Poison gas attack in Syria by insurgents?

Who can benefit from the use of chemical weapons in Syria? One of Europe’s most outstanding experts on the Middle East, Professor Guenter Meyer, takes a look into this essential question in a counter-position to the completely one-sided press comments on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

By Prof. Guenter Meyer, Translation Lars Schall

In addition to the following article we also would like to recommend to read an exclusive in-depth interview with Prof Guenter Meyer for Asia Times Online related to the Syrian civil war and its international dimensions, “On Syria and way beyond“.

Professor Dr Guenter Meyer has for almost 40 years carried out empirical research on the social, economic and political development in Arab countries and has published more than 150 books and articles, especially on Syria, Egypt, Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. He directs the Center for Research on the Arab World at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, which is one of the world’s leading information centers for the dissemination of news and research on the Middle East. Professor Meyer is chairman of the German Middle East Studies Association (DAVO), president of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES), and chairman of the International Advisory Council of the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES).

Poison gas attack in Syria by insurgents?

by Prof. Dr. Guenter Meyer

The intelligence services of the United States, Britain, France and Israel are in agreement that small amounts of the nerve agent sarin have been used in the Syrian civil war. And most of the Western media are also in agreement that the Syrian regime must be responsible for it because it has extensive stocks of chemical weapons.

But who can benefit from the use of chemical weapons? Certainly not the Syrian government! It is highly unlikely that the regime would in the present situation take such a measure, which is irrelevant for the achievement of military objectives and with the crossing of the “red line” set by President Obama would only provoke a massive intervention by Western states. The use of lethal nerve gas is exactly the signal for which the insurgents have been waiting to reinforce their demands for weapons supplies from abroad. Thus, it is obvious that a chemical attack solely benefits the insurgents, while the position of the Syrian regime deteriorates seriously.

Already in June 2012, there were detailed press reports in the Arab media, whereupon poison gas attacks were prepared by the rebels in Syria, for which then the Assad government should be held responsible. Therefore, the arguments are quite convincing that the recent poison gas inserts were staged by opposition forces. This is intended to put pressure on the Obama administration and NATO so that finally even officially weapons can be delivered to the insurgents.

The reference to the arsenal of chemical weapons that the Syrian government possesses is not an argument against nerve gas used by the insurgents. Given the extremely limited local use, the probability is high that it was the opposition who has carried out the poison gas attack on the village of Khan al-Assal north of Aleppo, in order to make the government responsible. An attack by government forces would be completely absurd, because this settlement was on the side of the regime. The vast majority of the local population are Shiites who are strong supporters of the Syrian government and are threatened by the Sunni insurgent. It has also not even been disputed by the rebels that soldiers of the regular Syrian army were among the victims of the chemical attack. What sense would it make for the regime to attack a settlement with nerve gas which is hold by government forces and inhabited by supporters of Bashar al-Assad?

Therefore, the recent statement by the Syrian information minister is quite credible that the sarin grenade that was used in the attack was brought from nearby Turkey to the area occupied by opposition forces and fired from there to the village. A direct involvement of Turkish forces – and thus of NATO troops – cannot be ruled out. Media reports have suggested that Turkish troops are fighting in the same region together with the Free Syrian Army and the jihadists of the Nusrah Front in order to take over the strategic Ming airfield, which is so far still held by government troops.

The poison gas attack would precisely match the strategy of the „massacre marketing“ that was practiced by the rebels during the civil war over and over. By doing this, oppositional sources spread information that the government forces, in particular the Shabiha, are responsible for the gruesome killings of civilians, including women and children. It is obvious that in many cases opposition forces committed brutal crimes against civilians only to blame the government for those massacres. With this strategy, they tried to manipulate public opinion and influence political decisions against the Syrian regime. It is likely that the use of poison gas revives exactly this familiar pattern again.

It is very important to keep in mind that the Assad government has called for the immediate deployment of a UN Commission of Experts, in order to prove that the insurgents are responsible for this crime. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, however, the UN Secretariat was only willing to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria if the regime in Damascus would accept a permanent mechanism of inspection of the entire Syrian territory – from the Syrian point of view a completely exaggerated and under present conditions unrealizable demand. So it’s reasonable to assume that the so-called „Friends of Syria“, which stand for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, used their influence in the UN Secretariat to prevent this way that opposition forces are held responsible for the dead and injured of the poison gas attack.

Against this background, the hesitant attitude of President Obama is legitimate, who refuses yet to comply with the particular requirements of the Republicans and the Syrian opposition to supply arms and to establish a no-fly zone. After the invasion of Iraq was based on false claims of a threat of weapons of mass destruction, the international reputation of the United States would be damaged even more if it turns out that a tougher crackdown on the Syrian government is also based on false accusations.

For now, it just seems proven that poison gas was used on a small scale in Syria. However, there’s no clear evidence whether the government or the insurgents are responsible. All rational considerations, however, indicate that this crime can be attributed to the opposition.

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