The possibility that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad is preparing to use chemical weapons against Syrian insurgents is truly appalling. The US TV station NBC Wednesday reported that the Syrian military has loaded precursor chemicals for the deadly nerve gas sarin into bombs and was awaiting final orders to use them.
Some have doubted that even a dictatorship as bloody as Syria’s would actually contemplate such a wicked act. There was a suspicion that this was Washington seeking to up the pressure on the tottering regime. That Turkey is being given the Patriot missile defense system was seen as a way to ratchet up the tension, rather than as a genuine countermeasure to a real threat.
Yet there are disturbing reasons to believe the reports that the Assad regime is indeed preparing for this heinous act. Put bluntly this is a writhing serpent in its death throes, which is still capable of spitting out its venom, in one final despairing assault on its enemies. The Free Syrian Army has been making considerable headway in recent weeks, overrunning military bases and airfields. Indeed the FSA currently claims to have surrounded another government airbase in Damascus. This has not only robbed the regime of key installations, but it has also allowed the insurgents to arm themselves with heavier weapons, including tanks.
The FSA is now moving in toward the center of Damascus. Loyalist forces are struggling to keep open the route to the capital’s airport, which it is reported rebel units are preparing to assault. However, as in Aleppo, the fighting for the capital promises to be bitter.
A further demonstration of the Syrian regime’s disintegration is the fact that the Alawite community, from which Assad draws his power, is beginning to fall out. It has recently emerged that a month ago rival Alawite clans in Qardaha, the Assad home town, were involved in bitter fighting over allegations that a cousin of the Syrian dictator had been supplying weapons to the FSA. The problem for all of Syria’s minorities, Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Christians, is that they foresee an uncertain future for themselves in a Sunni-dominated Syrian state. However much they deplore the savagery of Assad and his people, most have, until now, provided grudging support to the government.
The political leadership of the opposition has until recently been simply too incoherent to even agree on the sort of message that would persuade the country’s minorities that they have nothing to fear from the overthrow of Assad and the creation of a new, pluralist Syria. But now, the new opposition coalition, agreed last month in Doha, has expressly said that it would include in its ranks members of all Syrian communities.
And then of course there are the Russians, who have been to the Assad regime what the Americans have been to Israel in their unwavering support, despite the depravities that their ally has perpetrated. For how much longer is Moscow prepared to keep shipping in weapons and ammunition, for which it is now very probably not being paid a cent, in order to sustain the regime and keep its naval base in Tartus? The Kremlin must already be making plans to evacuate the facility the minute the Assad regime falls, since it is certain the new Syrian government will want the Russians out.
For President Putin, it must now be crystal clear that backing Assad has turned out to be a disastrous error.