On August 21st, 2013, the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad committed one of the most shocking war crimes of the 21st century, gassing nearly 1,500 people to death in Ghouta, outside of Damascus. Assad’s regime, which faced pockets of significant rebel resistance throughout western Syria and inside the capital, soon faced the prospect of imminent U.S. military strikes: days after the Ghouta attack, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry all but promised swift retribution for the chemical massacre.
But Assad’s criminality paid off. Today, regime forces are closing in on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of the secular revolutionaries’ last remaining strongholds. Assad warmed as early as 2011 that his government was a bulwark against Islamist extremists threatening to unseat him; three years of killing have turned that false choice into a reality.
Most importantly, Assad has a level of international respectability today that seemed unthinkable a year ago — and the Ghouta chemical weapons attack and its aftermath are part of the reason why.
Today, it’s clear that Assad gained from the attack, which proved that the international community wasn’t prepared to go after him even after a serious breach in international law, and that their only alternative was to adjust to the reality of his likely long-term survival.
Although the Ghouta attacks seemed to obligate U.S. action under President Barack Obama’s chemical weapons “red line,” there were early signs that Obama did not want to obligate himself to carrying out military strikes.
On August 31, Obama laid out the case that punishing Assad for his violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was a vital national interest — but then left the use of force to a Congressional vote without calling for an emergency session of the body, which was then in an August recess.
On September 9, Kerry suggested that Assad could simply give up his chemical weapons and join the CWC in order to resolve the crisis. This is exactly what ended up happening. With the oversight of Assad’s allies in Moscow — a government with its own patchy record of semi-compliance with the CWC — Assad eventually disposed of 1,200 tons of chemical agents without a single U.S. tomahwak missile being fired.
But there were still costs. Practically, the deal required formal cooperation between the U.S. and the Middle East’s most violent, destabilizing, and isolated regime. The deal had some immediate consequences on the ground as well. As journalist Michael Weiss noted in January of 2014, Assad waged a scorched-earth campaign in order to clear the Damascus-to-Homs highway for the delivery of the weapons for eventual disposal, using the deal as cover for an increasingly brutal campaign against his opponents.
And Assad didn’t get bombed by the most powerful military on earth, or suffer any punishment or loss in status for his criminality.
The consequences of a U.S. attack against Assad is now a matter of speculation. They might have acted as a much-needed force multiplier for the beleaguered Free Syrian Army, which was fighting both ISIS and the Assad regime and was in a much stronger position than it is currently. A blow to a leading Iranian ally like Assad might have forced Tehran to redouble its efforts on propping the regime in Damascus — leaving it less capable of pursuing its disastrous and meddlesome policies in neighbouring Iraq.
Airstrikes would have precluded a chemical weapons deal that turned Russia and Assad into the U.S.’s de facto security partners. Without the deal, Assad would never have been congratulated for his good citizenship while bombing his opponents into submission while still retaining the infrastructure needed to re-start chemical weapons production if the tide of the conflict ever turned.
Nearly all of Assad’s calculations have paid off over the past year. His regime has beat a tactical retreat to Syria’s urban and coastal northwest, home to most of the country’s critical infrastructure and population centres. Jihadist groups oversee the country’s gas and oil fields and ensure that the secular rebels — who Assad has always considered his real enemies — are squeezed from both east and west.
And the chemical weapons deal removed the international community’s main point of contention with Assad’s government, namely his continued violation of the CWC — never mind that there’s credible evidence of regime violations as recently as this past May.
The deal — and the attack that precipitated it — gave Assad the freedom and global legitimacy to win his country’s civil war.
A year after one of the ghastliest war crimes in recent decades, Assad is even looking at how to use the ISIS threat to win Western countries back to his side, and may even find willing partners in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
The cost of Assad’s strategy has been high: 9 million refugees, 180,000 dead, repeated uses of chemical weapons, and the creation of a war zone stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.
But it’s working.