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On Chemical Weapons, Assad and the Syrian People

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SYRIA CHEMICAL WEAPONS
AP File

Every bad story finally comes to an end, and the horror story known as the Assad rule over Syria is no exception. The days of the dictator are numbered, and even if this prediction was already mentioned in this blog before and has not yet materialized, it is going to, with complete certainty and in the very near future. That will be the end of one chapter -- bloody, atrocious and too long; and so tragically for the people of Syria, just the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end of their misery.

The day after Assad will be one of reckoning, the extent of which will be unprecedented even in the annals of the Middle East, a region of the world known for its ability to produce blood-letting on a mass scale.

The question which is center stage these days is whether the regime, or what is left of it, will use the Samson pption against the rebels and attack them with chemical and biological weapons. Moreover, will Assad be tempted to use these weapons against any of his neighbors -- Turkey? Jordan? Israel? -- and even if these scenarios will not take place, who will possess the weapons when the regime is no more?

Some background is in order here. First, Syria does possess a huge cache of chemical weapons, as well as the sarin nerve gas bombs. The fact that similar charges were leveled against Saddam Hussein as a justification for the invasion of Iraq, and the alleged weapons were not then found, should not blur the fact that the intelligence about Syria is much, much better. There are many smoking guns in this case. To those who wonder, yes there is a connection between the allegations against Iraq and the arsenal in Syria. A lot of this arsenal was in Iraqi hands prior to being shipped to Syria, but this is something to be elaborated separately from our current story.

Second, Arab regimes did use chemicals in a domestic conflict. Saddam's regime slaughtered 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja on March 16th, 1988.

Back to Syria, and the often-used phrase that Assad is killing "his" own people, and could do it also through the use of chemicals. Well, as in Iraq, where the Kurds were not Saddam's "people," but rather a hated, historic enemy, so also in Syria the Sunnis are not Assad's "people." Nominally they are citizens of the same state, and according to the Ba'th Party ideological fantasies, all happy campers and members of the great Arab Nation; but that really belongs to the museum of Arab political clichés and absurdities.

The Ba'th regime was a sectarian arm of the Alawite minority as well as other minorities, and the need for them to rule over Syria emanated from 1,000 years of oppression and humiliation by the Sunni majority. So, while paying lip service to the doctrines of Arab nationalism, whether Ba'athi or other was always be a vital element of the Syrian historic narrative. The plain, sad truth is that there were different communities in Syria, never a coherent, single national community, whose overall ethnic solidarity is paramount and on top of the obvious religious, and in the case of the Kurds, also ethnic cleavages.

That said, is it possible, therefore, that Assad will use the chemical weapons against those Syrians, who are not really "his" people, much the same as Saddam did? It is possible, but really highly unlikely. The regime is using the chemical option as possible, desperate leverage aimed at the U.S., Turkey, and much less against Israel. This is Assad's way of indicating that he is still relevant, and that any solution of the crisis should include him; otherwise, who knows what can happen? So, world leaders confronted with this not-so-veiled threat should take a risk, and in this case call the bluff of the dictator. He will not use the weapons, also because he knows that doing that will turn him into the pariah of our time. The Russians for sure, also a rogue regime like Iran's (and even Hugo Chavez), will not accept him as a fugitive after using chemicals. Maybe North Korea will, but the reward for them will be a demand from him to pay them at least some of the billions that he and his family stole from the people of Syria. Not a good deal for Bashar and Asma Assad...

So, if the weapons will not be used against the people, there's no reason for him also to use them against the neighbors; but just in case, it is recommended that as of now, the U.S. and Turkey start a campaign aimed at the Alawite population, cautioning them, in unmistakable terms, that any use of chemicals will lead to a devastating reaction against them. Most Alawites still support the regime, but a collective kamikaze act on its behalf will prove too much even for them.

The one option which seems more plausible, though scarier than the previous ones, is the fall of chemicals into the hands of rough elements inside Syria -- jihadists of all kinds. That can happen, and that can be prevented, and this is the most significant challenge for the U.S., Turkey, Jordan and possibly Israel. A lot is at stake here!