Last week, President Obama issued another warning to Syria's embattled dictator against making the "tragic mistake" of using chemical weapons (CW). There remain a number of real scenarios in which we could see Bashar al-Assad use these weapons down the road. But whether he does so any time soon or not, Washington's reaction to his latest trial balloon with chemical weapons provided him with the answers he sought at this point. The White House's response has likely, if inadvertently, emboldened Assad to continue to wield the threat of using CW, if not really use them. Here's the strategic upside as Assad sees it.
The Syrian president realizes that his chemical arsenal is the ace up his sleeve. From the beginning of the Syrian revolution, it was amply demonstrated to him that his CW capability separated him from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Syria is not Libya, the mantra went. The usual justification pointed to Assad's air defenses, but it's clear that the major reason was precisely Syria's CW stockpile. Assad understood that his deterrent worked.
Moreover, Assad figured that as long as he held this card, he would remain politically relevant. This was reinforced by the public messages the Obama administration kept sending him.
Assad's stunt last week wasn't the first time he tested the waters by moving chemical weapons around. In July, U.S. intelligence noted such movement and declared that it would "hold accountable" those responsible. Then, in a curiously worded statement, the administration said that it expected "the Syrian government ... to safeguard its stockpiles."
The U.S. position was contradictory. A year earlier Obama said Assad had lost legitimacy and called on him to "step aside." And now the U.S. was asking him to maintain control and safeguard these CW sites.
Assad put his finger on the essential incoherence of Washington's policy. He smelled that the U.S. was still not certain about the endgame in Syria. In as much as the U.S. wanted him to go, it remained uneasy about what would come next. Assad understood, therefore, that Washington had a fear he could exploit, perhaps giving him a bargaining position down the road, as regime-controlled territory contracted.
In addition, this episode proved to Assad that playing around with chemical weapons could grab Obama's attention as it seemed nothing else could, not even the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians. In other words, Assad figured he had leverage on the U.S. Up until that point, Obama had made very few statements on Syria. But a month later, in August, the U.S. president directly addressed the situation. Although his comments at the time were viewed as a stern warning to the regime, a closer reading shows why Assad saw an opening to keep pushing.
"We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people," Obama said. This reinforced the State Department's wording, emphasizing that the problem was not the fact that these weapons were under the control of Assad, a man who had ordered the slaughter of Syrians, facilitated the killing of Americans in Iraq, supported terrorism throughout the Levant and constructed a secret nuclear arms facility. Rather, the problem was the prospective loss of his control over these arms. Indeed, a senior administration official emphasized to the New York Times that Mr. Obama's warning "was aimed at large-scale transfers of weapons that would make them vulnerable to capture by radical forces, not movements by the government intended to secure the arsenal."
Even Obama's "red line" was not aimed exclusively at Assad, but also at "other players on the ground," presumably those same "radical forces." The red line covered further "moving around" of CW as well as their possible use.
But a month later, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that CW were being moved again. However, he added that the regime was relocating them in order to better secure them. So, although Assad had clearly defied Obama's red line, Assad still got a pass, setting the stage for this month's episode.