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Saturday
Apr272013

Syria Today: A Chemical Weapons "Game-Changer"?

Insurgents seize a regime tank near Homs


1625 GMT: Limited Use of Chemical Weapons Part of Assad's Strategy? Pundits are arguing for or against foreign intervention in Syria, and much of their analysis of this week's chemical weapons claims are shaped by that goal. Chemical weapons analysts have focused on the available evidence, and have offered their criticism or support of the claims that Assad used of chemical weapons in that light. Today, however, two analysts focus on the wider strategic situation in Syria, and how chemical weapons claims fit into that picture.

Perhaps no Syrian analyst has gained more respect that Joseph Holliday, whose work with the Institute for the Study of War has carefully documented the strengths, weaknesses, and military movements of both the rebels and the regime. Holliday argues that "the Syrian dictator’s cynical and clever chemical weapons strategy outfoxed Obama." In short, he focuses on how the reported use of small-scale chemical attacks, on Syria's front lines, has been used to benefit the regime:

Much like the strategy employed with artillery, air power, and ballistic missiles, Assad's introduction of weapons of mass destruction intends to pave the way for more lethal and wide-ranging chemical attacks against the Syrian people in the future. Assad's chemical weapons are not just a strategic deterrent against foreign intervention, they represent a critical tool in the ongoing campaign against the Syrian opposition. Assad's approach to the conflict has been the inverse of what Western militaries call population-centric counterinsurgency: rather than clear insurgents out of population centers, Assad has sought to clear populations out of insurgent-held areas.

The strategy has successfully ensured that even when the rebels gain territory they lose the population, either literally, through physical displacement or death, or in the hearts and minds department, as civilians bear the brunt of the bloodshed and blame the rebels for their plight. It's a cynical but effective strategy. The regime's campaign of air strikes against bakeries, for example, isn't just sadism or poor aim; it's a deliberate attempt to ensure that the rebels can't provide basic services for the people in the areas they control. This approach to insurgency is not new; the Russians have historically adopted this model against insurgents in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Written independently from Holliday's analysis, Michael Weiss has traced the claims of attacks with the shifting front lines. Weiss notes,

One of the floated caveats or questions since the administration copped to being more or less in sync with its allies involves the “strategic” value of Assad’s deploying chemical agents on a “small scale.”

He then tries to answer that question. One key focus is Otaybah, the town that has become synonymous with both claimed chemical weapons use and Assad's new offensive to take the capital back (Weiss argues that this is not a coincidence):

Perhaps more significant is Oteibeh’s own strategic value as a main portal for rebel weapons supply lines coming in from Jordan. Many of the recoilless rifles and anti-infantry guns imported from Croatia on Saudi Arabia’s dime have wound up here, just to the east of where the “Battle of Armageddon” is set to commence. In a recent interview with pro-regime Turkish journalists, Assad issued this warning to King Abdullah: “We would wish that our Jordanian neighbors realize that... the fire will not stop at our borders; all the world knows Jordan is just as exposed (to the crisis) as Syria.” Spraying the recipients of Jordanian largesse with poison gas is a nice way to drive home the point. Also, it has had a demonstrable effect already: The rebels were flushed out of Oteibeh four days ago after more than 37 days of intense fighting. Most ran out of ammunition, but how many fled fearing another rocket loaded with an unknown but lethal substance?

Weiss then places this knowledge into a larger picture. What are the alternative explanations? What might those mean for the conflict moving forward?

We've previously examined much of the evidence available to us to answer the question of whether or not Assad used chemical weapons. We're not confident that sarin gas has been used. However, I am confident that two separate incidents, reported by independent groups, at the exact same time, cannot be a coincidence. There are also other incidences which do appear to similarly line up with the regime's goals.

Perhaps Holliday says it best. Perhaps the "wily Assad" has outfoxed Obama by using small-scale chemical attacks to terrorize while still not giving the Obama administration the evidence it needs, all the while blocking a UN investigation and crying victim at the same time.

