26
Aug

Posted by Dexter Filkins

This time it’s different.

ghouta-syria-580

For months, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria, has been suspected of using chemical weapons against the rebels who are trying to remove him, in violation of international treaties and the Obama Administration’s threats. Syrian opposition groups say that Assad has used chemical weapons as many as thirty-five times, often with low concentrations of sarin gas. In each case, the attack appears to have been intended to cause as much panic as death, and without provoking a Western response. The result—carefully calculated by the Assad regime, no doubt—is that the death toll from chemical weapons has been kept low. In June, Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, said that between a hundred and a hundred and fifty people had been killed in all of the gas attacks together. This, in a fratricidal war that has killed more than a hundred thousand people.

But Wednesday’s early-morning attack appears to be something very different in scale. According to reports from the scene, four large rockets landed in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta at just after 2 A.M. This time, the gas appeared to be more concentrated: on Thursday, the Syrian Support Group, a rebel advocacy organization in Washington, put the death toll at 1,302, with nearly ten thousand others contaminated. Two-thirds of the dead were women and children, the group said. You don’t have to believe the Syrian Support Group, but a look at videos posted on the Internet—here, here, and here—seems to support their account, and suggest that something new and terrible is happening in Syria.

The Assad government denied it had carried out the attack, as it has on previous occasions, suggesting that the allegations reflect desperation on the part of the rebels. The Russian government blamed the rebels, accusing them of trying to create a pretext for Western intervention; at the same time, the Russians urged Assad to coöperate with U.N. inspectors, who are inside the country. (The Obama Administration has continued to maintain that the rebels do not have any chemical-weapons capability.)

If the S.S.G.’s account is confirmed, which could take some time, the question is: What can be done? A year ago, President Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute the crossing of a “red line” that would trigger a more vigorous American response. At the time, it appeared that the Assad regime was teetering, that the rebels were closing in. Since then, Assad, whose position grew stronger thanks, in large measure, to military support from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, has called Obama’s bluff. In June, the Assad regime declared that it had recaptured Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, which serves as a principal conduit for Hezbollah guns and missiles coming from Iran. The same month, Rhodes declared that the White House had “high confidence” that Assad had used chemical weapons “several” times. The President’s advisers let it be known that the President had decided to change his policy—that the U.S. would begin sending small arms and ammunition to the rebels. That is, rifles and bullets. It was the least Obama could do while still changing his policy, and insufficient to help the rebels win. Indeed, there is no evidence that American weapons of any sort have even started to arrive. Read more…

As published in www.newyorker.com on August 23, 2013.

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