Syria: Will Killing of Hundreds with Sarin Gas force Obama’s Hand?

Syrian sources on the ground and expatriate human rights organizations are alleging Wednesday morning that Syrian aircraft have killed hundreds of people in rebel-held East and West Ghouta and some other areas outside the capital with bombings and poison gas.

The attack comes as international observers are in the country to investigate past alleged use by the regime or rebels of poison gas (mainly sarin) in its attempt to put down a two-year-old insurgency. It is the third alleged use of sarin by the regime against the rebels in Zamalka, Rif Dimashq (pop. 50,000)

The BBC and other news organizations are reporting the allegations while noting that we have no independent observers at the scene who can verify them.

Regarding the plausibility of these reports, the con is that it is not easy to kill a dispersed population with sarin. Chemical weapons are mostly battlefield weapons, used in WWI and the Iran-Iraq War at a military front where troops were massed together. In contrast, when the terrorist cult Om Shinrikyo loosed sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, they killed 12 people instead of the thousands they were aiming for. This is because the circulating air in the subway dispersed the gas. Likewise, towns are heat pumps throwing warm air into the atmosphere, and this air circulation would typically disperse the gas.

The rebels are alleging that the gas was delivered by fighter-jets in the form of gas-tipped missiles and that they know it is sarin because the victims were nauseous.

The more likely scenario for hundreds of deaths like this would be the firing by helicopter gunships of sarin-tipped missiles at close quarters into markets or schools. Fighter jets fly high and don’t have that accuracy (Syria doesn’t have smart bombs)

The pro is that if hundreds of people are dead for reasons other than shrapnel, then something killed them, and we could be seeing a repeat by the Baath Party in Syria of the Iraqi Baath Party’s genocidal Anfal campaign against Kurdish separatists in 1987-88 toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War.

If the regime did use gas, what are its motives? Iraq used gas in the 1980s because it had far fewer troops than Iran and wanted to level the playing field. Likewise, the Syrian army has shrunk through Sunni desertions to a shadow of its former self and so can’t control the whole country any more. Its recent advances in the Homs area were offset by losses around Aleppo in the north, including the fall of a major military air base. Weakened armies facing a demographically larger foe often resort to unconventional armaments.

Likewise, the regime clearly is seeking to terrify the population into submission. Again, Saddam Hussein tried that with the Kurds and Shiites. Mass killings of restive populations by a regime raise the cost of insurgency, the regime hopes to unacceptably high levels. Could the Baath have done this? This is the regime that slaughtered at least 10,000 at Hama in 1982, so sure.

Did they do it? Hard to tell this morning. But if they did, it will increase pressure on a reluctant Obama to speed up promised shipments of weapons to the rebels. If Damascus is playing it this way, it is clearly calling Obama’s bluff. Lesson to Mr. Obama: don’t bluff and don’t set red lines unless you’re really committted to reacting if they are crossed.

58 Responses

  1. One might ask if there are dead birds or rats in the area.
    These could be put in tupperware containers and possibly
    transported to areas with access to laboratory equipment,
    or even sent to UN inspectors in their hotel.

  2. I find it hard to believe that the Syrian Regime however brutal is so stupid as to use chemical weapons on the eve of a UN investigation into the use of such weapons.
    Moreover the photos I saw on Al Jazeera this morning were mostly of alleged male victims raising questions as to whether these photos were staged for propaganda purposes.
    At the same time I would put nothing past some of the extremist rebel factions whose profound convictions push all morality aside in pursuit of their goals. History shows that those without doubt are often those most capable of atrocity.
    In the end I can reach no conclusions. In this war as in most there are no good guys.

    • I agree Kronoberger.

      The timing is obviously highly suspicious. The other question that one should ask is, given that the Syrian regime *knows* that the use of chemical weapons is a red line and that Assad has been successfully pushing the rebels back, what reason would there be for the Syrian government to use these sorts of weapons?

      They are doing more than ok without them. Why would they risk an escalation or a withdrawal of support from Russia by crossing this line.

      The only reason they would use these sorts of weapons is if an existential threat was casting doubt on the survival of the regime. We are nowhere near this – in fact quite the opposite, the regime appears to be consolidating power.

      In other words, this is total nonsense.

    • I find it hard to believe that the Syrian Regime however brutal is so stupid as to use chemical weapons on the eve of a UN investigation into the use of such weapons.