1608 GMT: Rebels Make More Gains in Aleppo City. After weeks of attacking the Kindi Hospital, Central Prison, and other districts in northern Aleppo, the rebels claim to have completely captured the Handarat camp today (map). This video reportedly shows them celebrating on top of a building that has been under siege for at least the last day or so. Other videos show rebels celebrating across the district:

Just weeks ago, the rebels and the regime launched two separate offensives at approximately the same time. The rebels appear to have beaten back the Assad advance in the southern districts of Aleppo while making inroads in the north. If we're just counting the number of streets that have traded hands, the rebels have won by a good margin. It is, however, more complicated than that. The regime appears to have bolstered some of its key bases in the south, which may slow the rebels down and erase some of the progress they've made. However, the number of areas that the rebels have left to take is shrinking, which allows them to concentrate more on the last remaining areas of regime control. Assad has failed to break the back of the rebels in what was once Syria's largest city, and that loss may have consequences.

All of this, however, suggests that Assad may have successfully slowed what was already a creeping advance of Syrian rebels. The ultimate symbol of what happens to a Syrian city when caught in the gears of war may be this week's collapse of the Umayyad mosque, the Great Mosque of Aleppo. Without a decisive change in power dynamics, expect more slow grind, and all of the carnage and destruction such a grind brings with it.

1555 GMT: Assad Bombs, Loses, then Bombs in Jobar. Yesterday started with the news that Assad forces were mercilessly shelling and bombing the Jobar district in eastern Damascus. Internet feeds were up and down, news was slow to emerge from the district, but it looked like he was softening the area for a ground invasion. Then word came that tanks were moving towards the area and massing on the outskirts. However, by the end of yesterday, however, EA sources suggested that the Assad offensive had been beaten. More sources suggested that the regime's ground forces had suffered heavy casualties. Eventually, we found videos to back up some of those claims, showing heavy resistance, and destroyed armored vehicles.

Today it is clear - the Assad regime was completely unsuccessful in their invasion of the Jobar district. However, that area is under intense attack from nearby tanks, airstrikes, and artillery and rocket attack. This video shows many explosions across a small area in a sshort period of time. Other videos show homes on fire, shops destroyed, and more signs of violence. Notice also that a mosque appears to have been targeted:

Airstrikes and artillery bombardment are also reported in Zamalka, Qaboun, and Harasta. In Zamalka, Assad ground forces have also clashed with rebel fighters.

The rebels have won, but the fight is far from over, and the regime seems bent on flattening the areas where it has been rebuffed.

1534 GMT: Rebel Counterattack East of Damascus. For weeks the rebels resisted Assad's tanks (and possibly his chemical weapons) in Otaybah, on the eastern edge of a region called East Ghouta, the gateway to the eastern districts of Damascus. This week, Assad finally pushed through the rebel lines in the town. However, that area is under intense rebel counterattack. Yesterday, videos showed rebels advancing with infantry and vehicles, including this one showing a Zu-23-2 anti-aircraft gun mounted to a pickup:

Today, there are reports that the rebels have pushed into the outskirts of the village. This is the front line of fighting, so it's very hard to verify information, but one video claims to show the rebels pouring bullets into the town:

Regardless, Assad has reportedly attacked the town with aircraft and rockets, a sign of how seriously they are taking the rebel attack. The LCC reports:

Shelling with MiG warplanes and rocket launchers was reported in the town along with clashes at the outskirts of Ateibeh town and the FSA targets regime headquarters in Saiqa Camp

It's clear that the rebels did not overrun the town yesterday, but perhaps what is important is that the Assad regime took this town several days ago but have pushed no further. It's unclear if either side will win this fight, but if the Assad regime is still on the offensive in this area, then they are advancing at the same glacial pace that the rebels have moved at over the last month or so.

1525 GMT: Death Toll. According to the opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, 70 people have been killed so far today nationwide:

30 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 12 in Daraa; 8 in Homs; 8 in Deir Ezzor; 6 in Aleppo; 3 in Hama; 2 in Idlib; and 1 in Lattakia.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us to the afternoon.

1415 GMT: Russia Warns Against Chemical Weapons Pretext for Intervention

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has warned that claims of use of chemical weapons in Syria should not become a pretext for a foreign military intervention:

If there is serious evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it should be presented immediately and not concealed.

We must check the information immediately and in conformity with international criteria and not use it to achieve other objectives. It must not be a pretext for an intervention in Syria.

We must know the truth and have proof and not rely on information reported in the media which is not supported by facts.

Meanwhile, Syrian Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi, blaming insurgents for an alleged chemical weapons attack last month in Khan al-Assal in Aleppo Province, said the device probably arrived from Turkey.

