Reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered a chemical weapons attack against his own people align with an ongoing pattern of slowly numbing Western powers to the fighting there, according to Syria observers.
The U.S. government has not yet confirmed whether two chemical weapons attacks took place Tuesday, one just outside the rebel stronghold of Aleppo and another around the capital Damascus. The State Department and White House maintain their rhetoric that Assad's use of chemical weapons crosses a "red line," but have yet to define the consequences.
The possibility of a chemical attack matches a consistent ramp-up in the kind of brutality Assad is willing to unleash on opposition fighters, experts say. America's next move could further harm or begin to repair its already deteriorating reputation in the region.
"Realy this is very,very important," says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born professor at the National Defense University. "If the Assad regime has used [chemical weapons] and there is no response, that tells the Assad regime they can do more."
"Knowing there will be no retribution – this is where the danger is, really," he says, adding President Barack Obama's inability to follow through on his "red line" threats would cause the U.S. to lose as much credibility as it has already.
Forces loyal to Assad have slowly ramped up the weaponry they employ against the opposition fighters. They began using artillery in early 2012, and moved strikes out of operation centers and into larger deployments. They started using aircraft last summer, but only a handful of missions and only helicopters against military targets. By the end of August they were bombing Aleppo with impunity. They began launching ballistic missiles in December largely against fighting forces and now target major urban areas.
"This fits the pattern," says Joseph Holliday, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, on the possibility that Assad has used chemical weapons. "Tow the line, see how everyone reacts, make sure it's difficult to confirm, desensitize everyone to it, then expand out from there."
"This strikes me as a way to desensitize…to push our goalposts back a little bit, to test us and desensitize us to future use," he adds.
The Obama administration will likely take as long as it can to confirm whether this attack did or did not happen, says Holliday, co-author of "The Assad Regime: From Counterinsurgency to Civil War," documenting the protracted fighting.
The Assad regime maintains the attacks came from the opposition fighters. Jouejati does not believe the opposition has chemical weapons, nor would it conduct such an attack out of desperation. Holliday says the urgency of the regime's statements is a further indication that the Syrian regime is responsible for the strikes.
A strictly aerial response could not knock out all of Syria's chemical weapons, he says, leaving only a "massive military undertaking" of multiple brigades worth of troops on the ground.
The coalition of Syrian opposition forces denounced the attacks early Wednesday and called for a "full international investigation" into the sites of the alleged attacks.
"Chemical warfare is internationally prohibited. Its use against any enemy is banned, however all evidence now indicates that the Assad regime is using these weapons against its own people," according to a release from the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. It also calls for the "international community to bear legal, political, and humanitarian responsibility on behalf of the Syrian people."
Obama, while speaking at a press conference in Israel, said he was "deeply skeptical" of suggestions that the attacks may have come from the opposition, per the claims from an Assad spokesman. Using these weapons would be a "game changer," he added, but declined to delineate specific repercussions.