      True. By the same lights, I find it hard to believe that the rebels would fake a big chemical weapons attack on the eve of a UN investigation.

      But to both points, there is the rejoinder that sometimes people do stupid things.

    • It would not surprise me if Assad did this considering the recent gains by both the regime and the rebels around Damascus. If Assad loses Damascus then it might be the blow that brings down his regime.

      I believe that Assad’s regime will fall eventually, its a matter of when, not if.

  3. One wonders just what “Obama” can or could do with that Peace Prize famous left hand, in this context…

    Seems historically in any case it’s hard to “force the hand” of an Imperial ruler, especially those “protected” by a Palace Guard and military corpses… gee, what are “our national interests” here,again? Where’s the money?

    • We have no national interests, except perhaps in preventing the al Qaeda-aligned rebel groups from seizing control.

      There are those of us who don’t think that national interest is the sole factor to consider in foreign policy.

      • Yeah, plausible deniability and what “we” can get away with and campaign contributions and MIC salws figures and stuff, those are some of the other considerations. One really, on enormous mounds of evidence, should not even try to assert any kind of high moral purpose for our Empire’s “foreign policy.” “We” have no colorable claims there. And has Obama cut off military and Wonder Bread aid to the Egyptian Generalate, or not?

        So let us keep picking away at each other’s credibility, though. In the greater scheme, where you imply you live and breathe, I recognize my impotence and insignificance. Why is all this effort to impeach a little blog commenter so important?

        • All three of you – Joe, Bill, McPhee – should lay off. Quit carrying on your tiff and stuffing the comments full of junk.

        • And has Obama cut off military and Wonder Bread aid to the Egyptian Generalate, or not?

          The position that is about as clear as their position on whether a coup occurred. They seem to have fired a warning shot so far, and are waiting to see the response.

          And in case you haven’t noticed, you invoke me in virtually every comment you write – I’ve never understood that – while I don’t believe I’ve ever written a comment about you. By all means, let us stick to the facts, and leave aside the personal sniping that one of us seems to value so highly.

  4. Interesting to note that the international inspectors who came to investigate the other alleged chemical attacks just arrived in Syria. Assad couldn’t be that dumb, could he? If anything did happen, I’d suspect a ‘false flag’ attack by the rebels instead.

  5. Let’s be careful, very careful, about verifying this claim. If it pans out, then perhaps the Soviets, um, Russians might decide to participate in real sanctions. But let’s be honest: The U.S. has no direct interest in Syria and we aren’t going to send our boys into the midst of their civil war. Nor ought we.

    • The Russians have already denied the chemical weapon attack. They will allow Assad to do whatever he wants really… it is in their interest to do so.

      This is very much a proxy war.

    • since I always believe everything I see on Youtube, especially from partisans, thanks!

  6. If the rebels used the chemicals, would that require the US to jump in with Assad to save civilization?

    No. Obama is doing a fine job of staying out of the Middle East post-Libya.

    • If the rebels used chemical weapons, it wouldn’t take the US jumping in to deal with them. It would merely require doing nothing, and letting Assad do it.

      As some have desired all along.

  7. Dear Professor Cole

    By Gordon Lubold

    Why is the Obama administration is opposed to even limited U.S. military intervention? Because, according to a new story by the AP, the administration believes rebels fighting the Assad regime wouldn’t support American interests if they were able to topple the regime and seize power. That according to a letter by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, to Congress, and obtained by AP. AP: “Effectively ruling out U.S. cruise missile attacks and other options that wouldn’t require U.S. troops on the ground, Dempsey said the military is clearly capable of taking out Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air force and shifting the balance of the Arab country’s 2½-year war back toward the armed opposition. But he said such an approach would plunge the United States deep into another war in the Arab world and offer no strategy for peace in a nation plagued by ethnic rivalries.”

    Let’s wait for the UN report

    • Simple way of looking at it: what’s the point of being the guy who got OBL if you turn around and arm his organization?

  8. Syria has very little incentive to do this. The regime is already making progress towards winning the brutal war of attrition especially with its heavy handed use of traditional weapons.

    The West and its populations are disillusioned about Arab-Spring and Egypt is in turmoil. This makes it pretty obvious that Western governments are not itching to get into Syria in any big way and the Syrian regime would be the first to notice it and consider it in its war strategy.

    Syrian regime has a great incentive if the West sort of “forgets” about the conflict in their region. It works in their favor. The only way to “remind” the West of the Syrian conflict would be to use Chemical weapons. Thats the reason I strongly believe that when full details are available it will be clear that it was not the regime that was behind it.

