“Syrian Chemical Weapons & the Possibility of Ending the Civil War,” by William R Polk

Reflections on the Syrian Chemical Weapons Issue and the Possibility of Ending the Civil War

by William R. Polk (Prof. emeritus, Univ of Chicago & ex-member of the Policy Planning Council of the United States Department of State)
September 15, 2013

Because so much of the information and comment in the media, particularly in America, is fragmentary, diffuse and even contradictory, I thought it might be useful to attempt to put together a more coherent account of how we interpret what we now know. Since most of the focus in government pronouncements and the media is on weapons and their use, I will here provide notes on (1) weapons’ variety, their characteristics, their cost and their availability; (2)  a short history of chemical weapons;  (3)  the Russian intervention;  (4)  why the Syrians have accepted the Russian proposal;  (5) the prospects for  ridding the area of the weapons of mass destruction; (6)  the possibility of ending the civil war;  (7)  who the Insurgents are and what they want;  and  (8)  predictable results of a collapse of the Syrian state.

  1. The Variety of Weapons and Their characteristics

Three sorts of weapons figure in the Syrian conflict:  the first are  “conventional” light and heavy weapons:  rifles, machineguns, grenades and artillery.[1] They have done most of the killing in the civil war.  Of an estimated 100,000 casualties, they have killed over 99 in each 100.  Perhaps the best guess on who the casualties were comes from an Non-Governmental Organization based in London, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  It finds that 21,850 rebels fighters, 27,654 regular army soldiers, 17,824 militia fighters and about 40,000 civilians have been killed as of September this year.[2]

So far unused but prominent in any political calculation are nuclear weapons which are known as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  So far they are possessed only by Israel with which country Syria is at war.  The third category of weapons, also regarded as WMD are chemical weapons.  They figure in the inventory of several states including both Syria and Israel.    These weapons are made of various forms of gas (mustard,  which causes severe burns, and the nerve gases, Sarin, VX and perhaps others).

Weapons of Mass destruction are characterized by several common features.  The first is that there is no effective means of protection from them.  At the top end,  a nuclear weapon, delivered by rocket or jet airplane cannot be detected or reliably disabled before reaching its target.   Some chemical weapons do not even have to be delivered: they can be carried (as they were in the First World War) by wind or allowed simply to escape where they are to take effect.  Gas masks were fabricated to guard against them over a century ago, but they offer only limited protection.  Some gas compounds, particularly Sarin, can contaminate clothing and remain lethal long after the person removes the mask.  Against white phosphorous, a particularly horrible form of napalm,  there is no effective means of defense if the person is in the open.[3]

The second common feature of  chemical weapons of mass destruction is that their impact is dramatic.  Even threat of their use spreads terror not only among intended targets but among the population of wide areas.  This feature is heightened by the fact that unintended victims usually have no warning.    All weapons of mass destruction are horrible, but they vary widely in cost and effectiveness.  Nuclear weapons are the most expensive and not only can kill all life in a given area but also leave behind contamination that can kill or maim those who survived the initial attack for decades or more.   Even “lesser” nuclear weapons such as depleted uranium shell casing are believed to have resulted in greatly increased cases of cancer.  So far as I have been able to find out,  depleted uranium has not yet been used in Syria, but such shells are known to be in the inventory of some of the armies.

Chemical weapons have been described as “the poor nations’ weapons of mass destruction.”  Gas can be manufactured relatively cheaply and in what are relatively speaking rudimentary laboratories.   According to a Russian study, the only publically available investigation, gas has been used several times in the Syrian war, once, the Russians assert, by the rebels in or near Aleppo.  We do not yet, as of this writing, have the official UN study of the gas attacks near Damascus.  Indeed, we do not yet know precisely how many people were killed.  The numbers are variously reported:  by Médecins Sans Frontières (355),  French intelligence (281), British Intelligence (350), the insurgent “Syrian National Coalition” (650) and the American government (1,429).

Mention of the relatively small number of Syrian casualties caused by gas is not to excuse its use; on the contrary, it is to question why Western statesmen did not regard the death of the nearly 100,000 killed by convention weapons a cause for action.  But the gas issue at least gives us a place to start ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

If chemical weapons are relatively unimportant in the Syrian Civil War, why did the Syrian Government manufacture and keep them?  The answer, of course, is that they were not intended to be used in a civil war; rather, they were intended to deter an Israeli attack and to balance against Israel’s own inventory of nuclear and chemical weapons.[4]     Like nuclear weapons,  those states that still have poison gas regard it as a means of deterrence rather than offense.[5]   This, of course, was the position of the United States on poison gas.  It is perhaps worth pausing on that point since the statements by American officials will have been considered by other nations in the light of American actions.  So a bit of history:

2.   A  Short History of Chemical Weapons

The only nation to use poison gas during the Second World War was Japan, but the United States and other Allied governments feared that the Nazi regime might opt to do so as its defeat neared.  Germany indeed developed and manufactured Sarin and other particularly lethal agents.  So the United States also began to develop and manufacture them.  In 1943, it shipped mustard gas to Europe.  The ship carrying the gas was bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe in Bari on December 2.  Some 62 merchant seamen were killed by the escaping gas.  Then, after the war ended, the US Army began to experiment with captured German gas.  To gage its effect, the Army exposed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers.[6]  As I mentioned in a previous essay,[7]  when I was a member of the Policy Planning Council and was studying weapons in the Middle East, I was given a briefing on chemical weapons at Fort Meade.  I was so revolted by the videos I was shown that I wrote President Kennedy arguing that we must end the program and give up chemical weapons.  Nothing was done until November 1969 when President Nixon unilaterally renounced first use of them and ordered the destruction of the then huge US stockpile of some 31,500 tons.  In 1975 the US adhered to the Geneva Protocol on chemical and biological weapons.  Thereafter, it continued destroying weapons, but in 1986, President Reagan restarted Sarin gas production when he was advised that Soviet Union was moving toward gas warfare planning.  Nine years later, under President Clinton, the US Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.

This Chemical Weapons Convention  of 1997 remains the standard against which issues of potential gas warfare are to be judged.  As of September 2013, 190 states had ratified the convention; Syria is not a party to the Convention while Israel and Myanmar (Burma) have signed but not ratified it.

Ratifying the Convention legally obligated the United States to complete the destruction of its stockpile within a decade.  It did not do so and made use of an automatic extension of five years.  The extension ran out in April 2012.  Today, the United States is in violation of the treaty as it still has approximately 3,000 tons of Sarin, VX and Mustard Gas.  Presumably it has been delayed by strategic, safety, environmental and fiscal considerations.  The program will cost perhaps $35 billion.

Use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict has been a matter of much speculation and controversy.  The mandate of the UN inspectors does not require or perhaps even allow them to answer the question of who employed chemical weapons last month, but possibly they will be allowed to answer that question indirectly.  That is,  if the gas was of “military grade,” then presumably the rebels would not have had access to it although one allegation is that they may have received the gas that was used from a foreign military source;  if, on the other hand, the gas was “home made”  — and there have been several recent allegations of attempts to purchase from abroad[8]  the raw materials from which Sarin is made — then presumably it was not from the Syrian army depot. Thus, hopefully, at least some of the contention over who did what to whom may be resolved in the report of the UN inspectors.

3.   The Russian Intervention

Like the United States, Russia has a perceived national interest in the politics of the Middle East.  The American interest is usually seen as having five components – access to energy on acceptable terms, protection of the forces it has committed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons into hostile hands, prevention of the spread of terrorism against America or American targets and the protection of Israel.

While I am not privy to the deliberations of this generation of Russian strategists, I twice lectured at the then Soviet Academy of Science’s premier “think tank” on world affairs, the Institute of World Economy and International Affairs and thus developed some sense of how Russian strategists see the world.  My hunch is that they would describe their national interests in the Middle East as having these components.

