Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on his war-torn nation was slipping this week, as President Obama warned the increasingly desperate regime that it would be “held accountable” if it deployed chemical weapons against its own people. Obama issued that warning after intelligence agencies reported that the regime was preparing its arsenal of nerve agents for use amid signs that the 20-month-old war could be turning against it. Street battles raged in Damascus’s suburbs, and rebels closed the highway to the capital’s international airport. Opposition fighters also overran a military base near Aleppo, acquiring a stash of surface-to-air missiles that could neutralize the government’s air power advantage. An influential Russian political analyst said Assad had told Russian emissaries he had lost all hope of retaining power, so was now fighting for “his physical survival.’’
“Assad faces an impossible dilemma,” said David Blair in Telegraph.co.uk. From his point of view, the only rational reason for using these weapons would be if his downfall seemed inevitable—which it is. But that would trigger a U.S.-led intervention, sealing his fate. “So rationality dictates that he should not use these weapons under any circumstances.” But this bloodthirsty tyrant, shielded from reality by his criminal entourage, may no longer be capable of rational thinking.
Assad isn’t the only player we have to worry about, said Bennett Ramberg in Reuters.com. If his regime collapses, al Qaida or Hezbollah terrorists might rush in and grab chemical weapons. Washington could ask rebels “to safeguard any chemical depots they overrun,” but it’s unclear whether Islamists in the opposition can be trusted. U.S. special operations forces, backed up by air power, could be sent in to eliminate this deadly stockpile.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, said The Guardian (U.K.) in an editorial. This war isn’t over yet. The rebels—who mostly hail from Syria’s Sunni majority—aren’t strong enough to take Damascus, “but nor are they in any mood to withdraw.” And the 80,000 troops defending the city—many of them members of the Alawite minority—won’t surrender, out of fear they’ll lose their property and lives if the regime falls. Even if Assad himself does not survive, Syria still faces a final showdown of a “profoundly sectarian nature.”