    • The regime is also facing increase attacks around Damascus and Assad was apparently targeted in a recent assassination attempt. All the gains in the world do not matter if Damascus starts to fall.

  9. I will be very surprised if Assad forces used chemical weapons. He is reversing rebel gains and the tide is turning in his favor. Rebels have made such claims before and this country has gone into hyperventilation mode over them, only to find that they were entirely ficticious or that it was rebel forces who were using whatever chemical was being used.

    • Can you provide proof that these claims were “entirely fictitious”? The reluctance of Assad to allow inspectors in until recently points to the fact that the attacks very well might have occurred.

      As Professor Cole noted, Syria has a vast supply of chemical weapons.

  10. In this day and age; who knows the “truth”; an elusive concept at best.
    In the fog of war things get manipulated by whomever is deemed the most influential.
    I trust nothing and nobody…

    • Perhaps I’m naive, but I trust UN weapons inspectors…every bit as much as I did when they were rebutting George Bush.

      Let the Inspectors Do Their Job remains good advice.

  11. I continue to not see how the US has a dog in this fight. Principles? (ha — our “principles” far as I can see are based on expedience and self-interest.) If it’s the principle that a government is not to be allowed to supress internal dissent by whatever means it sees fit, then I await our imminent decision to embargo Egyptian products, isolate its government, seize its assets, and ship arms and supplies to the Muslim Brotherhood faction there.

  12. Will someone tell me why it is terrible to use poison gas on a civilian population but OK to blast, bomb, or strafe them when conflict arises. The killing ofdefenseless civilians is criminal no matter who does it or where it is done. The US is as guilty as any party of war crimes, Marquis of Queensburry rules, notwithstanding.

    • Actually, it is a violation of international law to blast, bomb, or strafe civilians in a war.

      The actual distinction here is that it is lawful to blast, bomb, and strafe combatants in a conflict, but not to use poison gas against combatants in a conflict.

      Where it gets weird is this: it is equally unlawful to use chemical irritants like pepper spray or tear gas against combatants in a conflict, while it is lawful to use them against civilians for law enforcement.

    • Targeting civilians or recklessly targeting an area in which they are present is a war crime irrespective of which means is used. Certain types of weapons such as chemical weapons are so indiscriminate in their application and so horrible in their effect that they have been declared to be unlawful. The guilt or otherwise the USA in other conflicts is irrelevant. What is relevant is:

      1: Have such weapons been used in this conflict?
      2: If so, by whom where they used, where, and when?

      Your somewhat trite reference to the Queensbury rules is a red herring.


  13. The only reason I can imagine for using gas, particularly after inviting inspectors to the country, would be if the regime has decided that they’ve lost and want to go out with a bang by luring the US into an actual invasion. Apocalyptic delusions of grandeur?

    • Chris, you and other who’ve said essentially what you say, should do your homework before you speak. After months of negotiation, the inspectors have been allowed to come to Syria to investigate TWO particular old alleged sites, and only these two. That is why, though they are staying only about 15 miles from this current attack, they are not being allowed to investigate it. The inspectors are of little concern to Assad.

  14. In this article you say in the begginning that Sarin gas is not useful to kill civilians, and after that, you compare this horrible attack to the genocidal Anfal campaign against civil kurd cities…
    And about sarin, the best time to use it is at night when people sleep, it’s even written on wikipedia. This gas has no odour and no taste and is heavier than air, so nobody will remark it until it’s too late.
    The murderers who sent these gas bombs knew how to kill the maximum of persons to shock opinions or opponnent to the regime. But it’s true that there is no proof for the moment about who did it.
    We have to pray for all these innocents victims who can finally rest in peace.

    • A chemical weapons expert on PBS said the same thing. Early in the morning when people are still asleep and the winds are calm is the best time to attack. There were also multiple launches—ten, I think. She had no doubt it was Assad.

        • Because of the timing, the multiple launches and the reluctance of Assad to allow previous inspections. She didn’t think Assad would allow weapons inspectors to go to this attack site.

  15. What if the real goal is too weaken Iran and Russia by bringing down Assad? A false-flag attack right after UN inspectors arrived would be perfect.

    OTOH, perhaps Assad, Putin and the Supreme Leader know Obama is under stress (Snowden) and want to see how far they can push him.