First, unlike the United States, Russia has a large indigenous Muslim population.   Leaving aside the Central Asian republics, which are almost entirely Muslim and in whose affairs the Russian state is and will remain heavily involved, about 1 in 6 Russians is a Muslim. Thus, Russia must be and is deeply concerned that events in the Middle East do not “infect” Russian domestic politics and specifically that the violent segment of the Middle Eastern Muslim community does not further inflame Muslim separatism in Russia.  This is a particular worry for the Russians in their Chechnya “federal subject.”

The Russian government, like all governments, is also concerned with prestige.  Particularly after the implosion of the Soviet Union following its defeat in Afghanistan,[9] prestige has dwindled and restoring it must be a serious concern.   (More pointedly, it is crucial in the survival of political leaders.)   Russia wants and will pursue the role of a major world power; it may never again be one of two, but it can aspire to being (along with China and India) one of four.

The Russians also have “security” and commercial  interests such as the port in Syria they are building for their Mediterranean naval operations and as an outlet to the Mediterranean for energy exports.

So Syria is both a danger and an opportunity for Russia;  it is foolish to write off its interests, as some have done, as merely an emotional “blowback” from its defeat in the Cold War.  No less than the United States, it has interests that will continue to guide its policy.  It is in this light that we should see the Russian proposal in Syria.

As President Vladimir Putin has written,[10]  “a strike [on Syria] will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.  A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.  It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.  It could throw the entire system of international law out of balance.”

Mr. Putin went on to say that the forces opposed to the Syrian government include groups designated by the United States as terrorists and include “hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia [who] are an issue of our deep concern.  Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria.  After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali.  This threatens us all…[But] If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust.  It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

As of this writing, we do not know precisely the dimensions of the Russian proposal.  The broad outline, however, appears clear and simple:   Syria would reveal and then in due course turn over to some recognized authority, under the supervision of either or both the United Nations or Russia, its chemical weapons inventory.  Since the inventory is presumably both large (to deter Israeli attack) and housed in many locations (to survive Israeli attack) “neutralizing” it will be a lengthy process.    Judging by the American experience, it may last 20 or more years and, by the terms of the Convention, would be legally allowed to take place  for at least 15 years.  Thus, implicit in the Russian proposal is a willingness to assume a long-term role in Syrian and, by extension, Middle Eastern affairs.

Playing this role would presumably require a large presence of both military and civilian Russian officials as well as UN staff and UN-designated contingents from other countries.  These groups would inevitably have to work together to accomplish the basic mission and to maintain themselves  in the midst of a dangerous civil war.   Moreover, they would have to create supply lines as many of their necessities are now and will continue to be severely restricted in many of the areas in which they will have to operate.  I would guess that the numbers are likely to be 5-10 thousand Russians and perhaps twice that number of UN-designated peacekeeping forces from third countries.   Estimates of the costs have not yet been publically revealed.  However, they are unlikely to be less than $20 billion.  Presumably the Russian General Staff and the Soviet Academy are now at work refining those estimates.

4.   Why the Syrians Have Accepted the Russian Proposal

President Asad informed  the United Nations on September 10 that Syria would sign the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and forwarded to  New York the preliminary documents.  Then,  speaking on Russian television, he said that his government would begin providing information on its chemical weapons a month after adherence.  In what will probably, to judge from the history of US-Soviet arms control negotiations,  be a long series of points of disagreement among the three parties, US Secretary of State John Kerry immediately demanded faster action.  That may not be possible as is evident in America’s own performance to implement the terms of the Convention.  So rather than a sigh of relief, the Russian proposal and the Syrian acceptance have begun in controversy.

What is President Bashar al-Asad committing the Syrian government to do  and why did it accept the Russian proposal?

If the Russians have to put military or security forces into the country to protect their teams engaged in destroying nuclear stockpiles, as I assume they will have to do, the Syrian military could, conceivably, reduce its forces.  I doubt that this will seem attractive to the regime because it is both heavily dependent upon the military to maintain itself in power in the midst of the civil war and because the economy is not now able to absorb any significant infusion of job-seekers.   Regime policy will also, of course, continue to  be shaped by fear of hostilities with Israel.  So the government is unlikely to reduce its forces.  What the government could do is to concentrate its forces more effectively to deal with the rebels.  Thus, it seems reasonable to believe that the regime might welcome the Russian offer on this ground alone.

But there are other grounds for the Syrian government to accept the Russian offer.  The first, obviously, is that it is likely to have made an imminent and  devastating American attack unlikely or even impossible.   Press reports suggest that the mood in Damascus already reflects this new optimism.  There is, as yet, only a negative response from the titular leaders of the opposition, but since the opposition is internally deeply and bitterly divided, it seems likely that some of the more moderate or conservative of its hundreds of component groups, may reconsider their positions as the Russians, the UN and perhaps others begin to employ natives to assist in their arms control operations.

Another reason for the Syrian government to accept the Russian proposal is that it should lift external threats for a lengthy period, perhaps years.  Once the program gets under way, it would be difficult or impossible for the United States or Israel to intervene militarily.  It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this change:  Syrians governments have lived literally under the gun for half a century.  Periodically, Israel has violated Syrian air space and bombed Syrian installations.  With a Russian force in residence and forced to protect its widely scattered personnel and a significant UN peacekeeping force interspersed among the Russians,  the government can to some degree discount external aggression.

Covert subversive activities are likely, of course, to continue.  The government has not been able to stop them and is unlikely to do so in the future.  But the Syrians have learned to live with this threat, and it is probable that the Russian presence will bring the concomitant of security assistance.  This is almost certain to include training, provision of or stationing in Syria of more sophisticated weapons and some sharing of counterintelligence.

Yet another reason for the Syrian government to approve Russian involvement is less dramatic but perhaps  more crucial.  Syria is desperately short of food, particularly wheat,     If I were a Russian planner I would see augmenting the food supply of the Syrian people as a major opportunity and if I were a Syrian policy planner, I would see it as vital.  It will be limited and probably short-term. Russian farmers have suffered from drought in the last several years but expect to be able to export about 10 million metric tons of wheat this coming year; Syria has not been able to export any of its wheat crop, its major foreign exchange earner, since 2008. Syria still faces a strategic problem since water supplies are declining with no likelihood of improvement in the foreseeable future – but the value to the Syrian government of even short term – tactical — food aid in the next few years cannot be overestimated.

5.   The Prospects for  Ridding The Area of Weapons of Mass Destruction

If there is a “silver lining” in the Syrian crisis, it could be that it would awaken the world to the dangers of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that serious moves will be taken at least to diminish them.  Let us be as precise as possible on both the dangers and the possible remedies.

As an “insider” in the Cuban Missile Crisis, I believe I can claim the right to say once again that the existence of WMD anywhere are a menace to people everywhere.  In the midst of the Missile Crisis and ever since I have thought of the words of  John Donne.  We cannot repeat them often enough:

No man is an island, 
Entire of itself, 
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main.
 If a clod be washed away by the sea,
 Europe is the less.
 As well as if a promontory were.
 As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
 Or of thine own were: 
Any man’s death diminishes me, 
Because I am involved in mankind,
 And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

We – Syrians of both camps, Russians, Americans, Israelis, Iranians and others – are part of the main.  In the Cuban Missile Crisis we knew that those distinctions were not operative.  Any use of WMD would have tolled the bell for all mankind.

There were then many reasons not to listen.  There always will be.  And the bell may not sound loudly enough to awaken us.  But we need to awaken and to keep searching for ways to effect its message.

Why do nations have WMD?  The simple answer is that they are afraid of one another.  That is immediately clear in the context of Syria:  the Syrians are afraid of the Israelis and the Israelis are afraid of the Syrians and other Arab states.  Fear is often irrational, but it can be subjected to reason.  Or, at least, can be fitted into a restraining matrix.  Is this conceivable in the Middle East?

I think it is.  Syria has moved to give up its piece of what one of our own “big  bomb” strategists called “the delicate balance of terror.”  If fully carried out, that will be a somewhat irrational move. Any Syrian government will seek compensation. Compensation can come in one of several ways.  Russia can provide Syria with guarantees.  If they are prudent, the Syrians will not place complete confidence in this or any other foreign guarantees.  This is because governments change and even the interests of existing governments change so that commitments made at one time may dissolve at another.  Russia may also provide Syria with advanced conventional arms.  But what are advanced today are soon obsolescent and eventually become obsolete.  So more permanent compensatory moves must be made if we wish to diminish our dangers over a long term.  What might they be?

