online 08.04.17

talking politics

What prompted Assad to use sarin gas?

by Yacov Ben Efrat

The Hebrew version of this article was published several hours before the United States attacked the Syrian airport near the city of Homs with Tomahawk cruise missiles. This was President Donald Trump's response to Bashar al-Assad's use of deadly sarin gas. Though the response is clearly a message of deterrence, the fate of the Syrian people is not Trump's only concern; he also wants to demonstrate the contrast between himself and his predecessor Barack Obama. It is also his desire to shrug off the cloud of suspicion that has haunted him since taking office, namely the FBI investigation into his team's collusion with Russian president Vladimir Putin. It is important to define who is responsible for the overall tragedy in Syria, and especially to address the impact of Trump’s policy as it stood before the images of horror from Idlib began flooding TV screens, newspapers and the social networks.

The pictures of dead Syrian children should not have surprised anyone. Assad's name has come to signify a murderous dictator who does not hesitate to impose his evil regime on his people. In the early days of the Syrian uprising, before the name ISIS fell from anyone’s lips, Assad presented the following paradigm to the masses that opposed his terrorist regime: "Assad - or we will burn the country!" Assad promised and Assad delivered. He has raised the ante with the generous help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah—and with the passive collusion of the rest of the world.

We needn't go back in time and blame the previous president (the present one makes sure to do so at every opportunity) in order to explain Trump’s earlier weakness against the war crimes in Syria. Already in 2013, Trump expressed his firm opposition to Obama's policy of the Red Line when he tweeted: "Do not attack Syria, correct America." This position reflects his admiration for Putin, macho man-to-man, especially after Russia's massive intervention to save Assad's regime. In response to the popular interviewer Bill O'Reilly's statement that Putin was a murderer, Trump responded with an amazing answer: "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" Moreover, when he testified before the Senate Committee, the incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to define Putin as a war criminal in answer to a question posed by Senator Marco Rubio.

Likewise before the sarin attack, the American representative to the UN, Nikki Haley drew a clear distinction between the Obama administration and the new one, stressing that Assad’s removal is not among Trump's top priorities, and the emphasis is on the war against ISIS. Tillerson went one step further when he declared at a press conference in Turkey that Assad's fate "will be determined by the Syrian people."

This position was reinforced from an unexpected direction. Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a former supporter of Bernie Sanders, met with Bashar Assad in Damascus in January this year, and soon after he was elected, she met with Trump himself. Gabbard criticized the Obama administration, saying that by supporting the ouster of Assad, Obama had strengthened ISIS. She supported the Russian intervention and is now working with Republicans in Congress to promote a law designed to prevent the US government from providing assistance to terrorist groups.

This is how Assad cushioned himself. The Right and the Left united in his support, and his opponents are considered backers of ISIS, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda— or else they are just terrorists. The left-wing candidate for the French presidency, Jean-Luc Malenchon, holds positions similar to those of Sanders' supporters, and like Tillerson, he says that Assad's fate should be “determined” by the Syrian people in democratic elections. He sees the hundreds of thousands of murdered Syrian citizens as victims of a just war against terrorists. Right-wing extremist Marine Le Pen also sees Assad as the best leader to safeguard French interests.

The extreme Right and the extreme Left in Europe have been united not only by their support for Putin and Assad Source. They also favor quitting the European Union, and they see in Trump an ally in the struggle against globalization. But the use of chemical weapons in Idlib's Khan Shaykhun has upended this consensus, which had given Assad immunity from both the Social Left - lovers of refugees and the Palestinians - and the anti-Islamic, xenophobic Right.

The list of those responsible for crimes against humanity in Syria is increasing. The massacre in Khan Shaykhun took place after a ceasefire was attained in Astana under the auspices of Turkey and Russia, and in the shadow of UN-sponsored peace talks at Geneva. Erdogan back-peddled on his demand to remove Assad, and most of his war efforts are now directed against the Kurds. The goal of the pact that he made with Putin is to prevent the establishment of Kurdish autonomy on the Turkish border, and for this reason, Erdogan abandoned the Syrian rebels and turned a blind eye to Putin’s indiscriminate pounding of Aleppo.

Since the fall of Aleppo, Assad has carried out a campaign to purge the population in areas controlled by the rebels. The method is simple: Assad imposes a military siege on these areas and starves the civilian population until a "local cease-fire" is reached. Then the residents are forced to flee northward to the rebel-controlled district of Idlib. Idlib remains the last northern district in rebel hands. Assad and the Russians felt it was time to end the war with wholesale slaughter and to flatten Idlib according to the Aleppo model. After he encountered difficulties, Assad resorted to sarin gas to ensure the swift and successful conclusion of the war.

As for Israel, the gas attack roused it from complacency. Israel firmly contradicted the false Russian claim that the planes had hit a chemical weapons depot belonging to the rebels. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman placed direct responsibility on Assad, and not for nothing. Putin's faithful friend in the Israeli cabinet was forced this time to expose the Russian lie. Why? Israel thought that the agreement in 2013 between Putin and Obama on the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons had ended the strategic threat to Israel's civilian population. Israel even stopped producing gas masks. Since then, more than three years have passed since the Assad regime received the green light to clobber its people with conventional weapons, and what Assad did not accomplish, Russian carpet bombings did. Throughout this period, Israel was silent, because when the chemical threat was removed Israel believed it had gotten what it wanted. Today, Israel is appalled by the hideous images not because it has developed sensitivity to Syrian children choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth, but because it feels deceived and threatened.

After the massacre at Khan Shaykhun, the question again arises: Who is the enemy of the Syrian people, ISIS or Assad? On the surface the answer seems easy. Assad is backed by an international power, Russia, as well as by a regional power, Iran; he enjoys the support of both the extreme Left and the extreme Right across the globe; and he sees the impotence of the world in the face of his crimes. Against him stands ISIS with its primitive ideology, which the rest of the world without exception is uniting to destroy. So Assad is seen as trying to "defend his country." While ISIS fights for its life, Assad tries to impose himself on Syria by means of sarin gas, ethnically cleansing the areas where he intends to establish his rule.

The artificial separation between the struggle against ISIS and the struggle against Assad is the root of the Syrian tragedy. This separation paved the way for the murderous entry of Iran, Hezbollah, and Putin, hence for the destruction of Syria and the creation of millions of refugees. The terrible principle established by Obama, that fighting ISIS equals letting Assad alone, became a mantra in the mouth of Trump, enabling Assad to continue disregarding red lines. If this principle is allowed to stand, humanity will lose its compass, and chemical weapons will become a legitimate tool in the hands of every dictator who wants to fight "terrorists."

Getting rid of Assad should long have been a priority for humanity as a whole, not just for the Syrian people. As long as he is in power, the atrocities will increase. The 2013 gas attack in Ghouta al-Sharqiya near Damascus is directly connected with the gas attack in Idlib a few days ago. The cause in each case is the same mass murderer, who is confident he will never be punished.

Now that Trump has launched a retaliatory blow, even if it comes late, and even if its significance is more symbolic than practical, the red line has been restored. It makes it clear that chemical weaponry is outside the acceptable rules, and anyone who uses it will be brought to justice by the international community—all the more so in the case of a dictator using them against his own citizens, people whose only crime is their desire to live in freedom.