Does Bashar al-Assad check his approval ratings? Probably not. But that’s no reason to believe that he or his government lack interest in their public image. Indeed, Assad probably pays as much attention to how he is perceived in New York and Washington, as he is in Homs or Alleppo, which is not to say he hopes to make any new American friends but rather that he has a keen interest in the extent to which he can rely on American indifference.
Having already probed the international political and media environment with some exploratory ‘minor’ use of chemical weapons and triggered no major international public or political outcry, the Syrians have likely been looking for the most propitious moment to escalate. As much as people refer to the use of chemical weapons as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘unconscionable,’ the regime quite likely sees this class of weapons as useful in several ways.
Firstly, they are very effective as instruments of terror. To avoid a cloud of dispersing poisonous gas is far more difficult than avoiding artillery fire. Since there’s really no way to take cover, the incentive to flee will be that much higher.
Secondly, if pockets of resistance can be cleared without destroying most of the physical infrastructure, then in a city such as Damascus it will be that much easier for the regime to fool itself into believing that it is avoiding destroying the city.
So, the primary obstacles to the use of chemical weapons are international law and public opinion. International law has little power if the United Nations Security Council does nothing to promote its enforcement, and in the case of Syria there is no consensus among the UNSC’s veto-wielding members.
That leaves the limited effect that public opinion can have on shaping the actions of individual governments.
If Assad wanted to run a test to see what kind of reaction the slaughter of hundreds more of his citizens might have in a world that already seems largely indifferent to the deaths of over 100,000 people, he couldn’t have been better served than he was by General Sisi’s operations in Cairo last week in which hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood protesters were gunned down.
The U.S. cancelled military maneuvers that were due to take place with their Egyptian counterparts next month. A few generals won’t be sharing cocktails together. As for the press reaction, predictably the casualties weren’t ‘Egyptians’ — they were ‘Islamists’ who, we are often led to believe, have a predilection for martyrdom.
For Assad, the signals from Cairo were all positive. Add to that America’s overriding preoccupation with the actions of the NSA and now the sentencing of Bradley Manning, and all of Assad’s advisers must have agreed that this week looked the perfect week to fire off some chemical weapons. A front-page story, but just a one-day story, was probably the assessment.
The New York Times turns out to be have been the only major U.S. newspaper that made this its lead story, yet cautious as ever it played down the casualty size and underlined the uncertainty about the causes of death: “Scores Killed in Syria, With Signs of Chemical War” and “Images of Death, but No Proof of Cause.”
The Washington Post went with “Syrian regime accused of chemical attack” — no mention of the number of casualties and the lead story was on the NSA. Likewise the Los Angeles Times kept numbers out of its headline: “Syrian rebels allege new gas attack.”
USA Today said: “Rebels say chemical attack kills hundreds” — again this ran beneath the lead on the NSA.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution consigned the story to page two.
Assad’s media advisers must be reporting back to their president: Mission accomplished. As we expected, the U.S. government doesn’t care too much about what we do and the American people care even less. The really big news today is that a young American soldier changed his name.
More sarin is on the way.
Update: As Brian Whitaker noted, there is another element in the timing of this attack: it comes on the one-year anniversary of Obama laying down his ‘red line’ on the use or even movement of chemical weapons.