    Will McCain and Graham push for intervention?

    What happens next will be very interesting.

  16. If a chemical attack happened – and that’s a big if – then the UN needs to respond.

    If Russia and China were to block the UN from responding to an actual use of chemical weapons, that would be different, but the US cannot go rushing in like Superman.

  17. 1: Where are the dead animals?

    2: The timing of this accusation against the Syrian government by rebel forces is so convenient as to be very very suspicious.

    3: A reminder that the U.N. investigative team are there to determine whether such an attack was made and that is all. They are not empowered to ascribe blame.

    4: Finally these are new allegations centred on alleged attacks at locations outside the list of investigation sites agreed between the Syrian government and the U.N. — Sellstrom and his superiors will need to seek permission to investigate.


  18. No. Obama would prefer to do nothing than to have his hand forced.

    link to

    World learns to manage without the US.
    Spengler isn’t perfect but his title is spot on. Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia have been collaborating for much longer than a year. In fact most of the other nations of earth have been collaborating at increasing pace for more than a decade, following the clear disaster of the US occupation and implosion of Iraq. The appearance of the global security state is just the most recent icing on a spam cake. Friends don’t let friends blunder around the communal china shop with hammers or gigantic quantities of munitions, or repeatedly shoot themselves in various appendages. They go into the kitchen and talk about what they are going to do about how they are going to manage with a dumb dangerous former friend on the loose. Such things aren’t spoken in the king’s castle. But in the countryside it is common knowledge.

  19. Poison gas was first deployed by Germany in WWI. Chlorine was the substance released into Allied lines in France. The initial success of the gas was limited as the Germans were wary of advancing and the Allied troops quickly stopped the German army. Eventually, gas masks became standard issue on the Western Front.

    The use of nerve gas at Halabja against the Kurds was prosecuted as a war crime and the Iraqi official who ordered its use – “Chemical Ali” – was convicted of war crimes and executed. That war crimes prosecution sets a powerful example for government officials who consider to choose to deploy such prohibited substances against their own civilians.

  20. I saw some videos. They didn’t spare the families.

    Some folks may have doubts about it, due to the UN inspectors’ timing, or blame the rebels because of their own militant make up, or worried that the US might drag itself into a war on the ‘red lines’ rhetoric (it won’t).

    However, Assad’s regime has always been this cruel and stupid throughout and there’s no reason to believe different.

    • Gas is an indiscriminate weapon so if it’s been used then by definition it won’t ‘spare the families’ as you put it. Nor will it spare any animals in the vicinity.

      All of your other points are true except for the one about the Ba’athist government being stupid. You don’t survive long in a civil war by being stupid. Vicious and depraved yes, stupid and desperate no.

      Assuming that what is shown in those videos is the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack – and that’s a very big assumption, it’s entirely possible that the Ba’athist government used a chemical weapon but it’s not very probable because they’re neither stupid nor desperate. It’s also entirely possible – again making the very big assumption that what is shown is the aftermath of a gas attack that some element of the rebel forces did it. In fact it’s not only possible it’s somewhat more probable they’re just as vicious and depraved as the Ba’ath if not more so. Furthermore at present they’re losing or to put it another way they are are desperate. Finally elements of the rebel forces have a prior record of using chemical weapons.


      • Someone claimed earlier the videos had only adult males (or actors). They did not. The attackers knew very well who it would affect, but probably rationalized it as smoking out their enemies. It’d be favourable to my own sectarian biases, which has been more prominent since my earlier principled support for the revolution, to pin it on the mostly Wahhabi/Salafi/Sunni militants. However, I recalled the many self-defeating moves committed by Assad’s brutal regime. I just can’t let them off the hook unfairly. Unfortunately some folks who consider the rebels more of a threat do – including myself except for this time.

        Any organization is capable of making stupid mistakes. Ba’athists are no exception, seen in their evidenced horrible handling of the civil war, lead up to now. They’re barely surviving it. Their best outcome is a stalemate. Cruelty is inherently stupid, and shouldn’t give them too much credit over the rebels. Like there’s no sense for Syrian state army snipers to fire at crossing civilians, but they still do it. There was always an urgency and desperation as a besieged minority losing officers among their ranks to the rebels, despite some relief thanks to neighbouring Hezbollah, but the sizeable local and growing dangerous foreign rebels still made gains, regardless if there is inter fratricide among them. I’m not ruling out the rebels. But I’d put the onus on Assad’s troops and more convinced its them.

