Two and a half years after the beginning of the uprising, Damascus has become an eerily empty city. The streets were deserted last Friday evening in the remaining regime-controlled districts -- from Bab Tuma in the east to Mezzeh in the west -- where there is still electricity, running water and phone service.
The Syrian capital was bracing itself for the worst. Last Thursday alone, over 10,000 people reportedly fled across the border into Lebanon, and hundreds of families of soldiers have left their apartments.
The headquarters of the intelligence agencies had been largely vacated and, according to one guard on duty, nearly all Alawite officers and generals had headed for the port city of Tartus and the surrounding area.
And Mount Kassioun, which overlooks the city and has been used by the 4th division to shell rebel positions in the suburbs, was said to have been completely evacuated. Instead, artillery had been deployed in residential districts and aimed at the mountain amid growing fears that the rebels could take the stronghold.
Already last Wednesday, the army had ammunition transferred to the National Museum, while the most precious exhibits have apparently been moved to the basement of the central bank. Local witnesses said that tanks had been dispatched from the international airport to surrounding villages.
Residents in Homs also reported that an exodus into the surrounding mountains had begun from districts loyal to the regime. Only Assad's notorious militia, the Shabiha, remained behind, at least according to one of the few locals who is still holding out in the city. "The Shabiha are looting people's apartments," he said, adding that what he saw was a mixture of an orderly evacuation and general chaos.
The power of dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime seems to have been called into question, not only in the capital and Homs, but also in large parts of the country. Panic began spreading among many of Assad's loyal followers, fueled by the fear that those Syrians who were long branded as "terrorists" and "vermin" could soon take revenge -- and also fueled by fear of the military superiority of the West.
The 'Red Line'
Indeed, late last week it looked as if one of the most brutal attacks in this most brutal conflict of the Arab Spring could mark the beginning of the end for the dictator's clan. According to a US government report , at least 1,429 people died on Wednesday, August 21, when rockets with chemical warheads rained down on a number of Damascus suburbs . At least 426 of the casualties were children.
The US government noted that this clearly crossed the "red line" that President Barack Obama had drawn months earlier.
But then, after a week of US saber-rattling, Obama made a fateful decision that not even his top national security advisers had seen coming. After a 45-minute walk on Friday night, he decided to seek Congressional approval before taking military action in Syria.
Within hours, some elite units of the Syrian military returned to Mt. Kassioun to resume shelling opposition areas. In other parts of the country, witnesses reported scenes of confusion, while a triumphant Syrian president crowed that Syria "is capable of confronting any external aggression." His surreal propaganda channel Dunya TV added that the first two US warships had defected out of fear of Syrian reprisals.
The US administration had not been interested in forcing regime change in Syria in the first place. The American people are far too afraid of being drawn into yet another bloody and hopeless conflict, in which the US has little to win, but much to lose. For the Americans, it's more a question of restoring their credibility. To do so, they will have to make it clear to Iran -- Assad's protector -- that warnings from Washington are to be taken seriously in the ongoing dispute over Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
The idea was to win back a degree of moral superiority. The Americans have to show the world that truth backs their threats of war -- and that there is such thing as a just cause, from their perspective at least. Consequently, acquiring proof that the poison gas attack was actually ordered by the Assad regime is of crucial political importance. After all, Obama ran for office as a president who intended to end wars, not start them.
Most Important Document of the Decade
The president's about-face means that it is now unclear if there will be any response at all, and if there is, when it might come. As of last Friday, Obama's national security team hadn't even established a plan for seeking Congressional authorization. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Congress won't "turn their backs on all of our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norms with respect to the enforcement of the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons." Still, many lawmakers were openly skeptical that Obama would get the approval he has requested.
The report on evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons is "the most important single document of the decade" for US intelligence agencies, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington. At stake here is the overall credibility of American foreign policy, he says.
Since the Iraq War in particular, which was launched in response to Saddam Hussein's presumed weapons of mass destruction, Washington has had a credibility problem. The alleged evidence that then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell spectacularly revealed before the United Nations Security Council all came from American intelligence agencies -- and it was all wrong. The Iraq campaign "remains to this day an open wound for this country," says a veteran US diplomat.
Now the Americans are again looking for weapons of mass destruction -- and once again the justifications for military action are based on information from intelligence agencies. And, once again, the US government has committed itself. Last Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry presented the evidence in Washington.
He said the US intelligence community was "more than mindful of the Iraq experience," adding: "We will not repeat that moment." But he said that history would judge the US harshly "if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction." And he noted that Obama will ensure that the US "makes our own decisions on our own timelines."
There was no "smoking gun" among Kerry's evidence -- nothing that would hold up in a court of law. Rather, the Americans collected a chain of evidence that begins on August 18, three days before the use of poison gas. On that particular Sunday, the regime allegedly began to make initial preparations in the Damascus suburb of Adra. Sarin gas was purportedly made ready for use until the morning hours of August 21. Afterwards, gas masks were reportedly distributed to government troops. This evidence stems primarily from sources on location.
