Here we go again. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons – most likely sarin – against civilians in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province in northern Syria on Tuesday. Images of the aftermath bore the hallmarks of this type of attack: victims violently convulsing, frothing at the mouth, and displaying unresponsive contracted pupils. Dozens of people, including many children, are believed to have died after the toxic substance spread following a bombing raid by warplanes.
All of this evokes memories of 2013, when Assad used sarin – a colourless and odourless substance that attacks the nervous system and is regarded as weapon of mass destruction- against the citizens of Ghouta, an opposition held district in the suburbs of Damascus.
Though Assad has been using chlorine gas, a less potent chemical weapon, in recent months, it may seem strange for him to resort to sarin at this moment, given that momentum is on his side in the conflict. After all, he recaptured Aleppo, the second biggest city, in December, and continues to consolidate control along the Syria’s western corridor, where the country’s most important towns and cities are located.
But to follow this logic is to misunderstand the strategic mindset of the Assad regime which, although guided by an overriding vision, does not conform to convention. Indeed, had it done so, the regime would probably have long been overthrown.
From the outset, Assad has followed an approach that is best known to Western observers as the strategy of “ultra-violence” used by Islamic State. Put simply, this is an approach that builds an asymmetry of fear through the use of brutal methods.
Islamic State has perhaps used this tactic most effectively, employing horrific modes of torture against their enemies. The objective is to intimidate their opponents by showing their willingness to use barbaric methods – such as filmed beheadings or the burning of prisoners, in Isis’s case – against those who defy them.
This is the broader strategic context in which Tuesday’s attack in Idlib province should also be understood. On any given day, the regime kills just as many (if not more) civilians with its varied arsenal of cluster munitions and barrel bombs. But the brazen use of sarin – stockpiles of which Assad was supposed to have surrendered to the United Nations in 2014 – will do much more to spread fear and increase disillusionment and a sense of powerless among his opponents, and the civilians among which they live.
The use of “ultra-violence” by Assad is not new. In the first days of the Syrian crisis, in 2011, peaceful demonstrators were shot in the streets. After that didn’t quash the uprising, thousands of protesters and their families were arrested, and disappeared into the regime’s web of subterranean torture chambers.
When videos of medieval-style abuse emerged – including the “dulab” (where prisoners are doubled-over and forced into a tyre, before being beaten), or “falaqa” (where the legs of a prisoners are bound together and immobilised, exposing the soles of their feet to caning) – it was no accident. The regime was hoping to revive the “wall of fear” on which the Assad dynasty has perpetuated its rule since 1971, when Bashar’s father became president.
In a final bid to quell the nascent uprising in 2012, Bashar-al Assad besieged the district of Baba Amr in Homs and shelled it remorselessly for over a month. Hundreds were killed – among them the celebrated Sunday Times journalist, Marie Colvin. Again, Assad was giving a quite deliberate preview of what would follow should the Syrian rebels fail to comply.
Attacks like Tuesday’s are therefore not the irrational flailings of a confused regime. They are the product of a careful and deliberate policy which has, at every stage of the crisis, sought to raise the cost of defiance. Today, Idlib is among the last remaining rebel strongholds and so its people must pay the price, just as hundreds of thousands have before them.
Already, Russia – Syria’s most important military backer – has blamed rebels for the chemical attack, and will do its utmost to prevent any meaningful outcome from the emergency UN Security Council meeting called today.
All of this underscores the utility of “ultra-violence” for Assad who – after Obama failed to enforce his so-called “red lines” over the use of chemical weapons in 2013 – has learned that the cost of subjecting his people to the most horrific of war crimes is very cheap indeed.