faith," says Gandon Thurman, the executive director of Tibet House, a NYC-based institute dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture. Thurman, son of prominent Tibet-scholar Robert Thurman (and brother of Uma) blames U.S. business interests for the betrayal of Tibet but thinks "there is a definitely a connection" between the ability for Western journalists to report in Tibet and worldwide concern for Tibetans. "If you can't report on it and people don't know anything about it, it becomes a non-issue. "

Google Trends, a search analysis tool that shows the frequency of a search term relative to total search volume, tells a similar story. Interest in Tibet peaked in April 2008, after the bloody suppression of rioting Tibetans sparked protests around the world. Interest also spiked during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, when world attention turned toward China's human rights violations. But otherwise, interest in Tibet has steadily declined since January 2004, the earliest month for which Google Trends provides data. Searches for "Free Tibet" have decreased more dramatically, and a similar pattern exists for searches for Tibet in Mandarin. (English-language search for the Dalai Lama, however, remains high.)

Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, Hou is sticking to the message. Tuesday's violence is "certainly a terrorist attack," she told reporters, comparing the incident to the Boston Marathon bombings. And until Western reporters can investigate, her version of the events will remain the last one standing.