The obvious answer is in moves that could be made by the Israeli government.   It is the major holder of WMD in the Middle East.  But why should Israel give up any advantage?  The only politically conceivable reason would be that it reckons such a move  would be in its own interest?  Would it?

Consider an answer to that question in this sequence:  when Israel moved to acquire WMD in the 1960s, its conventional forces were already stronger than those of its Arab neighbors, but, in the Israeli calculus, only marginally so.  Today they are very much stronger and, with American assistance,  getting technically more advanced.  But at least some of the Arab countries and Iran are moving toward sufficient technological skill and manufacturing capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. Others, like Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states may, potentially, be able to buy what they cannot now build.  So, while possession of WMD once gave Israel security, sooner or later emphasis on WMD could be a source of insecurity.  Feeling threatened by Israeli power, other states may accelerate their move to match it.  And the only feasible or proximate means to do so is by acquiring WMD. In short, more countries could acquire the capacity to destroy Israel.   So, while it maintains its overwhelming conventional military power, Israel would be wise to begin to consider some alternative to WMD, just as we have done vis-à-vis Russia.

6.   The Possibility of Ending the Civil War

While the destruction of chemical weapons will have little or no direct effect on the civil war, the indirect results can be significant.  As I mentioned above, the rebel leadership immediately condemned the Russian proposal.   Particularly the more radical groups take  President Putin at his word: Russia will throw its weight behind stopping the war by supporting the Syrian government.  As mentioned above, he warned of the spread of terrorism and tied it to the insurgents.  While supporting the insurgents, in general, President Obama in his September 10 “address to the Nation on Syria” acknowledged that “It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists.”  Thus, while the Western media has been almost wholly committed to the rebels and their causes, I think we will look back on these early moves as the beginning of a change in the perception of the insurgency.  The insurgents appear to share the same perception.

How significant will that change of perception be?  It is of course impossible to judge with any precision, but it should be noted that it began even before the Russian move.  Whereas until the last few weeks, almost all media reports have emphasized the brutality of the Asad regime and its henchmen, stories have begun to appear of acts of terror, murder and vandalism by some of the rebel groups.[11] The narrow terms of reference of the UN investigation will probably not add much to what is already known, but the lengthy documentation the Russians have gathered on actions by the insurgents may add to the momentum behind the trend.  And  some of the enthusiasts for the rebel cause  and the most prominent self-proclaimed expert on Syria,[12]  have lost the powerful leverage they had on American governmental and public opinion just a short while ago.  The latest polls show almost 3 out of 4 Americans believe the current threat against the Syrian government is “unwise.”[13]

It has surprised me that President Obama and the conservative Gulf states have managed to keep both feet firmly planted in opposite camps:   while generally opposing Muslims of all varieties and singling out some of their most significant groups as terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida, they have supported them with weapons, money and training.

To my mind, more significant is the general recognition that, just as in Libya where we similarly supported a rebellion against a government,[14] the rebels have little or no capacity to form a stable successor government if, with American, European and conservative Arab governments, they manage to overthrow the Asad regime.  In contrast, as I have pointed out, the Russian position is straightforward:  they are worried about the possible effect of the Syrian Muslim rebels on the 1 in 6 Russians who is a Muslim and some of whose relatives is now engaged in Syria. So, understandably, while still locked in a struggle against their own dissidents in Chechnya, the Russians aim to weaken insurgents in Syria.

The Russian position comes down to the simple argument that the Syrian government must be enabled to survive.  The American position is more vague but repeated statements and the work of the CIA to equip and train the rebels suggest that the Obama Administration is determined at least not to allow the Syrian government to win.  Does this mean that the Administration wants the rebels to win?   It appears so.  In this event, what we have is a proxy war imposed on top of a civil war, and that could go on for a generation or more.

But,  speaking as an old policy planner, it does not seem to me that there is a clear strategy that could define what would be meant by the rebels winning.  I propose to deal with this conundrum in my next essay.  First, let us look at the insurgents.

7.   Who Are the Insurgents and What do they Want?

The short answer is that despite frequent assertions to the contrary, we still know little about the insurgents.  They have not one but hundreds – by some accounts as many as 1,200 —  conflicting organizations of which only one, Jabhat an-Nusri, seems to have organizational and doctrinal cohesion.  The guess is that the total number of combatants may be upwards of 70,000 to 100,000.  While I have no access to intelligence reports my study of what I have called Violent Politics[15] suggests  that the most radical groups usually win in the internecine struggle.  Thus, my bet would be on the Jabhat an-Nusra, a self-proclaimed affiliate or partner to al-Qaida,  rather than on the diffuse and disorganized Free Syrian Army.

The Free Syrian Army is presumably largely made up of Syrian farmers who lost their their livelihood in the several-year-long drought that devastated the farm lands.    Now out of work and destitute, they are the foot soldiers of the insurgency.

Apparently different from them in motivation and objective are the largely foreign contingent of Jabhat an-Nusra.  What little is known of them suggests that they came to Syria because they believe that its struggle is their struggle.  And, as I have written previously,[16] they have been inspired by the Egyptian theologian Sayid Qutub to aim not only at a “free” Syria but a free Muslim community, an ummah or even a sort of restored caliphate.  Is theirs a feasible goal?

8.   Predictable Results of a Collapse of the Syrian State

American policy was aimed, apparently without adequate attention to the consequences, at the destruction of the Asad regime.  Russian policy, as I have laid out, aims in the other direction, the preservation of the Syrian government more or less as now constituted.   At the present time, the Russian policy is in the ascendant, but there are powerful forces in America, Western Europe and the Middle East behind the American initiative.  I will now suggest what might be the result of each line action.  I begin with the Obama objective.

The Obama administration seems to believe that some sort of amalgamation of the rebels and the government can take place; yet, at the same time, it has constantly emphasized its charge that the Asad regime is criminal and must be degraded or replaced.  I have yet to see any indication of who could effect its demise and on what terms how such a successor could make a deal with the insurgents. Much blood has been spilt and the desire for vengeance is apparently very strong among both government forces and the rebels.  While it is never wise to say that the two sides cannot be reconciled, an amalgamation seems to me to be the least likely outcome.

More likely, if the central government is destroyed, is some sort of balkanization.  That is to say, a de facto break up of the country into several ethno-religious blocs.[17]

Consider this prediction briefly in terms of the Syrian historical experience:  Under the Ottoman empire, what is now Syria was divided into provinces (Turkish: pashaliks) so there would seem to be a precedent for some form of division, but this misleading for two reasons:  first, the Ottoman system was politically, ethnically and religious permissive in ways that are alien of modern statecraft.  In the four centuries of Ottoman rule, each community ran its own affairs with the state interfering only to ensure the collection of  taxes. Contribution by individuals to the community tax was levied by the leaders or councils of each community, not by the government.  Moreover, what happened inside each community was considered its, rather than the empire’s, affair.  So Jews ran Jewish schools; Druze ran Druze schools; Alawis ran Alawi schools; and  the various sects of Christians each ran their own schools.   Each community took care of  its own health needs and generally administered its own law and custom.  That lax system of government is mandated in the Quran.  But, after the imposition of the Western concept of the state, such community structure (Turkish: milliyet) is only a distant memory.  Moreover, even the religious fundamentalists and certainly the more radical insurgents apparently no longer feel governed by the Quranic injunction to allow non-Muslims to live by their own codes and in peace.

Whether or not such a system might be theologically or politically acceptable today, it would not work in practice since the several communities have become much more  mixed than in Ottoman times.  To judge by their proclamations, at least the more radical part of the insurgency would try to impose upon all the Syrians a centralized Islamic legal and cultural system.   In areas under such control, the members of the previously “protected” communities will either emigrate, convert or be eliminated.  We see and hear signs of this already in reference to the Alawis and the Christians.

