Assad has not simply eroded what academics call “the chemical weapons taboo”; he has shattered it. And his confidence has returned, especially compared to the high watermark of the war in 2014-15, when his authority had crumbled. Kurds dominated the north-east of Syria, while broader parts of the east had fallen to Islamic State. Meanwhile, an alphabet soup of various militias – jihadist and otherwise – rampaged across northern and southern parts of the country. Assad’s meaningful control only really extended across a small sliver of land from Damascus in the south through to his coastal redoubt of Latakia.
The intervention of proxy Shia militias from Hezbollah and Iran helped stop the rot, but it was the Russians who decisively tipped the balance in the regime’s favour. Just consider the carefully choreographed absurdity of Assad’s recent visit to newly reclaimed parts of eastern Ghouta for Syrian state television. He appears relaxed, wearing an open collared shirt, and drives a modest Honda Civic to the frontlines to congratulate his men. He speaks to the camera throughout, one hand on the wheel; the other pirouetting through the air, with blithe indifference to the catastrophic human suffering involved in his campaign to retake the area.
For a leader who will have been anxious about meeting a similar fate to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Assad cannot but help treat himself to an early victory lap. More importantly, he is no longer thinking just about winning the war, but about setting the terms for a peace in which his regime will aim to drive its advantage home for the coming decades.
When Assad arrived in Ghouta, his loyalist apparatchiks pumped their rifles into the air, triumphantly chanting “with our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you”. Behind them lay a barren wasteland of destruction, in a province where an estimated two million people once lived.
What the regime desperately wants Syrians to understand is the continued and future cost of their disobedience. The message is clear: defy Assad, and this is what will become of your homes and neighbourhoods.
These are tried and tested methods for Syria’s Ba’athists who have been obsessed with their own survival since Bashar al-Assad’s farther, Hafez, led a coup d’état in 1970, becoming president the following year. Opposition to his regime intensified after Syrian forces invaded Lebanon in 1976, giving rise to a low-level insurgency led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Pockets of unrest developed sporadically, in areas such as Jisr al-Shughour (located in the western part of Idlib province, close to the border with Turkey, which is rebel-held today), and in districts of Aleppo such as al-Masharqah and Bustan al-Qasr.
These events culminated in a stand-off in the city of Hama in February 1982, resulting in a month-long siege during which an estimated 25,000 people were killed (estimates on the exact death toll vary between 4,000 and 40,000, although 25,000 appears most accurate based on academic accounts of the massacre).
For a regime that has traded in carefully calculated and strategically-minded repression since its inception, the lessons of the Hama massacre have not been forgotten. The crackdown delivered almost immediate results. By the middle of 1982, the opposition was battered and beaten.
Bashar al-Assad tried similar tactics during the early phases of the Syrian uprising, but the approach backfired. When his forces struggled to contain protests across the country, they concentrated their rage on Baba Amr, a neighbourhood in Homs widely regarded as the epicentre of the revolution. The area was besieged and then shelled without remorse. Among the many victims were Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times reporter, and Rémi Ochlik, a French photojournalist, who both died in February 2012. Hours before her death, Colvin had spoken to CNN about the regime’s indiscriminate violence. “[There] are 28,000 civilians, men, women and children, hiding, being shelled, defenceless,” she said. “The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”
In 2012 Assad could not replicate the success of his father, but he has since revived those methods in more fortuitous circumstances. The changed realities of the Syrian war today allow the regime to deploy brutal force with the hope of shunting people back into obsequiousness. Chemical weapons are a deliberate part of that calculus. [Continue reading…]
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