Stocks of Poison Gas
A high-ranking government official revealed a map drawn up by the US government that shows 12 neighborhoods in the northeastern part of the capital that are all under the control of the opposition. Then he produced aerial photographs that he said depict where the rockets were fired from, and where they landed: launched from areas under the regime's control and landing in the 12 target regions. While Obama's secretary of state was speaking, a team of inspectors hired by the UN was in Syria trying to establish precisely which toxic substances had been used.
Even after Kerry's presentation, however, it still remains unclear whether, and to what extent, leading figures in Assad's regime were involved. As a sign of high-level responsibility, Obama's experts point to an intercepted phone call made by a government official who allegedly speaks of the impact of the poison gas after the attack. The Obama administration also says there are indications that high-ranking representatives of the chemical weapons program had prior knowledge of the operation.
According to experts in Western governments, the most compelling piece of evidence is that the regime is the only power in the region that has the required stocks of poison gas along with the necessary rocket launchers. They say that nothing indicates that the rebels have managed to capture one of the Syrian government's chemical weapons depots. The experts also note that the insurgents would hardly be capable of mixing the diverse chemical components and deploying the weapons correctly.
What's more, shortly before the chemical gas attack the rebels were reportedly massing their forces into larger units for an offensive on Damascus. Sources say that groups of fighters had already infiltrated the capital and the Syrian army was preparing to defend the city. In this situation, everything seems to suggest that the troubled Syrian regime resorted to chemical weapons.
Syria reportedly has up to 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents. They were originally intended as a deterrent, and as a last resort in a war with Israel or other external enemies. The chemical warheads were to be delivered to their targets by large Scud missiles, which are crude weapons ill suited for pinpoint strikes.
Recently, Syrian chemical weapons experts appear to have been working on alternatives. Just last September, SPIEGEL reported on the testing of new delivery systems for chemical warheads: According to mutually independent sources, in late August last year, five or six empty shells designed for chemical agents were fired at a desert testing ground called Diraiham.
Are Assad's Forces in Trouble?
The tests were reportedly witnessed by Iranian officers who were flown in by helicopter specifically for the occasion.
One year later, after comparatively small rockets hit the besieged suburbs of Damascus on the morning of August 21, witnesses photographed and filmed the distorted and bent projectiles, which were embedded in the ground.
A video taken in the government-held town of Daraya, just southwest of Damascus, could provide a clue to the type of rocket used. The footage, shot at Mezzeh military airport, shows a rocket unloaded by crane from a truck and lifted onto a firing ramp. Australian military expert Nic Jenzen-Jones says it appears to be an Iranian Falaq-2 missile.
The question remains as to who gave the order to use chemical weapons. Did it come from Assad or officials closely associated with him? Or did it come from one of his field commanders who -- at least according to information gleaned from phone calls intercepted by Western intelligence agencies -- has been urging the use of poison gas for months now?
According to a UN official, who would prefer to remain anonymous, UN reports indicate a particularly demonic figure in the regime as the man possibly responsible for the attack. The man suspected of authorizing the use of chemical weapons is Bashar al-Assad's younger brother, Maher al-Assad.
Given his position and personality, Maher al-Assad -- who commands two of the regime's elite units, the Republican Guard and the Syrian army's 4th Armored Division -- is a likely candidate for committing such a crime. In 2008, he put down a prison revolt by ordering his men to open fire on the prisoners.
But over the past two years, two men have played an even more decisive role in the military campaigns around Damascus: Jamil Hassan, the head of air force intelligence, and Hafez Makhlouf, Hassan's deputy for the city of Damascus, who also happens to be a cousin of Bashar al-Assad and a member of his inner circle.
'Shoot at Them!'
Hassan has a reputation for being a ruthless military man. In his office, there is a huge wall monitor divided into 14 sections. He can zoom in on the images transmitted from the individual surveillance cameras and give orders to the units on location.
Air Force Colonel Ismael Ayyub, who was summoned to speak with Hassan in late 2011, described him in action: "The situation in various locations was transmitted by camera, and he looked at me, then back at the monitors again, yelled 'Shoot at them!', spoke to me again, then looked at the next monitor. It was totally surreal."
Hassan, say several Syrians who have contacts to the inner power structure, could have been the one to give the order for mass murder.
Yet, it is perhaps irrelevant who gave the order since the entire Syrian leadership is reportedly afraid that the defense lines will collapse. These fears have been fanned by a number of developments over the past few weeks: the unauthorized withdrawal of previously Assad-loyal militias to their Alawite villages; the feared rebel offensive; the declining morale of the regular troops; and the rising losses without military victories to show for them.
