Reports that the Syrian regime is moving chemical weapons components for possible use against rebels, or pro-rebel populated areas, have provoked stern warnings from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. For an administration that has consistently steered clear of military involvement in Syria’s civil war, the use of dirty weapons by the Assad regime might indeed be a bright red line.
The larger issue, however, is whether the latest crisis indicates that the bubble in which Assad and his inner circle have thrived for the better part of a year has burst.
Bashar al-Assad and his regime (meaning his family and the inner ring of enablers) have managed to live in a bubble of wealth and ease, one not even punctured by the July 2012 assassination of four key regime operatives, throughout the Syrian uprising. In this dream world they view the opposition as barely Syrian, but rather foreign fighters with a medieval political agenda, who are conducting terrorist operations targeting all Syrians with the backing of the United States, Israel, and others. In this kingdom of illusion the evil genie will sooner or later—with the help of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia—be put back into the bottle.
This bubble has presented an enormous challenge, shielding Assad from the reality of his predicament, and enabling and encouraging him to persist in a survival strategy that is wrecking the country. That strategy is rooted in sectarian bloodletting. With the help of Iran and Hezbollah, the regime is in danger of making a self-fulfilling prophecy of the argument to Alawites that it alone stands between them and retribution approaching genocidal proportions. The regime has raised militias and launched them on missions of murder, pillage, and rape into Sunni Arab towns known to support the opposition, thereby inviting the kind of retribution that, to date, has been surprisingly limited.
Externally this bubble of unreality has been an important element in dividing the international response to the Syrian crisis. Assad’s version of reality—that his regime is a brave, secular bulwark fighting to defeat a foreign-inspired onslaught of mainly non-Syrian jihadists—has been bought whole cloth by the leaders of the Russian Federation. A key corollary has been the Russian view that Assad will ultimately prevail, that talk of political transition in Syria is essentially a time waster.
For months the armed opposition has been slowly turning the tide against regime forces, which are spread thin and increasingly exhausted. In any given place regime special forces units are still able to take and hold territory, although this has been an agonizingly slow process in urban areas. But in open terrain the opposition has grown adept at interdicting supply lines and making life miserable for regime forces. The regime has often responded with indiscriminate artillery bombardments, air strikes, and shabiha (militia) terror operations.
The bubble’s center of gravity has been central Damascus. The suburbs are in open rebellion and, very ominously, the airport road has been cut repeatedly by rebels. If the bubble has finally burst—if it has dawned on the family and its enablers that the game is truly in jeopardy if not up—the use of dirty weapons as a final, desperate measure might be tempting. Indeed, the Syrian government assurance that such weapons would never be used against the Syrian people may contain an important loophole: if Assad insists that the rebellion is essentially foreign in nature, does the non-use assurance apply?
If Assad and the regime kingpins now grasp the reality of what they face, they would do well, for themselves and for the sake of Syrian unity, to set aside the notion that they can shoot their way out of their predicament. To employ dirty weapons would be to alienate Moscow and perhaps bring down upon their heads kinetic consequences they have long considered unlikely, if not unthinkable. A far better course for Assad, his family, and those who have enabled the sectarian survival strategy would be to relinquish official positions and depart Syria, leaving behind a successor to Assad and a prime minister prepared to negotiate a peaceful political transition, if indeed one is still possible.
Although it is terribly late in the day for Assad to bring to a close the horrific malfeasance that has characterized his rule, especially since March 2011, it is perhaps not too late for him to perform two final acts of decency: keep the chemical components under lock and key, and leave.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.