The Syrian Regime Tests its Boundaries

How Assad has Adapted to the “Red Line”

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As a UN team awaits the Assad government’s go-ahead to conduct a probe into last month’s chemical simulant attacks in Aleppo and Damascus, we are reminded of the Obama Administration’s “red line” and the influences it has had thus far on the Syrian conflict. Though recent Congressional attention (there are three separate Senate committee meetings on Syria this week alone) towards Syria reflects a potential policy shift in the coming months, lawmakers are moving at a pace far slower than the adaptive cruelty of the Syrian regime. The “red line,” many argue, has acted as more of a “green light” to Assad’s military advisors. The March 19th, 2013 attacks on Aleppo and Damascus provide examples.

Syrian Support Group was the first to receive information from the ground regarding the specifics of the March 19th chemical attacks in Damascus and Aleppo. As our sources reported it, two surface-to-surface missiles were fired from Damascus (one from the Qatifa neighborhood and the second from an unidentified location) towards Aleppo and eastern Damascus, respectively. An area 1km north of the infantry training academy in the Aleppine suburb of Khal al-Asal—a mostly regime-controlled and Assad-supporting area—was the site of impact of the first projectile, while the al-Oteiba neighborhood of eastern Damascus was hit by the second. This information was later revised to state that the projectile that struck Aleppo was delivered by a regime aircraft, and hit a pro-Assad and regime-controlled area due to pilot error. The Free Syrian Army does not have the technology, training, or capability to mix, load, or deploy such weapons.

Initially, 54 victims of the Khan al-Asal attack were delivered to the regime-controlled Aleppo University Hospital, with 16 more arriving within the next few hours. Of these, 22 died during treatment. The remaining 48 were released after responding well to counteractive drugs such as Atropine. Two medical employees at the hospital reportedly also lost consciousness due to chemical inhalation, but recovered at the scene. There were an estimated 20 victims of the Damascus attack, however we do not yet have updated information about the total number of dead and wounded, nor about the exact type of delivery system.

Samples taken from bodies Khan al-Asal victims confirmed that the substance used in the attacks was Echothiophate, and organophosphate commonly found in certain pesticides. The effects of Echothiophate on those who inhale the compound are similar to the effects of nerve gasses such as Sarin: muscle spasms and failure, respiratory malfunctions, and, if not treated with proper counteragents in a timely manner, death.

Though this toxic chemical was intentionally deployed with the goal of killing opposition fighters and supportive Syrian citizens, it does not appear that its use will signal a crossing of the White House’s red line. Echothiophate is not a restricted substance under international chemical weapons treaties. Rather, it is considered a “simulant,” meaning that while its effects on victims are comparable to the effects of officially recognized chemical weapons substances, its use would not legally constitute a chemical weapons attack. A UN investigation, if conducted before the impact sites can be tainted or cleaned, would confirm to the international community the exact compound used in the attacks. If indeed the use of Echothiophate is confirmed, the White House’s red line may not officially have been crossed.

On Tuesday, however, the Syrian regime refused to grant permission to the UN team waiting in Cyprus for deployment, arguing that such an investigation would be a violation of Syrian sovereignty. It now seems unlikely that an international body will be able to study the impact zones to independently verify the attacks.

It is not unreasonable to assume that Assad and his military planners calculated the consequences of their choice to use a chemical simulant such as Echothiophate. By avoiding the specifically sanctioned substances outlined by specific international treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention, the regime was aware of the unlikelihood of forceful international response. By using its rights of sovereignty to deny access to a UN investigation team, Assad knew that he would remain untouchable. That the news of the March 19th attacks spread so quickly throughout the world was somewhat surprising to the regime, especially in the wake of similar, yet smaller, chemical agent attacks in late 2012. It was confirmed in December by another Syrian-American organization in the United States that Quinuclidinyl Benzilate, or “BZ,” was used in a similar strike last fall. In that attack, victims reportedly experienced nausea, paralysis, labored breathing, and dizziness. We must expect that such attacks may periodically continue to occur as the regime discovers, with each new and unpunished attack, just how much of a green light the red line really is.

The international community remains, for the time being, unwilling to commit military resources to secure these weapons stockpiles or prevent their unmonitored proliferation to non-state actors, whose intentions may be even more malicious and unrestrained than those of the Assad regime. However, there are known and available products and practices that can be implemented on a wide scale to both reduce the effects of such attacks, and to equip Opposition forces and civilian populations with the necessary tools to save lives. Major General Salim Idris, in a February 4th letter addressed to the United States Government, specifically requested chemical weapons securement training and equipment to allow FSA forces to seek out and contain known chemical weapons stores. Included in this such a package, which the Syrian Support Group possess the resources and connections to implement, is MOPP-4 chemical agent aversion training that can be passed to individual FSA brigades and, more importantly, civilian populations, with ease. It is not too late to provide such training and equipment transfers, and indeed policy motives on The Hill are now moving in a direction that may soon lead to the implementation of these necessary initiatives. The right time to move, however, is now–not after yet another chemical attack that may be looming on the horizon.


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