The war in Syria is moving to a climactic peak. With thousands already dead, the regime of Bashar al-Assad seems close to failure, and Damascus may fall to the Free Syrian Army forces.
Nabil al-Arabi of the Arab League says the Assad government is in danger of collapse as the opposition presses onward. To this point Assad, president of Syria since 2000, has fought to maintain power with crushing force. He took arms against protesters bolstered by the Arab Spring revolts across the Arab world, in March of 2011. He has continued to disallow any revolt, killing 25,000 people according to a UN report. Assad’s firepower and willingness to kill haven’t succeeded in breaking the resistance, they appear instead to inflame the rebel insurgency. The fighting and killing on both sides, the arbitrary bombing and artillery fire, the forces of resistance, have spread from Homs through Aleppo and many other locations and are now approaching Damascus. At every turn, in every city and town, the Assad strategy has been not to take the region, but to burn and batter it to the ground.
To this point, in a war that involves a president slaughtering his own people, the governments of China and Russia have stopped short of intervention. They maintain a belief that despots have a basic right to do what they will in dealing with enemies without and within. Now, for the first time in the Syrian conflict, indications from intelligence sources suggest that chemical weapons might be brought into play as a last-ditch effort by Assad to maintain control. Officials in the US say Syria is mixing chemicals that are used to make sarin, a deadly nerve gas.
Sarin can be deployed by artillery attack. It is a manmade nerve agent, toxic and rapidly acting, which in large doses leads to convulsion, paralysis, respiratory failure and death. Sarin was used in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and in terrorist attacks in Japan in 1994 and 1995. The gas used in an orchestrated attack by religious fanatics in a March 1995 attack on subway trains in Tokyo, Japan was sarin. In that instance, a dozen people were killed, thousands more injured.
China and Russia have condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and have communicated this condemnation to President Assad. The United States, until now avoiding outright participation, has come forward and declared a “red line” at the usage of chemical agents. CBS News out of Prague writes, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated a strong warning Monday to the Syrian government not to use chemical weapons.” CBS goes on to say the US Secretary of State will not give any hints as to what action the American administration might take if that red line were crossed.
Red lines are no small matter. Airpower, in the form of drone aircraft, might be utilized to defend the rebels and the civilian population of Damascus. Mediterranean-based offshore ships and sea-to-ground artillery are additional prospects. The US is taking the matter seriously. Prior to the new warning from Secretary Clinton, the Obama administration had been working with the UN, and has been diplomatically urging Russia to persuade Assad to step down, but, until now, Russia and China have maintained a separatist stand on Syria. On July 19, when the Russia/China alliance blocked action beyond humanitarian work, Susan E. Rice, US ambassador to the UN, berated the Security Council, saying it had “utterly failed” Syria, and declaring that the US would henceforth work in diverse ways to pressure the Assad government.
With Hamas and Hezbollah working with the Assad administration to continue a cruel dictatorship in this important region, and as Damascus becomes the battleground, the next few days and weeks will be critical to the outcome for the rebels in Syria and the role of the United States.