Something strange happened on Monday. The Assad regime came out and publicly declared that they had chemical weapons and were willing to use them against any state willing to intervene in Syria’s internal war. On the one hand this wasn’t surprising — desperate regimes often throw out desperate threats in an attempt to hold on to power. If Assad can convince the international community to stay out of Syria, he has some chance of maintaining control.
What was surprising was how the opposition responded. That same day the Free Syrian Army not only confirmed that the Syrian government had chemical weapons, but they asserted that the government had moved the weapons to key locations along the Syrian border. This reaction appeared to enhance the credibility of Assad’s threat. Why would the opposition do anything to seemingly help their enemy?
The Free Syrian Army didn’t help Assad, they called his very bad bluff. As soon as Asad’s spokesman publicly issued its threat, the opposition likely knew that the regime had made a big strategic mistake. The FSA knew – as much of the world will soon realize – that the threat to use chemical weapons would not only be ineffective, but would backfire. This threat is ineffective because chemical weapons are subject to atmospheric conditions and are difficult to deliver, making them notoriously difficult to use and are therefore not particularly threatening to sophisticated militaries. The threat is also not credible since Assad risks an even worse outcome if Syria’s chemical weapons get into the hands of his numerous domestic enemies. Assad is safer with his chemical weapons arsenal safe in their secure locations and not moved around.
This is why the Free Syrian Army was so quick to capitalize on this mistake. Not only does Assad’s threat to use chemical weapons not likely deter outside intervention, but it will almost certainly incite the ire of the international community even further. The more the world believes that Assad is a monster willing to use chemical weapons, the more likely they are to push for his removal. Threatening to use chemical weapons against countries like the United States, therefore, serves no positive purpose for Assad. It won’t deter intervention, and is only likely to isolate him even more.
One puzzle remains: why would Assad’s spokesman make such an announcement if it only undercuts the regime? The best answer I have is that it represents a poorly thought out strategy by a regime dealing with rapidly changing and deteriorating events. The take-away from this is not that Assad will actually use chemical weapons, but that he is increasingly grasping at straws to try to hold his regime together.