Thus, almost certainly,  a “balkanization” of Syria will greatly add to the number of internal and external refugees.  Moreover, in that part of Syria that falls under the control of the Jabhat an-Nusra, strenuous efforts will be made to carry a jihad further afield.  Initially, a common cause will be found with the Iraqi Sunni community which is restive under the yoke of the American-imposed and Iranian-supported Shia regime.  Further ties will be taken up with radical Muslim groups in Libya, Egypt, the Gulf states, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even further afield.  In short, the turmoil we are now seeing will be greatly increased and more widely spread.

Contrariwise, the results of Russian policy are likely to be an increase in the power and determination of the Syrian government.   It is no more democratic than the rebel groups, but it is more ethnically tolerant:  although Alawi dominated, it includes even at the top level numbers of Muslims and Christians.  Whether or not this liberal or tolerant aspect of the regime continues will depend, I suggest, largely on how long the war continues, how bitter it becomes and whether or not serious efforts are made to improve the economy.  Thus, much will depend on the Russian program.

Whether or not the aim of the Russian government is humanitarian is beside the point:  with its back protected, this or any other Syrian government will naturally seek to achieve its own salvation, security and “victory.”  Such, after all, is the aim of nationalism.

This is all short or middle term;  the long-term needs of the Syrian people for peace and security, for jobs and food, and for hope will go unmet as long as the civil war lasts.  The long-term needs to cope with a rising number of stomachs to be fed as resources of good land and water decline will not even be addressed much less solved.  The bill to put Syria back together again can only be guessed.  My hunch, based on what we have seen in Iraq, is on the order of a trillion dollars.  And I see no sources for such an amount.  But, if the war is not stopped and stopped soon, the amount needed will multiply.

And Syria is only the focal point of these problems.  A dynamism has been set in motion that will affect all Syria’s immediate neighbors first and then others.  If the war continues, the regional prognosis can only be chaos.   Among the first to be affected will be Lebanon which, always a fragile conglomeration, can easily fall back into civil war;  then Turkey, apparently so strong and stable, will come under increasing pressure from the Kurds who will have been encouraged by their new autonomy in Syria.  Their challenge will likely increase the rigidity and oppressiveness of the state.  Jordan, after half a century, must have nearly used up its nine lives; and the Palestinians, having effectively lost what is left of their homeland, are likely to be driven away yet again.  Not to go on, let me just predict that the already unstable area  will throb with anger, frustration, armed conflict, terrorism and revanchism.  Even those who wish to support Israel must realistically consider how this gated community can find happiness in such a slum.

I end with a teaser:  as I used to do for our government, I am now at work on a policy paper in which I will address what might be done to head off or at least ameliorate these dire projections.

William R. Polk , Sunday, September 15, 2013
(Published with permission of the author)


[1]   I leave aside land mines as they do not appear to have been used in the Syrian conflict. of them, the so-called  improvised explosive device (IED) was first reported in use by Afghan tribesmen in the 19th century and is common in guerrilla warfare.  A more sophisticated version was laid by the British and German armies during the Second World War  Unlike other conventional weapons, it is “passive;”  that is, it can “lie in wait” for a footfall for decades.  In North Africa alone it was believed to have killed about 20,000 people.

[2] Huffington Post, September 12, 2013, Joshua Hersh, “Syria Death Toll a Grim Reminder of War’s Two-Sided Casualties.”

[3]   The American army used both napalm and white phosphorous extensively in Vietnam and Iraq.  The photograph of a still burning young girl running down the road had the same effect on Americans in the 1960s and 1970s as the sight of gassed children in Syria this year, a feeling of revulsion.  US Secretary of State John Carrey called it “obscene.”

[4]   Although “undeclared,” Israel is known to have not only upwards of 400 nuclear weapons but a robust program of chemical and biological warfare manufacture and training.  It is known to have imported chemicals used for Sarin nerve gas from the United States.

[5]  This was not true until fairly recently.  The British government considered using poison gas on German civilians during the Second World War and it was not until 15 years later that most states agreed to start destroying stocks of poison gas.

[6]   US Senate, Staff Report for the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, December 8, 1994.  The report states that “For at least 50 years, DOD[Department of Defense] has knowingly exposed military personnel to potentially dangerous substances often in secret…without their knowledge or consent.”

[7] August 30, 2013.

[8]   The latest I have seen is in The Los Angeles Times of September 13, 2013, Patrick J. McDonnell: “Syrian rebel groups sought sarin gas material, Turkish prosecutors say.”  The suspected groups were Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar as-Sham.

[9]   On which the reader may wish to see my essay, “The Russians Try to ‘Regime Change’ Afghanistan,” in my forthcoming volume, Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

[10]  The New York Times,  September 11, 2013, “A Plea of Caution From Russia.”

[11]     Including an attack on the Christian village of Maloula whose inhabitants still speak the language Jesus is thought to have spoken, Aramaic.  This episode came on top of disturbing accounts of reports that the rebels planned to kill or drive away not only the members of the deviant Muslim sect, the Alawis, but also Syrian Christians.  Even more graphic were photographic records of rebels murdering unarmed and naked Syrian soldiers and even eating the heart of a murdered civilian.

[12]   Elizabeth . O’Bagy, who was identified by Secretary Kerry and Senator McCain as well as The Wall Street Journal,  was found to have lied about her academic credentials (claiming to hold a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies) and to have hidden the fact that she was employed by a pro-rebel lobbying group while pretending to be an independent journalist.

[13]  The Reason-Rupe September 10, 2013 National Survey.

[14]   The Independent, September 12, 2013, Patrick Cockburn, “Special report: We all thought Libya had moved on – it has but into lawlessness and ruin.”

[15]   The title of my book on insurgency, guerrilla warfare and terrorism (Harper Collins, 2007 and 2008).

[16]   “The Syrian Maelstrom’” March 4, 2013, available on my website, www.Williampolk. Com will be included in my forthcoming book, Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

[17]    Not only under the Ottoman empire but from the end of the first Islamic century, what is now Syria, then the heartland of the Umayyad Caliphate, lived a “relaxed” version of Islam.

Comments (33)


No wonder….

September 29th, 2013, 11:00 pm


Observer said:

Hamster please elaborate.

If Russia wants to preserve the regime; it must surely understand that the regime in its previous form is no longer present.

If Russia is going to own Syria it could have the problems of Syria bound around its neck.

If the regime is to “win” it will need according to the article a trillion dollars in reconstruction. Who is going to provide that kind of money? No one has that kind of money.

If Russia is going to have the regime “win” how is that going to subdue its Muslim population? I would argue that it would enflame the Muslim population further as their sense of victimhood will increase tenfold and the narrative of the extremists will be strengthened.

I am not convinced that this paper understands the emotional baggage of Russia being so called humiliated in Libya and its weapons being destroyed without the loss of single NATO soldier.

The CW was the card that the regime paid to stay in power. Russia could not and would not support a regime that gassed its own people that is why there is so much emphasis on rebels using CW and evidence that Russia says it has of their deeds.

It is an attempt at whitewashing the regime.

Well for Mr. Polk I have one element that no one has counted on: the Syrian people that against all expectations and against overwhelming odds are destroying bit by bit the regime military structure and dismantling brick by brick the security house of cards built by the father.

So there is no wheat and Syria’s export of wheat surpassed oil exports. That is news to me.

Russia’s harvest is low and today Medvedev announced that the economy will grow at best at 2% and that the situation has not been seen since 2009 and he attributed this to the lack of exports of commodities as Europe is in recession and the US is not importing much.

What will happen when the US starts exporting oil? There will be a reduction of oil and gas exports. If Syrian gas is exploited, Russian gas will not be needed as Syria is closer to Europe and off shore.

Will see, the situation is fluid now and I have a sense that some continued rivalry between the opponents of the regime in the GCC is still at play with the factional fighting in the SNC a reflection of payback.

In the meantime this means that the flow of weapons to the opposition and the support will continue for not a single backer can now withdraw support lest another take its place.

Positions of the regime were overrun in Barzeh today. Heavy checkpoints in Salhieh in Damascus proper.

Interesting indeed.