        • They’re barely surviving it.

          This seems to be the nub of your argument. If I’m traducing you my apologies.

          I don’t agree with you, at present it seems to me that the Ba’athist government headed by Assad is winning. Nobody who is as convinced as I am that Barbara Tuchmann wrote in The March of Folly was right would rule out not so much stupidity as folly on the part of the Ba’ath. But this would be folly of gigantic proportions and I just don’t see the evidence for it.


  21. This incident is definitely suspect. A little too convenient, occurring as UN weapons inspectors arrive in Damascus. There is no pressing reason why Assad would authorize a chemical attack on this scale and at this juncture, unless he has taken leave of his senses and is seeking a casus belli to draw destruction on his head He knows as well as anyone that video footage purporting to show scores of the dead and dying, including women and children, is the last type of publicity the regime needs.

  22. Dear Professor Cole

    The Russians are now reporting that it was the Rebels.

    “The missile with a chemical poison gas sarine was launched by Syrian rebels and targeted the eastern suburbs of Damascus. This is according to the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.

    “Early morning of August 21, a homemade rocket carrying an unknown chemical warfare agent was launched on the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The missile resembled the rocket which was used by the rebels on March 19 in Khan al-Asal,” said Lukashevich.

    “Moscow believes it is important to carry out an objective and professional investigation of what happened”, the diplomat continued. “It looks like an attempt to create a pretext for the UN Security Council to side with the opponents of Assad’s regime and thus undermine Geneva-2 talks which are now scheduled for August 28”.

    “Once again we urge all those who have the opportunity to influence the armed extremists to make every effort to put an end to provocations with the use of chemical agents,” Lukashevich asserted.

    link to

    Clearly, If it is the Rebels who did this then their cause is lost.

    This has implications both for the besieged occupants of Aleppo who are waiting for the relief column to roll North from Homs, and for the unfortunate citizens of Cairo whose agony is still to come.

    If you visit the expat city districts in Dubai one wonders what the death toll of such an attack happening in that area might be.

  23. Small chemical attack makes no sense tactically. Nothing that couldn’t be just as easily achieved by explosive or incendiary weapons, without incurring int’l odium.

    One possibility, though, is that a conventional air strike by the gov’t forces happened to hit a small rebel cache of chemical weapons.

    • Chemical weapons are terror weapons. They thus have a great strategic value: demoralizing and terrorizing the enemy.

      One need only look at how much more attention this episode is getting, compared to larger massacres conducted with firearms and explosives, to see the greater psychological impact of a chemical weapons attack.

  24. How does anyone know, assuming that it was a chemical attack, that it was not orchestrated by the rebels to suck in the United States or other outside powers? After all, they have an obvious motive to do so. There are also substantial quantities of chemical weapons floating around the Middle East now thanks to the looting of Libyan arsenals after the fall of Qaddafi. And finally, the timing is terribly convenient for them, given that UN inspectors are in Damascus now just a handful of miles away. This is not said to try to justify one side or another in this situation. However, I think it behoves the one to be at least as skeptical of the story coming out of the rebel side and that of its apologists in Europe and Turkey as of the story coming out of the Syrian government.

    • Like I said with Eurofrank, the rebels deliberately killing their own people to stage a false flag operation is a very extreme premise that would need extraordinary evidence.

    • We don’t know, but the warmongers never let that stop them before.

      My question still stands: if it turns out the rebels orchestrated the attacks (or allied governments) will the clarion call go out for war on them?

  25. Why the heck do we get involved in other countries nonsense? The problem is the US doesn’t learn from it’s mistakes. I think actually this is the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. As if borrowing half our national budget and giving money to our enemies didn’t already express that though right?

  26. Lesson to Mr. Obama: don’t bluff and don’t set red lines unless you’re really committted to reacting if they are crossed.

    According to contemporaneous reporting, President Obama did not intend to use the term, or push the idea, of a “red line” when he began that press availability, and used it when speaking without notes. Once it was out there, there was no taking it back.

    This is similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s use of the the term “unconditional surrender” in a speech during World War II. That was not US policy, and there was no discussion of making it US policy. It sounded good, so he put it in a speech, and his military aides were horrified that he’d inadvertently committed the US to that policy.

  27. The dead bird idea is great. The children of Syria can send the dead bird in bottle to a class in the US. Or sell it on eBay. Perhaps we can send the people of Syria more birds.

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