Assad's Cold Calculation: The Poison Gas War on the Syrian People

By Hans Hoyng and Christoph Reuter

Photo Gallery: Syria's Poison Gas Horror Photos
AP

Part 3: The West's Reputation Is at Stake

The credibility of both the United States and its Western allies is on the line: Anyone who mentions a red line but doesn't back it up may as well forget about making any threats in the future. If that becomes its reputation, how will the United States ever rein in North Korea's bomb-makers or Tehran's mullahs?

This latest chemical weapons attack should finally set aside reservations about a military intervention. Poison gas is outlawed internationally -- a ban that should be respected. The 1999 Kosovo mission showed that citizens of Western countries are prepared to accept a well-founded humanitarian intervention. The Americans' invasion of Iraq triggered so much outrage precisely because the weapons of mass destruction Washington had claimed as justification were never found. No one doubts they exist in Syria.

Of course, after the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the setbacks in Libya and the possible failure of the Arab spring in Cairo, Obama's hesitancy is understandable. It is certainly more comprehensible than the strong demands of European countries -- which never translated into political action because everyone hoped the big brother in Washington would take care of things. And people in Washington have argued against a military intervention on the side the Syrian rebels by citing how poorly the United States had fared after supporting the Afghan mujahedin in their fight against the Soviet invasion in the 1970s.

This explains why the West, especially the United States, had consistently justified their inaction by arguing that helping the rebels could end up promoting radical forces. But non-intervention has achieved what it was actually intended to avoid: The jihadists are becoming stronger, making any intervention even more difficult.

Assad's Internal Reasons

According to a general in Syrian intelligence who fled to Jordan a few months ago, and who still has contacts within the regime, the Wednesday gas attack could also have a completely different motivation, having to do with the course of the civil war. "It happened for internal reasons. For weeks, the rebels have threatened Assad's home province of Latakia, where they have captured several villages," the general told SPIEGEL. "But many of the irregular fighters, which the government has used instead of the army, are Alawites from the region. Now they're going back to protect their villages." According to the general, the regime solved two problems with the gas attack, "holding the thinned out front around Damascus and strengthening the morale of the fanatics in their ranks."

This version is reinforced by the regime's explanations of the attack to its supporters. In Facebook groups -- like the News Network of the Syria Armed Forces -- which are the most important media war zone in Syria, an "important statement by the army and the armed forces" was issued under the banner of Bashar Assad: "Today we attacked a number of terrorist hideouts with heavy weapons. To protect the civilian population, chemical weapons were also used." This request was posted below the statement: "Bomb them even more severely, Mr. President, with chemicals and other things, because they don't deserve to live!" The Martyrs of the Homeland, also on Facebook, reported that "more than 500 were killed today in a cleansing operation." One of Assad's relatives wrote that Bashar should fire off even more chemical weapons, and a supporter from Latakia made the same request. After the massacre, militia fighters handed out sweets, a traditional way of celebrating joyous events in the Middle East, to pedestrians in the Mezze 86 neighborhood in the western part of Damascus, a stronghold of Alawite members of the security forces.

Every audience is told what it is supposed to hear. Regime supporters are given reports of victory while other countries are fed denials. So far, all sides have been generally satisfied with this approach. No matter how spurious the denials from Damascus are, so far they have managed to push events into a controversial gray zone. In the case of earlier presumed uses of chemical weapons, for example, more information was called for -- but too much information was apparently unwanted.

SPIEGEL Investigation Foiled

At the beginning of May, SPIEGEL and several groups of doctors in the area around Damascus tried to provide clear proof of the use of poison gas. The doctors wanted to obtain soil and tissue samples from areas after chemical attacks and bring them out of the country, provided SPIEGEL could ensure that they would be analyzed and the results publicized.

The samples were taken from bomb sites, the clothing and tissue of the dead, and the gas mask filter of one of the doctors treating casualties at the scene. The investigators documented their work in videos. Once a Western institution agreed to perform the analyses, a courier was to embark on the dangerous journey out of the country. That was the plan.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is affiliated with the United Nations, has certified 18 institutes worldwide for the analysis of chemical and biological weapons. SPIEGEL approached the institutes in Europe or the ministries that supervise them. Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Spain and Germany all declined. Department heads and diplomats spoke of internal conflicts between those who wanted to conduct the investigations and those who saw it as a "toxic" issue (which is, quite literally, correct).

Representatives of the individual countries suggested contacting senior OPCW or UN officials directly. But they too were uninterested, telling SPIEGEL to contact the individual countries instead. In the end, the rejecting parties consistently prevailed, sometimes without comment and sometimes citing the lack of a consistent chain of evidence -- a chain of evidence which would ideally go from manual sampling conducted by UN inspectors to laboratory analysis. The process went back and forth for two months, surrounded an overtone of regret from officials who said they would truly like to do more about the problem, but their hands were tied.

What now?

At the Friends of Syria conference in Qatar in late June, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told SPIEGEL that Germany would not analyze any samples outside the confines of a UN mission.

But now more governments are demanding there be consequences for the Wednesday attack. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called it a necessary "strong reaction," while his British counterpart William Hague said that the likelihood that rebels could be behind the gas massacre was "vanishingly small." Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Obama to take the lead in a military offensive.

The Foreign Ministry in Berlin said, "before we talk about consequences, we have to facilitate a real investigation." On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said the Syrian government "must be punished" if UN inspectors confirm the use of chemical weapons. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, in a statement, "Germany would be among those who would consider consequences to be appropriate."

All of this points to the risk that the same old pattern will repeat itself -- that the foreign ministers of the EU and the United States demand an investigation, which is initially blocked in the Security Council and then by the Syrian regime. But without UN support, and without an uninterrupted chain of evidence, there can be no verdict -- and, therefore, no consequences.

With additional reporting by Alexander Bühler; translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. NO MORE WAR for USA
prissy100 08/26/2013
There is no proof of used gas weapons! even if it is the Syrian Govt, which I highly doubt, let them decide not US or other foreigners. Israel is behind this too, a small portion of people in the Middle East who hate all religions other than their own.
2. Chessgame.
yiannaki 08/26/2013
The problem is not the evidence, but the reaction. There is a complicated multi-level chess game going on here. You do need to play this very carefully.
3. oil ruins everything it touches
spon-facebook-10000139396 08/26/2013
The whole of the Middle East problem is the result of vast oil revenue meeting aggressive religion. The hell of the Middle East will not be mitigated until technology replaces oil for mass energy needs: then they will be forced to engage with the world or starve.
4. Syrian murders
fxmeaney 08/27/2013
Sad to say, this is just another episode in the Islamic wars, usually waged against others, but often against another sect. Who is the rightful successor of Mohammad? As for the magnitude of the killings in the name of Islam, don't these pale in comparison to the 80 million killed in the conquest of India? Which is the side of the righteous? This is an internal religious war, hideous by western standards, but common in the Islamic world. They should fight it out until they collectively come to their senses, hopefully some day.
5. optional
theroadupward 08/27/2013
Just this morning I was watching Tariq Ali say that Europe does whatever America tells it to and here is proof. "Evidence suggests" Assad used chemical weapons? What does that mean? I suspect the rebels had more to gain than Assad. The war drums beat once again to the tune of WMDs.
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