September 29th, 2013, 11:18 pm



Did you get a strange feeling that the writer is more deferential to the interests of Russia than to the interest of the US.

I call this the expediency of diplomats. Many call it cowardice. What I read, coupled with recent vibes coming from Washington policy circles and think tanks is nothing more than a recipe for a very long war, the lack of vision on the side of the US and our allies will end up costing us and them far more than what our well groomed policy analysts are warning against now.

To call the regime tolerant is in itself a reason to discard this nonsense and to say no wonder our policy is fuxxd up.

The rest of the article is a collection of what everyone knows, cobbled together with no focus and no moral backing. Especially the bit about the Ottomans. You yourself did a great job dismantling some of the wishful thinking.

I will say no more. I think people who worked hard do deserve a peaceful retirement.

September 29th, 2013, 11:57 pm


Heads-up said:

Just so you may know, our well informed and highly reliable sources who work very hard, around the clock and behind the scenes authorized the release of the following very important heads up, in order to keep you up to date with current events.

Our patrons once again reviewed the material presented in this latest post of diversionary ploys to fudge truths and facts, an ongoing process on this site fueled by its owner and associates. Our well informed benefactors, while recognizing the attempt to utilize outdated experts, once again came to the same unavoidable conclusion as they did when reviewing the previous four posts. The material and so-called evidence are in total contradiction to the gist of the post seeking in essence to tarnish the reputation of the glorious revolution of the Syrian people, to polish the ugly face of the murderous regime, implying in the process a clear desperate attempt to spread propaganda on behalf of the falling and desperate regime of outlawed perverted criminals of the outcast so-called Assad. In general, the material presented has no bearings whatsoever on the interests of Syria and its people who are fighting the most important war on behalf of all Mankind, the existential fight against humankins archenemy, the Serpent-Head and its proxies. Needless to say, the acts of fabrication and propaganda of this site’s contributors fall squarely and evenly under the definitions of aiding and abetting of criminals of the worst kind in human history.

As a result of their assessments, our benefactors decided to keep the site on the blacklist. And they would strongly urge readers to exercise extreme caution, sound judgement and critical analysis when reading anything written by the owner or associates of the this clearly suspicious and much-below standards site.

September 30th, 2013, 12:06 am


Sami said:

“and there have been several recent allegations of attempts to purchase from abroad[8] the raw materials from which Sarin is made”

It is more than stretching the truth to call Antifreeze raw material to produce Sarin.

Why would countries spend billions of dollars on chemical weapons research to develop them if a bunch of rebels that are hardly unified and extremely fragmented can produce it in extreme circumstances using antifreeze while in a war zone?


September 30th, 2013, 12:27 am


William Scott Scherk said:

A couple of lines stood out for me:

— “According to a Russian study, the only publically available investigation, gas has been used several times in the Syrian war

— “The Free Syrian Army is presumably largely made up of Syrian farmers who lost their their livelihood in the several-year-long drought that devastated the farm lands.

It would be useful if the author had given a reference to ‘the only publically available investigation.’ More than useful — crucial.

Another defect in the essay is his list of weapons used in Syria. I guess ‘artillery’ is supposed to cover SCUDs, cluster-bombs, barrel-bombs and fuel-air explosives.

Too bad Polk was unable to update his essay since he wrote it. I think both Joshua and Matthew are fatigued with writing for the blog.

September 30th, 2013, 12:41 am


Mina said:

plenty of evidence is available on the websites that attempt to follow all the CW story, but some prefer to ignore them
just google – brown moses; – whoghouta ; and – petri krohn’s a closer look on syria.

if the syrian army was stupid enough to carry a CW attack just 10 km from the place UN inspectors had just arrived on the same day, they wouldn’t have survived to this day.

September 30th, 2013, 1:34 am


omen said:

former lebanese PM fouad siniora on RT arguing regime is to blame for exasperating sectarianism. and notes after being responsible for so much bloodshed, is inconceivable for assad to run for another term.

i can’t believe this is being aired on RT. looks like observer is right. russians are starting to distance themselves from assad.

September 30th, 2013, 2:51 am


apple_mini said:

The author’s analysis is comprehensive and solid.

The future development of this war pins on the policy of US administration. And that is heavily affected by the result from conflict and compromise between the moderate and hawkers in US politics on Syria.

The rejection of the opposition and GCC, Turkey by the regime is not out of arrogance or confidence. It is based on reality: they are irrelevant to solve the Syria crisis. They are part of the problem. Yet their leashes are in the hands of US administration.

PS we have some international media volunteers here desperately begging for engaging interaction with commentators not with the opposition. I find it very funny. I hope people who frequent this site will be able to recognize them and hence ignore them.

September 30th, 2013, 6:18 am


SimoHurtta said:

What will happen when the US starts exporting oil? There will be a reduction of oil and gas exports. If Syrian gas is exploited, Russian gas will not be needed as Syria is closer to Europe and off shore.

What are you people smoking? Some cold-war era drug? I am not a special Russia fun, but reading so hilarious Russophobic propaganda demands bringing some reality to the discussion.

Syria closer to Europe than Russia? Come-on. The centre of industrial Europe (Germany, France etc) is certainly closer to Russia than to Syria. I live 150 kilometres from Russian border and I live in EU and Europe. Over 1.5 million Russians visit Finland yearly even they need a visa (in future not). They own here apartments and summer houses, come shopping or to holidays. The highways are full of trucks going to Russia and coming from there. The highways are also filled with rather high quality cars with Russian registry plates. The shopping malls of border towns and Helsinki have masses of very Russian customers with much purchasing power. Daily four high speed trains go from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg and one to Moscow. That is the reality on here on EU’s Russian border. The European resorts in Greece, Spain, Turkey etc have plenty of Russian tourists. After their holiday they do not flee in panic to USA, they go back home to Russia.

Watch the marine traffic of Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea. An unending stream of tankers going to Russia to fill oil and bringing it to the European customers. Under the surface of the sea two giant gas pipes transport gas to German customers.

Russia has several gas and oil pipe lines for export to Europe. Some of them go through countries which wanted/want a bigger share of the “profit” by charging high transit payments and make so troubles to Russia and to countries which use the gas. Anyway all these “transit” countries are politically stable compared to the oil and gas lines in Middle East.

Russia and Soviet Union have sold for decades oil and gas to Europe without major problems in deliveries. Before the situation for Russia was, that all oil customers with purchasing power were mainly in Europe and Japan. Today the situation is completely different. China and India are demanding more oil. And Russia is willing and capable to deliver. Europe knows that – and is worried. In the end EU need more Russia than Russia EU. EU needs the markets of Russia and the raw materials of Russia.

The day dreaming that USA suddenly could replace Russia as a oil exporter to Europe is propaganda. Without doubt USA produces much oil, but also it uses all that oil and needs to import huge amounts. USA produces 8.5 million bbl oil daily, exports 2 million bbl and imports 10 million bbl oil daily. So USA needs to import daily about 8 million bbl oil. Russia exports daily 5 million bbl, about halve of its oil production.

By the way do American “Syrians” know that much of the Boing’s new Dreamliner was planed in Russia and produced there.

September 30th, 2013, 8:04 am


Sami said:

“plenty of evidence is available on the websites that attempt to follow all the CW story, but some prefer to ignore them
just google – brown moses; – whoghouta ; and – petri krohn’s a closer look on syria.”

I googled Petri Krohn’s closer look at Ghouta. Anyone stupid enough to believe his unsubstantiated claims based on Global Research and other fictional evidence needs to get their head checked.

Here is a little snippet from the cesspool mind of this pathetic regime whitewasher:

This pattern was repeated in Syria in the Houla massacre in May 2012 and again in the double massacres in Baniyas / al Baida in May 2013.

Starting in late 2012 a string of alleged chemical weapons incidents have been reported in Syria, each one of accompanied with calls for foreign intervention into the Syrian civil war. A large “attack” on the scale of the alleged Ghouta attack is thus no surprise for anyone following the developments.

