By Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies–
No one can deny the horrifying nature of images of babies and children that have been killed by nerve gas. It is critical, however, that these images be kept in perspective. This is only one atrocity among many in the history of the Syrian civil war since 2011, and in the history of the Assad regime. Assad has used poison gas many times before, and while nerve gas is the most lethal deployed form of chemical weapons, it kills relatively quickly and mercifully compared to the chlorine gas the Assad regime has used since it supposedly gave up its chemical weapons.
The image of chemical weapons is particularly horrifying. They kill silently and with little warning. No one, however, should have any illusions about being burned to death, the suffering caused by fragmentation wounds and collapsed buildings, by a gun shot, or by slowly dying of hunger, disease, or exposure when war drives you from your home.
Chemical weapons may be a useful excuse to act against Assad, but they are scarcely the core of the case against him. Bashar al-Assad came to power because of the ruthlessness of his father—Hafez al-Assad—who used massed artillery against his own people in an attack on Hama in 1982 to make it clear just how far his repression would go. Assad formally came to power in a rigged election, but was really chosen by his father, and then only as the result of a car accident that killed his brother—Bassel al-Assad—who had been designated as his father’s original heir.
Assad had opportunity after opportunity to carry out political and economic reform after he came to power in July 2000. In each case, he either carried out token or limited reform in marginal ways or made no reforms at all, and chose to rely on repression and the support of a narrow elite at his people’s expense. He ignored the plight of Syria’s Kurds and other minorities and persecuted Sunnis and anyone else who openly or covertly opposed the regime.
The crisis in Syria in 2011 came after a decade in which Assad followed in his father’s footsteps in making Syria more and more of a “failed state,” the neglect of a drought in the East, and a grindingly slow rate of development and increase in Syria’s per capita income. Millions and millions of Syrian had suffered, but Assad still had the option of staying in power through limited and peaceful reform. Instead, he chose repression and then violence and turned protest into civil war. In the process, he was all too successful in suppressing moderate reform, while he pushed far too many of his people into supporting violent extremism.
It is important to remember that limited amounts of U.S. and European force could have pushed him out of power at any time during the years that followed up to the point when Russian intervention began to rescue him in September 2015. At least in the early years, there were also still enough moderate rebels to offer a real hope for a new, negotiated government. The economic and human cost took time to become critical, although less than 100 killed in the recent chemical attack need to be compared to millions of displaced and refugees and over 100,000 dead civilians by 2013.
And what is the current “butcher’s bill?” Chemical weapons are a vanishingly small part of the human cost. There are no reliable estimates of the number of Syrian civilians that have been killed and injured in the fighting, or exactly who is responsible, but most estimates reach 400,000 in early 2016, and the vast majority have clearly been killed or injured by the Assad regime. The UN ceased to estimate civilian casualties in early 2016 because of the inability to produce reliable estimates, but the number almost certainly exceeded 400,000 in early 2016, and was probably closer to 500,000 by the end of 2016.
Casualties, however, are only a small part of the story. It is the Assad regime which is responsible for the vast majority of refugees and internally displaced persons. Western Syria is the core of its population and it is the fighting there—not with ISIS—that has done most of the human damage. Children that drown as refugees, or die of disease and malnutrition in the desert, suffer at least as much or more than those who die from nerve gas, and the dead have an end date to their suffering. More than half of Syria’s population—which was around 22 million when the fighting start and the CIA now estimates totals around 17.1 million—is now displaced or a refugee.
The current entry for Syria in the CIA World Factbook notes just how high the total of human suffering became during the first two years of civil war. That, “Syria’s economy continues to deteriorate amid the ongoing conflict that began in 2011, declining by 62% from 2010 to 2014. The government has struggled to address the effects of international sanctions, widespread infrastructure damage, diminished domestic consumption and production, reduced subsidies, and high inflation, which have caused dwindling foreign exchange reserves, rising budget and trade deficits, a decreasing value of the Syrian pound, and falling household purchasing power