Trudy Rubin: The games Assad plays

Syrian President Bashar Assad insists rebels unleashed chemical weapons.
Syrian President Bashar Assad insists rebels unleashed chemical weapons.

The Syrian government’s continued denial that it gassed its people — in the face of stark evidence to the contrary — reminds me of a chilling experience I had in Damascus in 1982.

Rumors were flying that the regime of Hafez al-Assad had massacred at least 10,000 people in the city of Hama, but the government wouldn’t let anyone near the site. As I waited in the office of Information Minister Ahmed Iskandar Ahmed, I was stunned to see a large painting on the wall portraying Hama’s historic city center, with its famous water wheel in the foreground; this was the exact area that had been obliterated by government shells.

When the minister emerged, I inquired about the painting.

“That is our beautiful city of Hama,” he replied with a straight face. “Many tourists visit it. You should, too, some day.”

Shelling? What shelling? He knew that I knew that he was lying, but he stuck to his story.

When it comes to killing his own people, nothing has changed under the regime of Assad’s son, Bashar. Like Iskandar, Assad (and his Russian backers) will peddle self-serving lies with a straight face. The forensic data in last week’s report by United Nations inspectors indicates that elite regime units gassed their own people. The large size and payload of the sarin-filled rockets are far beyond what the rebels are known to possess or able to handle.

(Some rebels might conceivably have obtained, or even used, small amounts of chemical weapons — although there is no evidence that this has happened — but would have nothing of this size.)

Most damning, the angle from which the rockets were fired (which the U.N. experts were able to determine) indicates the missiles came from key government bases, in tightly controlled areas that rebels could not have penetrated. U.S. satellite images reportedly confirm the data in the U.N. report.

Yet Assad and his Russian backers still insist the Aug. 21 attack was the work of rebels. Russia is already trying to undermine the U.N. findings. These blanket denials signal clearly that Assad won’t destroy all his chemical weapons — as called for by a U.S.-Russian framework accord announced last week. Nor will the Russians endorse a tough U.N. Security Council resolution that promises punishment if he fails. In fact, the Russians must insist on Assad’s innocence in order to defend their refusal to brand him a war criminal.

A French draft resolution called for the Security Council to refer Assad to the International Criminal Court for war crimes, which could weaken his hold on power. Any resolution containing a request for such a referral faces a certain Russian veto, so it will probably be dropped.

The Russians continue to insist the sarin attack on Aug. 21 was “fabricated” by rebels. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has cited “lots of evidence delivered by independent experts online,” but the evidence is vague at best, and even bizarre. One such “expert” is a Lebanese Carmelite nun who is pro-Assad and frequently quoted in Russian media: She was not near the attack, but insists online that rebels kidnapped children and gassed them at East Ghouta.

Other Russian “evidence” can be traced back to fringe websites such as the conspiracy-minded, which runs unsourced pieces under banner headlines such as: “Did the White House help plan the Syrian chemical attack?”

And some “evidence” is based on outright distortion and doctored videos. Respected British security analyst and blogger Eliot Higgins (known as Brown Moses) posted three videos purporting to show that the rebels were guilty, and then detailed why he suspected the videos had been doctored. He was shocked to learn that Russia Today, a government-backed news channel, used his post to claim that he backed the thesis that rebels had launched the Aug. 21 attack.

I still believe the Russians (acting in their own self-interest) did President Obama a favor by saving him from an embarrassing congressional rejection of an ill-conceived military strike. A flawed process of chemical disarmament is preferable to a flawed strike, but it must be recognized for what it is — a delaying tactic designed by Moscow to keep Assad in power.

Russia’s narrative of Assad’s innocence is meant to ensure that neither Western arms nor diplomacy unseats him.

Anyone who hopes that the disarmament deal might lead to serious Syrian peace negotiations — which would produce a transitional government without Assad — is indulging in self-delusion; neither Damascus nor Moscow is willing.

What, me a war criminal? Nonsense, says Assad.

He will keep saying it with a straight face as he hides some containers of sarin as backup insurance, while giving up just enough so that the U.N. inspections keep going on, and on, and on.

©2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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