I guess the report by the UN laying the blame squarely on the regime for the Houla Massacre never made it to this “journalist” desk, not to mention the video of Kayali and his militiamen outlining the “cleansing” process of Banyas and Baida, and now we should believe his “investigation” into Ghouta?

And please Mina show me where exactly did BM ever conclude it was rebels that used CW, I am having a real hard time finding that!

September 30th, 2013, 8:32 am


Sami said:

“The rejection of the opposition and GCC, Turkey by the regime is not out of arrogance or confidence. It is based on reality: they are irrelevant to solve the Syria crisis. They are part of the problem.”

As opposed to Besho and his henchmen, I guess to you they are the solution?

September 30th, 2013, 8:35 am


zoo said:

While the embattled expat opposition rushed to renounce to its conditions of Bashar al Assad resignation in order to obey the West order that they attend Geneva II, Bashar Al Assad refuses to accept them as legitimate negotiators.

Syrian opposition says Syrian FM comments an attempt to derail Geneva II
Syrian foreign minister’s comments that regime will not talk to opposition groups based outside the country is rejected by the Syrian National Coalition as a maneuver to avoid participation in Geneva II.


Mouallem announced on Saturday that the Syrian government would not accept the coalition as a representative of the opposition at the Geneva II conference, due to be held in mid-November. He said: “The Syrian opposition must be represented by licensed Syrian opposition parties.”

The foreign minister reiterated comments made by President Bashar Al-Assad a few days ago, in which he said that the opposition coalition, which is based outside Syria, “does not represent the Syrian people.” The president added that he would hold dialogue with the “opposition and parties inside Syria.”

Mouallem said: “The coalition has lost the Syrian people after asking the Americans to bomb Syria.”

September 30th, 2013, 8:35 am


Afram said:

The”corrupt bargain”by the west with the backward muslim bedouins is Delaying the Inevitable.
Let’s stop delaying what’s meant to happen,finish off Jihadi Islam.
Mr Hussein Obama/Thousands of Deadly Islamic Terror Attacks took place since 9/11 world wide,even your half-brother in Kenya Malik Hussein Obama is a major terror financing banker

September 30th, 2013, 8:51 am


zoo said:

After a year of playing secular, the Syrian rebels now confirm their vision of the future of Syria: A Muslim State

Islamists’ announcement from Syria

30 September 2013 /GÖNÜL TOL, AKŞAM

Nearly a year ago, in November 2012, video footage that shocked many people, shot by the leader of a group of Syrian rebels, was released.

Under a black flag, the group, which claimed to represent the armed opposition in Aleppo, gave a message to the world: “We do not recognize the Syria National Coalition, which has stated that it represents dissidents fighting in Syria and was created by the West. We announce that we will establish a Muslim state in Syria.” A few days after that declaration, many opposition groups claimed to know nothing about it and said they want to establish a civil state rather than an Islamic one.

Last week, 11 rebel groups made an announcement on the agreement to control chemical weapons in Syria. They condemned the agreement and said their goal is to establish a Muslim state in Syria. And the rebels that denied the Islamist group’s announcement last year did nothing of the kind last week. I think such a change in the dissident groups could change the course of events of the Syrian war.

September 30th, 2013, 8:53 am


Heads-up said:

Just so you may know, our well informed and highly reliable sources who work very hard, around the clock and behind the scenes authorized the release of the following very important heads up, in order to keep you up to date with current events.

Heads up is declaring based on its reliable intel:THERE WILL BE NO GENEVA II.

September 30th, 2013, 8:58 am


zoo said:

Geneva II without the SNC?

In a defiant response to Obama, it is now Bashar al Assad who requests that the SNC resigns before he accepts to sit on the negotiating table.

Does the West still have ways to pressure him.?

September 30th, 2013, 12:42 pm


Syrialover said:

Ghouta survivors now outside Syria give an account of what happened.

It’s significant in the 3 months leading up to the use of CW the regime had the area under blockade cutting off food supplies while conducting constant air strikes.

CW a last resort?

Starving them and bombing them wasn’t working, so time to try gassing them.



“No bread or flour or rice was allowed to enter Ghouta for three months … when I brought bread the guard threw it on the ground, stamped on it and told me ‘now you can take it’. If I complained he would beat me too,” continued Rawda.

“The guards started using bags of bread instead of sandbags around their checkpoint, just to humiliate us. They said that one bag of bread cost one bullet. So we were afraid like this for three months before the massacre. We lived by picking whatever fruit or vegetables we could find in Ghouta.”

“It had become normal for planes to throw bombs and fire on our homes. Even in Ramadan bombs were falling every two or three hours. My husband died but I cannot even say to the officials that he was killed by a bomb or I could be hit or put in prison, so I told them it was a car accident.”

September 30th, 2013, 3:13 pm


William Scott Scherk said:

William Polk’s essay above first appeared in The Atlantic on September 16.

An earlier Atlantic article by Polk was published on September 2: Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 2:

Here are some highlights of the lengthy article. I have emphasized sections I find questionable:

Probably like you, I have spent many hours this last week trying to put together the scraps of information reported in the media on the horrible attack with chemical weapons on a suburb of Damascus on Wednesday, August 21. Despite the jump to conclusions by reporters, commentators and government officials, I find as of this writing that the events are still unclear. Worse, the bits and pieces we have been told are often out of context and usually have not been subjected either to verification or logical analysis.

First red flag is the general tone of ‘nobody knows’ … and characterizing information as suspect, incomplete and ‘unclear.’

I will try to put in context 1) what actually happened; 2) what has been reported; 3) who has told us what we think we know; 4) who are the possible culprits and what would be their motivations; 5) who are the insurgents? 6) what is the context in which the attack took place; 7) what are chemical weapons and who has used them; 8) what the law on the use of chemical weapons holds; 9) pro and con on attack; 10) the role of the UN; 11) what is likely to happen now; 12) what would be the probable consequences of an attack and (13) what could we possibly gain from an attack.

1: What Actually Happened

On Wednesday, August 21 canisters of gas opened in several suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus and within a short time approximately a thousand people were dead. That is the only indisputable fact we know.

As of the time of writing his article, it is unclear if the author had any sources of information outside legacy media (newspapers and press websites). It seems clear he has not read or pondered material at Brown Moses, for example, nor attempted to expand his purview.

2: What Has Been Reported

Drawing primarily on Western government and Israeli sources, the media has reported that canisters of what is believed to be the lethal nerve gas Sarin were delivered by surface-to-surface rockets to a number of locations in territory disputed by the Syrian government and insurgents.

This is key to the continuing argument, and to the interim conclusions/speculation re motives. One aspect of reporting that is missing in Polk’s two pieces is important: the August 21 attacks were not the first in which the Assad government was accused. There is no mention in Polk’s piece of longstanding claims. “Disputed territory” is different from ‘rebel-held territory.’ Polk seems to believe (on September 2) that the neighbourhoods attacked were in some sense shifting sands. This is not true, and a glaring defect in his analysis.

4: Who Are the Possible Culprits and What Would be Their Motivations?

Since such information as we have is sketchy and questionable, we should seek to understand motives. As a historian, dealing as one always does, with incomplete information, I have made it a rule when trying to get at the “truth” in any contentious issue to ask a series of questions among which are who benefits from a given action and what would I have done in a given situation? Look briefly at what we think we now know in light of these questions:

First, who gains by the action. I do not see what Assad could have gained from this gas attack. It is evident that while the area in which it took place is generally held to be “disputed” territory, the government was able to arrange for the UN inspection team to visit it but not, apparently, to guarantee their safety there. If Assad were to initiate an attack, it would be more logical for him to pick a target under the control of the rebels.

Assiduous readers of posts and comments here at SC will understand that Polk has a weak grasp of the military situation in suburban Damascus. Because Polk does not mention previous ‘attacks’ he is unable to conceive of a motive. To read his article, August 21 events came out of the blue, unique. To assume the royal We is disingenuous, and to use “I don’t understand” is an argument from ignorance.

Most cogent, he misunderstands the situation on the ground: the areas targeted by chemical weapons were indeed under rebel control. The Assad regime escorted UN inspectors to the front line — and of course could not itself guarantee security for the team in areas outside of its control. Such fuzzy comprehension renders the following speculation as weakly warranted.

