FPI Fact Sheet for Congressional Debate on Syria

September 3, 2013

By FPI Policy Director Robert Zarate and Senior Policy Analyst Patrick Christy

I.  Key Background on the Conflict in Syria

The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism and Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.  The Assad regime supported foreign fighters who killed U.S. troops in Iraq, and has repeatedly used weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the Syrian population.

  • Secretary of State John Kerry said:  “Iranians are on the ground, and Iran is actively helping to support [the Lebanon-based terrorist group] Hezbollah, which, as we all know, is a surrogate working with Iran, and they are contributing significantly to this violence....  There are several thousands of Hezbollah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence....”
  • In a May 2013 report, analysts at the Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project wrote:  “Syria is vital to Iran’s strategic interests in the Middle East…  The Assad regime has provided crucial access to Iranian proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, allowing Iran to move people, weapons, and money to these groups through Syrian territory.  Iran has provided support to Syria’s chemical weapons programs, including the deployment of Iranian scientists, the supply of equipment and precursor chemicals, and technical training.  Syria has been Iran’s strategic partner in deterring Israel from attacking Iran’s proxies or its nuclear program.”

Over the last two-and-a-half years, the Assad regime’s escalating use of indiscriminate force against the Syrian people has created a strategic and humanitarian crisis that threatens the security of neighboring nations, including Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.

  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that over 110,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict since March 2011.  The United Nations estimates that the conflict has not only internally displaced 5 million Syrians, but also led an additional 2 million Syrian refugees to flee to neighboring countries.
  • Jordan, a major U.S. non-NATO ally, is now home to over 490,000 Syrian refugees who now account for nearly 10 percent of the country’s population.  The Zaatari refugee camp alone houses over 120,000 refugees, effectively making it Jordan’s fourth largest city.  Jordan, already facing dire economic difficulties, is struggling to absorb the rising costs of refugees.
  • Turkey, a U.S. NATO ally, is now home to over 450,000 Syrian refugees.  Turkey has been praised for its “open door policy” of accepting Syrian refugees, but the rising costs of doing so has surpassed $1.5 billion.

Israel has repeatedly overcome Syria’s Russian-supplied integrated air defense system (IADS) and launched airstrikes against the Assad regime’s WMD-related activities or attempts to transfer advanced conventional weapons to Hezbollah.  The Assad regime has not directly retaliated against Israel for these attacks.

  • In September 2007, Israel used a surprise airstrike deep into Syrian territory to destroy a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor that the Assad regime had secretly built with North Korean assistance.
  • On January 30, 2013, Israel launched an airstrike against a Syrian military convoy carrying advanced anti-aircraft missiles intended for Hezbollah.
  • In May 2013, Israel launched two airstrikes against the Assad regime in three days, initially hitting a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles intended for Hezbollah on May 3rd, and then bombarding sensitive military facilities located near Damascus on May 5th.
  • On July 5, 2013, Israel struck a Syrian military warehouse near Latakia that contained Russian-made anti-ship cruise missiles intended for Hezbollah.

II. The Assad Regime’s Repeated Use of Chemical Weapons

In August 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons in a large-scale attack in the suburbs of Damascus.  On August 30th, the White House said:  “The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013.  We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack.”  It added:  “A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children....”

  • On August 30th, the White House also said:  “We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21.  We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.  On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations.”
  • On September 1st, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “we have now learned that hair and blood samples that have come to us from east Damascus, from individuals who were engaged as first responders in east Damascus, I can report to you today they have tested positive for signatures of sarin.”
  • The U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states:  “Sarin is a human-made chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent.  Nerve agents are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents.  They are similar to certain kinds of pesticides (insect killers) called organophosphates in terms of how they work and what kind of harmful effects they cause.  However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate pesticides.”
  • Scientists in Nazi Germany invented sarin in 1938.  In Iraq, dictator Saddam Hussein used sarin gas and other chemical agents in a March 1988 attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja that killed 5,000 people and sickened 65,000.  In Japan, the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo used sarin gas in a March 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people and sickened 5,000.

Prior to August 2013, the Assad regime had repeatedly used chemical weapons against the Syrian population. 

  • White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes stated on June 13th: “Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.  Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.”
  • The United Kingdom’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessed on August 27th:  “The regime has used CW on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past.”

The Assad regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons reflects the Syrian dictatorship’s strategy of gradually escalating its indiscriminate use of military force to brutally punish the Syrian population without triggering international intervention.

  • As Joseph Holliday, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote in April 2013:  “Much like the strategy employed with artillery, air power, and ballistic missiles, Assad’s introduction of weapons of mass destruction intends to pave the way for more lethal and wide-ranging chemical attacks against the Syrian people in the future.  Assad’s chemical weapons are not just a strategic deterrent against foreign intervention, they represent a critical tool in the ongoing campaign against the Syrian opposition.  Assad’s approach to the conflict has been the inverse of what Western militaries call population-centric counterinsurgency:  rather than clear insurgents out of population centers, Assad has sought to clear populations out of insurgent-held areas.”

III.  Key Background on Syria’s Internal Armed Opposition

The Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command—a council of 30 rebel field commanders elected by over 500 representatives from rebel groups in December 2012—is chaired by General Salim Idriss, a moderate and respected opposition leader.

  • Ambassador Robert Ford, a senior official in the State Department who is helping to craft U.S. policy towards Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2013:  “General Idriss and those under his command have demonstrated a commitment to a tolerant and inclusive vision of Syria.”
  • On August 30th, Elizabeth O’Bagy, an Arabic-speaking senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who has visited Syria many times since March 2011 and spent hundreds of hours with a broad range of Syrian opposition groups, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:  “Moderate opposition forces—a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army—continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime.  While traveling with some of these Free Syrian Army battalions, I’ve watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups.  They’ve demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative councils.  And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society.  One local council I visited in a part of Aleppo controlled by the Free Syrian Army was holding weekly forums in which citizens were able to speak freely, and have their concerns addressed directly by local authorities.”

Moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition are fighting a two-front war, battling the Assad regime in the near term and preparing for a post-Assad struggle against al-Qaeda affiliates and other foreign extremists in Syria over the long term.  The Free Syrian Army has declared war against al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria.  General Idriss also has repeatedly requested that U.S. officials supply moderate elements of the Syrian resistance with arms and ammunition to better defend themselves against not only the Assad regime and Hezbollah forces, but also al-Qaeda-aligned foreign fighters.

  • On August 28th, Michael Weiss, a columnist at NOW Lebanon who visited Aleppo last year, wrote in Foreign Affairs:  “Little covered by the international press and policy wonks, in recent months, the southern front in Syria has seen rebel units backed by the West and its allies winning more and more territory at the expense of both Assad and al Qaeda, which has been using the war in Syria as an opportunity to expand its reach to establish what it hopes will be a Islamic emirate in advance of a worldwide caliphate.”
  • On August 30th, the Institute for the Study of War’s Elizabeth O’Bagy wrote in the Wall Street Journal:  “Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards.  The jihadists pouring into Syria from countries like Iraq and Lebanon are not flocking to the front lines.  Instead they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern, rebel-held areas of the country.”

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