As more territory moves under the control of opposition forces in Syria, western intelligence sources are projecting the fall of Assad government is quickly approaching. With this prospect, Assad is faced with a challenging task i.e., to use chemical weapons or not. According to media reports, the Syrian government has the chemical weapons ready for use, whenever that decision is made. The statements made by western leaders last week made it clear that if Assad was to use these weapons, it will likely lead to military intervention and with direct consequences for himself.
This alert looks at Assad’s thought process at this juncture. It also looks at the risks faced by regional countries and global stakeholders during this phase, and after the likely fall of another dictator in the Middle East.
Assad regime faced another political blow last week. While visiting Turkey, Russian president Vladimir Putin began to lower his opposition to regime change in Syria. Reportedly, Turkey and Russia compared notes on what would follow Assad. Moreover, Hillary Clinton and Sergei Lavrov also met with United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Dec 6 in Dublin to discuss the future of Syria. Russian assistance may come in handy in securing the chemical weapons in the post-Assad scenario. From the emerging scenario, however, Iran’s voice has all of a sudden disappeared from the media. The country stands to lose the most from the downfall of Assad regime. This could be the outcome of much talked about direct US-Iran talks.Will Assad decide to use his chemical weapons or go for political asylum, is yet to be seen?
When Saddam was faced with an imminent demise, he neither used his stockpiles of chemical weapons nor did he seek political asylum. On the other hand, in Libya Qaddafi did not have chemical weapons, but like Saddam, he was big on bravado and rhetoric. In the end, Saddam and Qaddafi met a similar fate. Their decision pattern appeared to have more social and cultural underpinnings than the rational calculation of the situation at hand. Once the public support was lost, it was always going to be a losing battle.
In the unfolding Arab Spring, the transition in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Yemen present other options to consider. In these countries, the rulers were cajoled into leaving power by local and international powers. However, after the leaders left, the power vacuum ensued that has polarized these societies along religious and ethnic lines. In states like Iraq and Iraq, where the long-time rulers were removed with the introduction of foreign forces, the divisions, violence and chaos are even acuter.
Bashar al-Assad will be pondering over these alternatives extremely carefully as he calculates his next move. Obviously, Syria is different from the other countries cited above. Like Saddam, Assad may try to widen the scope of the conflict, by rocket attacks into Turkey or by using influence in Lebanon. Countering this threat was the main reason Turkey requested Patriot missile batteries from NATO. What the West and Israel would like to prevent the most would be for the Al Qaeda-linked extremists, or Hezbollah, to get a hold of the chemical weapons, and then use them in the post-Assad stage in Syria or any other theater of operation
With more aggressive support from western and Gulf states, the opposition forces in Syria will continue to gain the upper hand and Assad’s options and space to maneuver will only decrease with time.