Second, to have taken the enormous risk of retaliation or at least loss of support by some of his allies (notably the Russians) by using this horrible weapon, he must have thought of it either as a last ditch stand or as a knockout blow to the insurgents. Neither appears to have been the case. Reports in recent weeks suggest that the Syrian government was making significant gains against the rebels.

Moreover, if it decided to make such an attack, I should have thought that it would havs depots or places where commanders congregated. The suburbs of Damascuse aimed at storage facilities, communications links, arm offered none of these opportunities for a significant, much less a knockout blow.

Third, as students of guerrilla warfare have learned guerrillas are dispersed but civilians are concentrated. So weapons of mass destruction are more likely to create hostility to the user than harm to the opponent. The chronology of the Syrian civil war shows that the government must be aware of this lesson as it has generally held back its regular troops (which were trained and armed to fight foreign invasion) and fought its opponents with relatively small paramilitary groups backed up by air bombardment. Thus, a review of the fighting over the last two years suggests that its military commanders would not have seen a massive gas attack either as a “game changer” or an option valuable enough to outweigh the likely costs.

Multiple misapprehensions mar the paragraphs above. “Relatively small paramilitary groups” as the main actors of the Assad regime? Nope. “Last ditch stand” in Ghouta? Nope. “Held back its troops”? No.

Reports that the SAA was making ‘significant gains’ do not correspond to the situation in the suburbs of Damascus. Not at the time of writing, and not today. Those places he believes are ‘disputed areas’ are not.

So, what about the enemies of the Assad regime? How might such an attack have been to their advantage?

First, a terrorizing attack might have been thought advantageous because of the effect on people who are either supporting the regime or are passive. There are indications, for example, that large numbers of the pathetic Palestinian refugees are pouring out their camps in yet another “displacement.” The number of Syrian refugees is also increasing. Terror is a powerful weapon and historically and everywhere was often used. Whoever initiated the attack might have thought, like those who initiated the attack on Guernica, the bombing of Rotterdam and the Blitz of London, that the population would be so terrorized that they might give up or at least cower. Then as food shortages and disease spread, the economy would falter. Thus the regime might collapse.

That is speculative, but the second benefit to the rebels of an attack is precisely what has happened: given the propensity to believe everything evil about the Assad regime, daily emphasized by the foreign media, a consensus, at least in America, has been achieved is that it must have been complicit. This consensus should make it possible for outside powers to take action against the regime and join in giving the insurgents the money, arms and training.

Again, the backdrop of events (previous chemical attacks) is partial, poorly supported, and incomplete. And nowhere in the article does Polk give details of what ‘everything evil about the Assad regime’ might mean. Nowhere in the article is an acknowledgement of the escalation of military power by the regime. Cluster-bombs, fuel-air explosives, etc.

What seems to have escaped consideration by Polk is that ‘terror’ could be the aim of the regime.

Clearly, Assad had much to lose and his enemies had much to gain. That conclusion does not prove who did it, but it should give us pause to find conclusive evidence which we do not now have.

I hope that Matthew and Joshua may follow up the Polk article with something more substantial from Polk — or otherwise update us with what Polk thinks now. It would be interesting to see if he would respond to critiques of his articles here.

September 30th, 2013, 3:47 pm


Syrialover said:

SYRIAN HAMSTER #3, OBSERVER #2 and WSS #7 and 21.

You’ve nailed dear old Prof Polk quite well.

After reading his deferential analysis of what’s driving Russia I knew exactly what was coming next. It amounted to what appears to be Polk’s twist to the regime mantra of “Assad or we burn he country” to be “Assad or the country will be burned” (ie any possible alternatives are simply no good and never will be, Syrians are better off with the regime and Russia keeping things going).

He blissfully ignores Iran’s role in the ongoing crisis, including Teheran spending around $200 million a week on military support on the ground for the Assad regime. He also gives us the throwaway line that the Assad regime only developed chemical weapons to counter Israel and never intended them against the population. In reality, those weapons were intended for whoever might threaten the regime, and the regime’s whole premise has always been that its main potential enemy is the Syrian people.

To put “prestige” as only a passing point for Russia’s behaviour inside and outside Syria ignores most of the expert analysis I’ve read. Syria is one big paranoia and ego driven trip for the Putin “leadership” with a foreign policy that has very little concrete value to the interests of the Russian people in the 21st century.

The Russian leadership are primitive-thinking thugs. If they were sincerely worried about keeping their Islamic population sweet they wouldn’t have staged bombings in Moscow and blamed them as part of a tactic to bolster the need for the totalitarian style government now embedded by the Putin crowd.

It’s depressing to get the sense that Polk believes that the Syrian people and those who are concerned about them need to look to Russia for all the best insights and power to rescue things in Syria.

I could go on. But what is missing from Polk’s analysis and others like it is a sense of writing off the Syrian people as a faceless mass. It comes down to the premise that they don’t need or deserve the same things as people in the free world.

(If Polk reads this I hope he also reads some things like this then factors it into any future analysis: “Syria, America and Putin’s bluff” : http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/syria-america-and-putins-bluff?utm_source=freelist-f&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20130910&utm_term=Gweekly&utm_content=logo&elq=9dd0f2bb49054cebae2a228964ca644b)

September 30th, 2013, 4:21 pm


Uzair8 said:

A story in the Mirror I just came across. A poster elsewhere comments:

There has been a fair amount of negative campaigning against this school from both muslims and secularists but its achievements in its short life should make us all proud.

Blackburn faith school tops new league table

The Taheedul Islam Girls High School scooped the accolade for its astonishing success in terms of academic results

29 Sep 2013

A faith school in Blackburn has come top of the class in a new league table of secondary schools.

The Taheedul Islam Girls High School scooped the accolade for its astonishing success in terms of academic results, quality of teaching, and the behaviour and prospects of its pupils.

The new league table ranks more than 3,000 state-funded schools based on more than 20 official government indicators.

The data has been compiled by Trinity Mirror’s data unit and backed by academics as giving a ‘comprehensive’ view of the quality of schools.

The rankings go beyond simple GCSE league tables by taking account a range of other factors.


September 30th, 2013, 5:07 pm


ziad said:

A Syrian solution to civil conflict? The Free Syrian Army is holding talks with Assad’s senior staff

Secret approach to the President could reshape the whole war

Six weeks ago, a two-man delegation arrived in secret in Damascus: civilians from Aleppo who represented elements of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group largely composed of fighters who deserted the regime’s army in the first year of the war. They came under a guarantee of safety, and met, so I am told, a senior official on the staff of President Bashar al-Assad. And they carried with them an extraordinary initiative – that there might be talks between the government and FSA officers who “believed in a Syrian solution” to the war.

The delegation made four points: that there must be an “internal Syrian dialogue”; that private and public properties must be maintained; that there must be an end to – and condemnation of – civil, sectarian, ethnic strife; and that all must work for a democratic Syria where the supremacy of law would be dominant. There was no demand – at least at this stage – for Assad’s departure.

The reply apparently came promptly. There should indeed be “a dialogue within the Syrian homeland”; no preconditions for the dialogue; and a presidential guarantee of safety for any FSA men participating. And now, it seems, another remarkable development is under way: in seven rebel-held areas of Aleppo, most of them under the control of the FSA, civil employees can return to work in their offices, and government institutions and schools can reopen. Students who have become militiamen over the past two years will be disarmed and return to their classrooms.

Some members of the FSA have formed what they call the “National Union for Saving Syria”, although members of the political opposition in areas outside government control disrupted meetings by condemning the government army and, according to those involved in the “Union”, making sectarian comments and condemning Shiites and Iran. Last week there were several defections of FSA units to the al-Qa’ida-linked al-Nusra Front, which has complicated matters still further. If the FSA is prepared to talk to the regime, how many are now left to take part in future agreements between the two sides?


September 30th, 2013, 7:53 pm


ziad said:

Iran Hawks Gear Up

Not everyone shares the optimism surrounding the recent communication between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. From Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Monarchies and, of course, Washington, DC, voices of war are in a panic that tensions between the U.S. and Iran might be reduced by some means other than further devastation of the Islamic Republic.

