At first glance, it would seem mildly insane for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to have unleashed a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people east of Damascus on Wednesday. Yet evidence suggests he has done just that.
The central fact giving this alleged act its color of insanity is the arrival of U.N. weapons inspectors arrived in-country over the weekend, for the very purpose of determining whether those kinds of weapons had been used in any of a series of previous incidents. Add to that the oxygen-sucking effects on international attention exerted in recent weeks by the ongoing uproar over U.S. surveillance programs to the democratic crisis in Egypt and the renewed prospects for some movement on the Israel/Palestine peace process. So why risk inviting fresh scrutiny to his own autocratic ways?
The answer is simple: Assad sincerely does not believe the West will stop him from doing anything he pleases to crush the years-old Sunni uprising — especially if it means the easing of regional inflammation that has already begun to take place across the Lebanese border. A chemical weapons attack under such circumstances would be as much a P.R. assault on the U.N. (and the U.S. and its allies) as a military blow aimed at anti-regime forces (one that hit a number of civilians, as well).
As with previous alleged incidents of chemical weapons use by the regime, nothing is entirely certain at this point — and given that Assad will likely not permit the U.N. team to add this latest site to their agenda, probably will remain that way. But U.S. intelligence and other officials lean strongly in the direction that this was a flagrant use of chemical warfare. So if the red line U.S. President Barack Obama laid out for taking more aggressive action in Syria about a year ago still exists in some form, surely it has been crossed for good here — and the world can expect Obama to revisit the prospect of a no-fly zone or some other form of aggressive intervention, right?
Maybe. But the White House thus far has refused to go beyond calling for another probe. “Today, we are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation,” said spokesman Josh Earnest. In other words, more of the same. Unless the Obama administration and E.U. find some way to counter the perception that they are powerless to prevent gruesome tactics of this nature by the regime, the attack will have achieved its other propaganda purpose: to tell the anti-Assad forces that no-one is coming to save them.