Al-Zoubi emphasised that Western claims that the Syrian army used chemical weapons in other areas are not credible. He argued that the regime took the initiative to request a probe into the Khan al-Assalincident, reiterating Syria's support for an investigation by Russian experts.

The United Nations has sought to enquire into the incident, but claims it has been blocked by the regime. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon repeated the request for the enquiry on Friday.

1115 GMT: Kurdish Group Clashes with Insurgents in Aleppo

Member of the Kurdish Popular Protection Unit (YPG) clashed with Free Syrian Army insurgentss on Friday, killing several people including an 8-year-old boy as heavy gunfire and mortar attacks continued into the night.

The YPG granted the Free Syrian Army permission to enter the Kurdish-controlled neighborhoods of Ashrefeya and Sheikh Maqsoud to attack regime positions.

However, this week insurgents accused Kurdish forces of working behind the scenes with the government. They blamed them for trying to execute two Kurds working with the Free Syrian Army, and for attacking an insurgent convoy.

“The YPG have been on the government side from the beginning,” said Khalid Alhayani, a Free Syrian Army brigade commander. “When we entered [the area], we asked YPG if we could use their territory to hit government check points. They would agree but then report to the government our plans.”

He claimed the Kurds have launched secret campaigns to arrested rebels and hand them over to the government. He said he suspects they have plans to trap the rebels between their forces and the regime.

A Kurdish commander in Aleppo, however, said the Kurds were attempting to remain neutral, siding with neither the rebels nor the government forces and only holding defensive positions in areas they control.

“We cannot side with the dictatorship of the regime or the extremist views of the opposition groups,” the Kurdish commander said. “Instead we hold a third line — a democratic line. We do not side with either of them.”

1050 GMT: The Business Elite

The Associated Press summarises disquiet and departure from Syria:

With the Syrian civil war edging closer to Damascus, the capital's business elite long cultivated by President Bashar Assad as a support for his regime is starting to join the exodus from the country.

Popular restaurants and high-end stores in Damascus have shut down as their owners move to Beirut and reopen there. They become the latest part of the flight of the Syrian upper class, thousands of whom are believed to have moved abroad over the past year, mainly to Lebanon, Turkey and the Gulf.

Syrian merchants and factory owners have rented apartments in the Lebanese capital as well as Dubai and Cairo. Many skyscrapers dotting Lebanon's famed Mediterranean corniche are known to have been rented out to Syrians at exorbitant prices.

Most still largely back Assad and hope to return, but their flight is a sign of the deep worry over the direction the fight has taken.

"Most people in Damascus have lost hope," said Reema, a chemical engineer. She fled the capital last summer and now lives in Beirut, managing a factory in one of Damascus' industrial zones remotely, via Skype. At first, "we could hear the bombs from around Damascus but we knew that they were far away so we got on with our lives ... Now, the war is everywhere."

She said she has seen a new influx of Damascus residents into Beirut and expects more to come once schools go on summer vacation and well-off Damascene families feel freer to pack up....

"Some who have been coming back and forth between Beirut and Damascus are giving up and want to stay to avoid the hassles of checkpoints and ID checks and fear of being taken by groups who just pick people up from the streets," she said, adding that residents blame both regime and opposition-linked groups for disappearances.

Several other businessmen who fled more recently to Beirut spoke to The Associated Press of growing numbers of the elite choosing to leave for the time being. But they refused to give details or be quoted because of worries over their enterprises back home.

0800 GMT: Casualties

The Local Coordination Committees claim 139 people were killed on Friday, including 16 women and 14 children. Of the deaths, 29 were in Damascus and its suburbs and 27 in Homs Province.

The Violations Documentation Center sets out a toll of 58,283 since the conflict begin in March 2011, an increase of 96 from yesterday.

Of those killed, 45,962 were civilians, a rise of 66 from yesterday.

0535 GMT: Chemical Weapons

President Obama declared on Friday that regime use of chemical weapons could be a "game changer" furthering international intervention.

At the same time, Obama did not commit to any specific action:

We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately. But I think all of us...recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."

Obama's declaration came amid a week of signals that further intervention was being considered but had not been decided, with the regime use of chemical weapons as the catalyst and/or pretext. On Tuesday, the President met Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar, a key player in the intervention. Yesterday Obama met King Abdullah of Jordan, which is hosting the base for the build-up of foreign involvement. US Secretary of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the United Arab Emirates.

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