The poison gas attack was probably carried out by the 4th division of Assad's army. Experts and defectors agree that this is the only unit that possesses launching devices for chemical weapons. Immediately following the chemical attack, it shelled rebel positions with conventional artillery -- but was unable to take a single location.
Instead, the division lost at least seven tanks in the Damascus neighborhood of Harasta alone. A rebel video provides an insight into the lack of personnel among the elite division: Two crew members flee a burning tank -- but they are wearing no uniforms, no helmets and no radio gear. Shabiha militia members have apparently been forced to fill the gaps in the ranks of the army.
The images are highly significant and don't correspond with reports that Assad has strengthened his military position. Military experts and intelligence agents had been circulating this theory for months, ever since the battle for control of the small town of Qusayr in early summer. Under the leadership of over 1,000 fighters from the Shiite Hezbollah militia from Lebanon, Assad's troops were able to recapture Qusayr.
Illusory Turning Point
Following this victory, many observers proclaimed that the regime had regained the upper hand. Government forces did in fact win battles in Homs, which has been largely reduced to rubble, and moderately gained ground in clashes around Damascus.
In view of the thousands of Shiite fighters who came from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon to Syria, it looked as if the conflict would remain deadlocked, a war of attrition with a great deal suffering and little progress for either side. Following the fall of Qusayr, the regime and its allies, the Hezbollah, even announced that they would march on Aleppo, Syria's financial and commercial center in the north, which has been divided for the past year, with the rebels and government forces each controlling roughly half of the city.
But this alleged turning point in the war turned out to be illusory. The war continued just as it did during the preceding months: a protracted, brutal conflict -- fighting district for district, position for position, hill for hill, with only minor victories for each side -- although less often for Assad than for his opponents, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
In July, rebels rapidly overwhelmed the small town of Khan al-Assal, located between Aleppo and Hama, and in early August they took control of the Minigh military airport. In mid-August, the rebels scored a decisive victory when they captured the town of Khan Assir, south of Aleppo. This closed off the last corridor to the regime's troops in Aleppo, leaving them completely surrounded.
The rebels also seized control of villages and city districts in Daraa in the south, Deir al-Zor in the east and around Hama. Viewed from afar, these are slow-motion movements, miniscule advances and retreats. At stake are place names that no one in the West has ever heard of. In actual fact, though, the rebels are slowly but surely reducing the amount of territory controlled by the regime.
Nevertheless, the myth of a military turning point in the regime's favor has persisted since June. This has also hampered the search for motives for the poison gas attack: Many observers wondered why Assad should use chemical weapons if he is winning the war already. In actual fact, the situation has been difficult for the regime's troops for quite some time now. Since the spring of 2012, many of the army's positions have only been supplied from the air because all land routes are under the control the rebels.
Into the Hands of the Rebels
Northeast of Damascus, Assad now only has control of a dwindling island of territory -- and to keep hold of it, the military needs the airports.
Although very few airports have been completely captured by the rebels, a number of them are barely usable. Surrounding the airport of Nairab east of Aleppo, as well as the military airfield of Abu al-Zuhur farther south, for instance, rebel units are stationed with anti-aircraft guns that can bring down helicopters as well as jets during the takeoff and landing phases.
Other military bases are widely surrounded by rebel units so that all freight there can only be transported further by helicopter. According to statements by numerous air force officers who joined the rebels, the regime has full control of only seven or eight airports throughout the country.
One of these airfields -- which is internationally unknown, yet extremely important, at least according to Syrian military officials -- is the Sayqal military airbase, located in a remote stretch of desert between Damascus and Tadmur. It has reportedly become a key hub for deliveries of supplies. Furthermore, it is unassailable by the rebels thanks to its desert location, which is in close proximity to a major depot for Scud rockets and chemical weapons. This is also where Assad's MiG-29 fleet is said to be stationed. The MiG-29 is the most advanced jet fighter in the Syrian air force. There are also three other important airports at Tadmur, Homs and Suwayda.
According to Colonel Adib Alawi, a former helicopter pilot, stocks of poison gas have also been transferred to the remaining airports under control of the regime. "They are safe there -- at least from the rebels," he says. These airports are the "regime's nervous system," says defected Air Force Colonel Hassan Hamada.
Indeed, without support from the air, the isolated army positions would capitulate one after the other -- not for lack of ammunition, but because they would run out of food. When the rebels captured an infantry position north of Aleppo in January 2013, following a siege that lasted many months, one of the insurgents recalls how he failed to interrogate any of the roughly 70 soldiers who had been captured: "First, they ate nonstop for roughly an hour, then they slept for 24 hours. They were completely exhausted," he said.
Without the airports, Assad's regime would still be able to hold on to Damascus and the Alawite safe havens in the mountains. But in recent months, it has gradually begun to appear as if the country will be divided between the two warring factions. And this process could accelerate if the regime's isolated positions fall into the hands of the rebels.