Combined, these continuous attacks paint a disturbing picture. Assad has resorted to limited, localized attacks using chemical weapon variants in key fronts in the conflict to achieve a far greater strategic goal as his forces gear to launch a major offensive to rid the Damascus suburbs of rebel presence in the coming weeks.
The use of such weapons in a sporadic fashion is an attempt by the Assad regime to offset an ongoing stalemate in the Damascus area, which has remained in place since a rebel advance during the summer of 2012. The Assad regime has since been unable to force a retreat of rebel militias using ground forces or heavy artillery bombardments, although they have prevented them from advancing into the capital’s center.
The regime’s reported escalation into chemical weapons usage follows a similar procedure used to introduce heavy artillery bombardments and air power at earlier stages of the conflict.
Before employing wide-scale artillery bombardments, the Assad regime tested the international community’s reaction by using the tactic in a single instance. The 2012 assault of the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs looks to have been its test case. After the unprecedented use of heavy artillery in Baba Amr did not result in international intervention, the Assad regime began to employ the tactic across the country. The introduction of air power and long-range missiles into the conflict was done in a similar escalatory fashion.
The apparent use of chemical weapons is now meant to demoralize rebel fighters, while deterring local populations from hosting them. Currently, chemical weapons attacks appear to have caused relatively few casualties when compared to heavy artillery bombardments, massacres perpetrated by irregular militias, and long-range missile attacks.
The low death tolls are likely due to the modification of existing chemical weapons in the Assad regime’s stockpile. The Syrian military has vast knowledge in mixing and modifying these materials and likely adjusted its stockpiles of sarin and other nerve agents to reduce their lethality.