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Propaganda war

Kersten Knipp / bkAugust 22, 2013

The Syrian opposition has claimed once again that the Bashar al-Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own people. But a gas attack would not fit in with the president's strategy so far, say analysts.

Free Syrian Army fighters walk past damaged buildings and debris in Deir al-Zor August 20, 2013. Picture taken August 20, 2013. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Syrien Rebellen berichten von Giftgasangriff im Region GhoutaImage: Reuters

Coincidence, or deliberate provocation? Just as the UN weapons inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use by the government, the opposition groups have reported more use of such weapons.

If the charges prove to be true, the conflict in Syria has escalated to a new level - more than 1,300 people are said to have been killed, and hundreds more injured, in a chemical attack near the capital Damascus. That, at least, is what the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces said in its official press release.

People, affected by what activists say is nerve gas, are treated at a hospital in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013. Syrian activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of launching a nerve gas attack on rebel-held districts near Damascus on Wednesday that they said killed more than 200 people. There was no immediate comment from Syrian authorities, who have denied using chemical weapons during the country's two-year conflict, and have accused rebels of using them, which the rebels deny. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Syrian rebels say there was a nerve gas attack in the Ghouta regionImage: Reuters

'Not intimidation, but eradication'

The allegation was repeated by Hisham Marwah, one of the spokesmen for this alliance of the Syrian opposition, in response to a DW question. "According to our information, at least 800 people were killed," he said. "And at least 1,000 more have sustained physical injuries in these attacks."

George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, also confirmed agency reports of the attacks. "This time, the regime did not want to intimidate the people, but eradicate them," he told Reuters in Istanbul. But there is no independent confirmation that the attacks happened.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry, for its part, told the country's state media agency SANA that the opposition's accusations were false. The government said that opposition "terrorists" had been concerned about the agreement struck between Syria and the international community to investigate the use of weapons of mass destruction. For that reason, this new report, the regime claimed, had been timed to discredit the government.

Motives unclear

Margret Johannsen, Middle East expert at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at Hamburg University, said the exact circumstances of the attacks needed to be established first.

It was, she said, still unclear who had carried them out. Should they truly be the work of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, it would mean he had radically changed his strategy. "At the moment, I can't see a sensible reason why he would use chemical weapons, from the point of view of the regime," Johannsen told DW.

This was especially true because the US had publicly called the use of chemical weapons a "red line" in the conflict. Should the regime really have resorted to using them, it would have to expect the West to take stronger measures - "up to and including air intervention." Moreover, because of its military superiority, the Assad regime would hardly have needed to use such weapons, she argued: "This would go against the rationality of the regime up until now."

Oliver Thränert, director of the Zurich-based think tank Center for Security Studies, agrees - though he admits the Syrian regime runs one of the most modern chemical programs in the world. "Now in particular, when Assad seems to have re-consolidated his power, he would be ill-advised to put a major chemical weapons attack back on the agenda," he said.

Assad unimpressed?

Hisham Marwah sees it differently. He considers it completely plausible that the Assad regime should use chemical weapons - precisely because the regime is currently in a dominant position. Wednesday's attack was, he says, a message to the world that it was not impressed with the "red line" threats. "It signals that the regime is prepared to go to great lengths to kill the Syrian population and stop the revolution," he said.

A picture taken on April 26, 2013 shows smoke rising after shelling in Houla in Syria's Homs province. The opposition National Coalition has accused the regime of using chemical weapons in the northern province of Aleppo, in Homs in central Syria, and in rebel-held areas near Damascus. AFP PHOTO/MAYSARA AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read MAYSARA AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
The opposition says Assad unleashed chemical weapons in Aleppo tooImage: MAYSARA AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images

John Hart, director of the chemical and biological weapons research group at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), does not want to jump to any conclusions. The previous claims, he said, which have neither been proved or disproved, that Assad had used chemical weapons can only be seen in the context of the entire conflict. "There are two contradictory stories of the use of chemical weapons. One from the Syrian government, the other from opposition forces," he said. Both sides spin the story according to their own political interests.

Propaganda war

For that reason, Johannsen does not want to exclude the possibility that Wednesday's attack has been used mainly for propaganda purposes. "Any of the combatant parties that want to provoke the West into military intervention could be tempted to carry out such an attack as an 'agent provocateur'," she said. "I'm not saying that's what happened. I'm just saying that such calculations are not impossible in bitter struggles where all scruples have been abandoned."

The UN inspectors are obliged to limit their investigations to three specific areas - which do not include the locations of the recent attacks. As long as the origins of these attacks have not been clarified, the propaganda war surrounding them will continue.