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 committed to reacting if they are crossed. 

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