Someone who worked closely with Bashar al-Assad, before and after he inherited Syria’s presidency from his father, once remarked to me that he “is not really very bright”. Perhaps. But he is not lacking in cunning.
Now, as in the past, he feels his way forward by probing and constantly testing the limits of what his adversaries will tolerate before provoked to respond. Having sometimes found that these limits are surprisingly elastic, he has developed a tendency to overreach. Yet, as his regime and his country crumble around him, he is still there – just about – and it looks as though he is still testing the limits, this time by the limited use of portions of Syria’s reportedly vast chemical weapons arsenal.
In recent months, allegations have been flying that the Assad regime has fired nerve-gas shells at Syria’s rebels. On the most cited occasion last month, near Aleppo, the country’s besieged commercial capital in the north, loyalist troops were among the casualties, and the government claimed that jihadi terrorists – part of an international conspiracy against Syria in the Assad narrative – were responsible.
Last week, Britain and France told the UN there was “credible evidence” the Assad regime has started using chemical weapons. This week, a top Israeli military intelligence officer categorically asserted the government was using them. The UN team of experts tasked with investigating these claims is meanwhile stranded in Cyprus, denied entry by Damascus.
There is, thus, no certainty about what is going on, but the mounting circumstantial evidence is spine-chilling.
President Barack Obama, who has brushed aside the advice of his security officials in his determination to stay out of Syria, nevertheless warned Damascus last August any use of chemical weapons would provoke unspecified action by the US.
Obama said at the time: “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” On a visit to Israel last month, he reinforced the point, saying the use of chemical weapons inside Syria would be a “game changer” for the US.
So far, however, the White House and State Department are officially withholding judgment on the veracity of Syria’s alleged use of these arms, about which few close observers of the conflict now harbour doubts. There is probably more here than simply the president’s caution.