The concern that Iran might emerge with a better relationship with the United States is quite vexing for the Gulf rulers and for Israel. For some years now, the drive to isolate Iran has focused almost entirely on the nuclear issue. In fact, regionally, much of the concern has been the ascendancy of Iran as a regional player more broadly, with revolutionary rhetoric that challenges the dominance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Since the destruction, by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, of the dual containment policy, the issue for these parties has been how to contain Iran and its regional influence.

Iran has been cast as an “aggressor nation,” and this has been sold by illustrating Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other militant groups, its often bombastic rhetoric, and for the past decade, Iran’s ducking from some of its responsibilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). What gets left out is that Iran has never initiated an attack on another nation, its threats to “wipe Israel off the map” are factually known as (just not in mainstream discourse) to be a de-contextualized mistranslation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s words, and even Iran’s failures with the IAEA have been part of a back and forth exchange, where they refuse or neglect to comply with some things in response to what they see as US-led unfair sanctions or restrictions. That doesn’t mean Iran has not caused some of these problems itself, it has. Lack of transparency on nuclear issues tends to raise the hackles of one’s enemies. But all this has hardly been the one-way street that’s been portrayed.


September 30th, 2013, 8:32 pm


Ghufran said:

$ down to 160 Lira, for how long those greedy merchants can keep prices at the same level when the $ was 260 lira ?
The rhetoric from regime sources and the NC is predictable, for Geneva 2 to have any chance both parties need to compromise but do not expect them to say that in public.
Russia is pleased to see that the nc is reduced to a paper tiger because that makes it easier to pressure them into accepting certain conditions that aim at isolating rebels who will be portrayed as a branch of nusra/ Isis , look at mouallem’s speech and you will see how this PR campaign has started already.
The question is for how long KSA and Turkey can keep supporting rebels when it is now abundantly clear that those rebels, and Assad, are becoming a big hurdle in the face of new efforts to end this war. In my judgement the problem with rebels will be harder than that of Assad’s who will use the rebels refusal to negotiate as a proof that the international community has no reliable partner in Geneva from the opposition side, Assad’s strength today comes from having loyal and committed friends and divided and immature enemies.
Except for Daraa , most of the attacks on the army are coming from Isis and nusra. Jordan is trying to see if the regime will agree to a deal where Daraa, which is increasingly becoming rebel- controlled, is allowed to receive refugees ( returning from Jordan) as long as the FSA agrees not to attack Damascus, I remain skeptical because previous arrangements were always derailed after Islamists and independent FSA groups refused to stop where they should.

September 30th, 2013, 9:00 pm


mjabali said:

William R. Polk said:

” Not to go on, let me just predict that the already unstable area will throb with anger, frustration, armed conflict, terrorism and revanchism.”

Thanks to the thumbs up and down king for entertaining us.

September 30th, 2013, 10:33 pm


omen said:

7. William Scott Scherk said: Too bad Polk was unable to update his essay since he wrote it. I think both Joshua and Matthew are fatigued with writing for the blog.

just an idea. other blogs put up an occasional “open thread” for readers. or a lightly loaded misc post. that might relieve some pressure from constantly having to keep the blog rolling.

October 1st, 2013, 12:14 am


omen said:

i miss majedkhaldoun. he was good at dispatching regimists with a swipe of a ragged cuticle, in 20 words or less – shaolin warrior style.

plus, he would generously share with us delicious insider info.

can he come back, please???

khaldoun, can’t you log on via another computer or tablet? (how does one beat an IP block?) please don’t take it personally, stay mad and refuse to post.

he was here before i began posting. surely seniority wins you some leniency.

he volunteered to do relief work for refugees! doesn’t that count for something?

free majed! free majed!

October 1st, 2013, 12:54 am


Uzair8 said:

29. Omen said:

“i miss majedkhaldoun.”

Yes. Majed’s spirit lives on here on SC…

..We Will Win (WWW)!

I wonder if Majed’s gone over to Off The Wall? Last week I was gonna check but forgot to.

He’ll be back In Sha Allah. He’ll be with us to welcome the upcoming victory.

October 1st, 2013, 5:06 am


habib said:

9. omen

Lol, they aired a long interview with Michel Aoun a few days ago. Don’t get your hopes up, they’re just showing both sides, contrary to Western and Gulf media.

October 1st, 2013, 1:15 pm


Friend in America said:

2 motives for the CW attack on Aug 21:
Tactical: the road connecting the offices of the central government and the military airport runs through the middle of one of the target suburbs. The road is lined in places with mid rise buildings thus making tanks and other vehicles vulnerable. The government’s advantage in fire power is minimized. Despite 15 months of siege fighting Assad’s forces have been unable to drive the rebels out. There have been enough minor assaults with Sarin in the past 15 months to allow family members to conclude the use of a larger quantity would also not stir up international alarm. That was a misjudgment.
Strategic: the attack sends a message to citizenry throughout the country that if you support the rebels this could happen to you.

The Decision Makers – the Family Council: Bashar chairs because he is President, Mahar the most violent, mother the most influential and a very hard liner, the brother in law who tended to domestic affairs (and skimming) and one other. Mahar was nearly killed 2 years ago by a bomb and has not been seen since. My supposition is he is disfigured but continues to play a very active role heading all domestic security forces. He is the political leader of the 3 army divisions used in the fighting, all domestic intelligence units (air force intelligence seems the most brutal) and the militia. He is impulsive, and will act on his own. His judgement on when to bring a proposed action to the family council is questionable. My conclusion is Mahar is a sociopath. Historians may discover Mahar ordered the August CW attack on his own.

Will the Assad regime violate, even ignore, provisions of any agreement being worked out by US, Russia and others? The answer is yes whenever the family council deems it necessary to protect the family’s control over the country. Their reasoning process is not the process in Professor Polk’s essay.

Russia is not the #2 world power. It is declining to just 1 of the 4 major world powers. its influence on the world stage is diminishing. This bothers Putin terribly. Negotiating Syria’s CW’s is a great opportunity to boost Russia’s influence in the ME, a region too close to home to ignore. Further, Putin does not want stockpiles of Serin gas fall into the hands of Muslim extremists in Syria.

Is US oil and natural gas a problem for Russia? Contrary to some of the comments in this thread, this is a developing major economic problem. Natural gas production in North America currently exceeds domestic demand. Natural gas from North American sources therefore has entered the world market in such quantity that the world price for natural gas has declined and will decline further until the imbalance between world supply and world demand acquires a new equilibrium. The forecast of oil production in North America (and reducing demand) indicates North America might become an oil exporter within 5 years. These are troubling events for Russia because Russia’s economy relies heavily on exports of commodities, oil and natural gas being the major components. Lower world prices means lower income for Russia. The high level of commerce between Russia and its neighbors tend to mask the pending trouble.

In many respects whatever agreement Russia and the U.S. work out will be ineffective if Iran’s role in Syria is not ended or marginalized. General Sueleman of the Quds Force, who with his select officers, who has done a remarkable job in training, reorganizing command and control and establishing strategic goals for Assad’s defense, takes his orders from Teheran not Damascus. Iran’s investment in keeping the Assad government in place is greater than Iran can continue under the sanctions. A detante between Iran and the U.S. that lifts the sanctions will allow Iran to continue proping up Assad. If the sanctions continue, serious financial problems for Damascus that imperil Assad’s capacity to continue the fight will arise within 15 to 24 months.

October 1st, 2013, 7:48 pm


Richard said:

US News and World mentions a comprehensive, transparent probablistic analysis of the Ghouta events by Rootclaim which says that it is 92% likely that the attack was carried out by opposition forces.

See https://www.rootclaim.com/claims/who-carried-out-the-chemical-attack-in-ghouta-on-august-21-2013-8394

and the original report: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-12-06/anti-fraud-experts-launch-news-accuracy-site-find-us-probably-blamed-wrong-side-for-syria-chemical-attack

December 15th, 2016, 4:12 am


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