Is Assad a Rational Actor?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

On Monday at Focal Points, I wrote about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad invoking logic to refute the charges that his government carried out chemical-weapon attacks. He pointed out in an interview with Izvestia reported on by the New York Times that

… government troops would have risked killing their own forces if they had used chemical weapons. “This contradicts elementary logic,” news reports quoted him as saying. It is “not us but our enemies who are using chemical weapons,” he said, referring to antigovernment rebels as “the terrorists.”

I wrote:

Bearing in mind that just because he invokes logic doesn’t necessarily mean Assad actually isn’t capable of acting irrationally. But, remember, the area subjected to clouds of poison gas was the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, also his home. Though I’m unfamiliar with drift patterns of poison gas, putting Damascus, himself, and his family in possible harm’s way would make him obstinate to the nth degree, not to mention self-destructive, on top of irrational. We’re talking about Hitler territory.

In the same vein, at Reuters, Alexandra Hudson wrote on Tuesday, bearing in mind that the PYD has cooperated with the Assad regime in the past:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not be “so stupid” as to use chemical weapons close to Damascus, the leader of the country’s largest Kurdish group said.

Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said he doubted the Syrian president would resort to using such weapons when he felt he had the upper hand in the country’s civil war.

… “The regime in Syria … has chemical weapons, but they wouldn’t use them around Damascus, 5 km from the (U.N.) committee which is investigating chemical weapons. Of course they are not so stupid as to do so,” Muslim told Reuters.

At the time of the incident, U.N. experts were already in Syria to investigate three previous alleged chemical attacks dating from months ago.

Besides the attacks’ proximity to inspectors, Syrian troops, and Damascus, talk of Western military intervention had been quieting down, especially with the momentum on the side of the Syrian military. David Gardner of the Financial Times (behind a pay wall) adds to the discussion about Assad’s logic.

… many Syria-watchers are still puzzled as to why the Assads would do this. After months on the military ropes, they are on a roll. Since the fall of Qusair in June, and the recapture of the Homs Gap in an offensive led by Hizbollah, the Iran-allied, Lebanese Shia paramilitaries, Damascus has gone on the offensive. The overt commitment of Iran and Hizbollah, along with Russia’s diplomatic shield at the UN Security Council, shows that the Friends of the Assads deliver.

Thus

Logic suggests it would be insane for the regime to fire chemical shells across its beleaguered capital just as UN chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Damascus. But whose logic is operating here? By dismissing rebel charges that loyalist forces committed this war crime as “illogical”, the Assads merely repeat the standard cui bono argument they have wheeled out after almost every atrocity and assassination they have perpetrated over the past four decades: how could it be them if they are the ones who would obviously be blamed?

Notie how Gardner refers refers to the “Assads,” instead of just “Assad.” Maybe Assad’s wife Asma calls the shots when it comes to chemical-weapon attacks. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Still, as I wrote Monday:

While it’s doubtful the opposition launched the attacks, one can’t help but wonder if, directly or by discrete suggestion, he delegated such authority to generals in order for him to maintain plausible deniability. If cornered, Assad can claim rogue elements of the military were responsible and, without immediately naming names, promise to investigate.

Meanwhile, at IPS, Gareth Porter reports:

After initially insisting that Syria give United Nations investigators unimpeded access to the site of an alleged nerve gas attack, the administration of President Barack Obama reversed its position on Sunday and tried unsuccessfully to get the U.N. to call off its investigation.

The administration’s reversal, which came within hours of the deal reached between Syria and the U.N., was reported by the Wall Street Journal Monday and effectively confirmed by a State Department spokesperson later that day.

In his press appearance Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry, who intervened with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to call off the investigation, dismissed the U.N. investigation as coming too late to obtain valid evidence on the attack that Syrian opposition sources claimed killed as many 1,300 people.

But

Specialists on chemical weapons also suggested in interviews with IPS that the U.N. investigating team, under a highly regarded Swedish specialist Ake Sellstom and including several experts borrowed from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, should be able to either confirm or disprove the charge of an attack with nerve or another chemical weapon within a matter of days.

“The sudden reversal and overt hostility toward the U.N. investigation,” Porter writes, “suggests that the administration sees the U.N. as hindering its plans for an attack.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Porter again.

The administration’s effort to discredit the investigation recalls the George W. Bush administration’s rejection of the position of U.N. inspectors in 2002 and 2003 after they found no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the administration’s refusal to give inspectors more time to fully rule out the existence of an active Iraqi WMD programme.

Not to mention those who only rattle the saber more loudly now that Iran has elected a president whose extending the olive branch to the West. When it comes to logic, though, war has its own and human life is not part of its calculus.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.