Strategic Insights: The Assad Regime and Chemical Weapons


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Dr. Robert J. Bunker On April 7, 2018, insurgents and civilians in a rebel enclave in Douma, east of Damascus, Syria, were subjected to a chemical weapons attack during an offensive conducted by Assad regime and allied Russian and Iranian-linked ground forces. At least 42 individuals were reported to have been killed in the attack due to suffocation—primarily in their homes—with more than 500 additional individuals seeking medical attention.1 Local reports from the encircled enclave suggest that during the late afternoon and evening hours, Assad regime helicopters dropped two barrel bombs containing a substance with signatures consistent with that of chlorine.2 Chlorine—an industrial hazardous material (HAZMAT) chemical with many commercial uses—can also be utilized in chemical warfare as a choking agent. Upon dispersal, this chemical—in its gaseous form—is greenish-yellow in color and heavier than air, which allows it to settle in spots such as basements and other low lying areas, slowly suffocating those to which it comes in contact. The use of chemical warfare agents—and dual-purpose HAZMAT agents such as chlorine with regard to the recent Douma incident—is prohibited under international law. The Syrian Arab Republic, as a Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) signatory, is bound under such laws not to engage in chemical warfare attacks, but has repeatedly ignored its legal and moral obligations in accord with that treaty. The timing of this new chemical warfare incident has come at a highly inopportune time for the present U.S. Presidential administration vis-à-vis its recently declared intention to begin to disengage from Syria.3 This incident has resulted in pressure being brought upon the Trump administration to take some form of punitive action against the Assad regime, as took place earlier in response to that regime’s Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas attack on April 4, 2017. All the while, Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah news outlets and social media have been actively promoting an ongoing propaganda narrative focusing on Western (read liberal democratic) lies and fabrications surrounding the recent Douma incident.4 From the perspective gained from past research on the Assad regime’s relationship to chemical weapons and their domestic use against regime-challenging insurgent forces within Syria, this new incident blatantly appears both premeditated and calculated in the manner in which it was conducted. To gain an appreciation of this strategic insight, a discussion of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons program, earlier chemical weapons use, and the lessons learned from them are provided in this essay. CHEMICAL WEAPONS PROGRAM Given the sensitive nature of this subject matter related to the Syrian Arab Republic—it exists within a highly classified state program—its chemical warfare capabilities are opaque at best. The Assad regime—then under Hafez al-Assad— initially acquired chemical weapons, most certainly sulfur mustard (a blister agent) and possibly sarin (a nerve agent), as early as 1972 from Egypt prior to the start of the Yom Kippur War. Russia, during the same period, provided defensive equipment for Syrian military personnel that would be fielding these chemical weapons.5 As a result of the Yom Kippur War defeat, the subsequent defeat in June 1982 in Lebanon by Israel, and ongoing regional security concerns with Iraq, the Assad regime continued to develop its chemical warfare program primarily with Russian support. Sporadic, limited glimpses of, and at times contradictory information related to the Syrian chemical weapons program have since been reported on for more than 4 decades. An overview of this information can be found in the Syrian Chemical Chronology spanning December 1968 through March 2008.6 When more authoritative program information has been provided—such as a declassified Top Secret Central Intelligence Agency intelligence assessment published in November 1985 on this subject (released in November...

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