The Baathist dictatorship’s chemical escalation

The Baathist dictatorship’s chemical escalation

On July 21st, the Baathist dictatorship reportedly used chemical weapons (CW) that claimed hundreds of lives in Damascus’ suburbs. In fact, given the regime’s escalation strategy and recent battlefield updates, this tragic event seemed inevitable but preventable.

Despite their success in Homs, Assad’s forces don’t have the decisive upper-hand in the civil war. In fact, the situation in Damascus’ suburbs has recently started to become more critical to the regime. The opposition forces have managed to secure critical gains in Damascus’ countryside, especially Jobar, Qaboun, and Barzeh, since late July and early August. The suburbs are geostrategically crucial for cutting the LOCs (line of communication) of the capital, and for setting siege or jump-off points in a major offensive.

Therefore, recently Assad’s forces have been conducting operations in Reef Dimashq, the area which surrounds the capital.

The regime’ reliance on “politico-sectarian trusted” praetorian units led to a “selective deployment” strategy in its military campaign. On one hand, this strategy prevented mass defections to some extent, and enabled the regime to use robust units vis-à-vis the opposition. Yet, on the other hand, the “selective deployment” strategy kept Assad’s forces overstretched. Clearly, the Baathist elements are able to conduct major operations in a particular region, but cannot fight large scale multi-front battles. Thus, the outcome of troop concentration around Homs area and subsequent efforts of marching to Aleppo’s rebel-held districts brought about military caveats in Damascus’ suburbs. Furthermore, recently there have been indications of increasing concentration and coordination of the opposition forces in the capital’s countryside. Last but not least, operational sophistication by the rebel elements around Damascus was also increasing. For instance, the recent “YouTube coverage” showed the rebels using an SA-8 Gecko surface-to-air missile system successfully. This is a significant threat to the regime’s air-superiority, which has been a key factor for its survival so far, and would pose a critical threat in an area close to important air bases.

In sum, there are good reasons to believe that the Baathist regime used tactical-level CWs in order to mitigate its shortfalls and to halt the opposition progress in a geostrategically critical province.

Apart from the military angle, the conjuncture and the regime’s threat perceptions with respect to a foreign intervention are other factors behind the reported use of CWs. At a time when international community’s focus shifted to the crisis in Egypt, Assad cunningly calculates that he could get away with chemical massacres. At this point, the ongoing UN investigation would only make sense to the regime if it anticipates deterrent red-lines and high-risk of foreign military action.

The Baathist Dictatorship’s Military Approach to CW Operations

We don’t have an open-source strategic weapons doctrine of Syria, but testimonials of some high-rank defectors suggest that the regime saw its WDM inventory as a last resort asset. However, the Baathist dictatorship’s current approach to CWs seems to be more tactical than strategic. The regime tends to use CWs for either stopping progress in critical provinces and retaliating key opposition gains or conducting violent “punishment operations” against the civilian population.

Assad has several options for delivering chemical agents, ranging from ballistic missiles, artillery-rockets and shells, and aerial bombing. Scud type ballistic missiles could be used for reaching more distant targets, and pose a threat not only to the opposition and the Syrian people, but also to neighboring countries.

Damascus’ suburbs are surrounded by operational air-bases of the regime (i.e. Nasiriyah, Dumayr, Marj Ruhayyil) that might have supported CW-delivering air-ground missions of air assets such as Su-22, Su-24, and Mig-23 BN. Furthermore the regime may have used some rotary-winged assets to drop chemically weaponized incendiary bombs in the recent incident.

Apart from aerial bombs, the opposition sources reported “rockets” delivering chemical agents. Indeed, the suburbs are well within the range of Frog-7 road-mobile artillery-rockets which could strike targets up to some 70kms with CW warheads. Besides, BM-21 multiple rocket launchers could launch intensive volleys, which is needed in CW missions for reaching an intensive concentration, but this weapon system can operate within shorter ranges.

So far, Assad conducted a careful escalation strategy which employed artillery shelling, air bombardment and ballistic missiles gradually. Using CWs marks the peak of the escalation. The remaining asset in the regime’s inventory is the VX agent, which is highly lethal and persistent, and can be destructive equally to a tactical nuclear weapon. Without taking decisive action, seeing a VX contamination in Syria may not be unimaginable soon.

Dr. Can Kasapoğlu is a research fellow for Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM)