First let me say that almost every aspect of this attack is still under investigation. We know that many civilians are dead but it can not be said, with certainty, that Bashar Assad ordered a chemical weapons strike. However, we seem to be approaching that conclusion and it is a very interesting question. So, despite the fact that there are much better qualified people for this exercise, here is my best guess.
In the earlier stages of this conflict I was strongly in the camp that believed Assad would not resort to large-scale chemical weapon use. It’s not that I believed that he would be personally uncomfortable with that horror. He would not. But I believed, still believe actually, that chemical weapons offered very little tactical gain in exchange for great strategic loss. It is unlikely that he saw an opportunity, or even a pressing need, to use them at that time. However, like many others, I am worried that the events in Ghouta are indicative of a significant shift in Assad’s logic.
So what has changed?
The conflict in Syria seems like the same unending mess day after day and that may be part of the problem. We are approaching the third year of a conflict that will not go away. In other words there is very little hope, from Assad’s perspective, that the opposition will be crushed. Whatever happens, Syria will not return to its original pre-2011 form. He also has to be acutely aware that the current level of conflict is not infinitely sustainable. Assad’s grip on power is still quite strong but desperation must be growing.
Also, efforts to bring focus to the opposition have largely failed. This is a profoundly messy conflict and it’s getting worse each day. The United States and other opposing forces have moved from posing a credible, if not immediate, intervention threat to repeatedly expressing a strong desire to steer well clear of it. I won’t beat the “red line” issue to death but we all know how this has gone. It is quite easy to picture Assad thinking though all of this and possibly concluding that he has a free hand.
On top of all this you have two years of false (intentional or otherwise) reports of chemical weapons usage, rogue elements everywhere and massive chemical weapons centered propaganda campaigns by both sides to muddy the waters. It is precisely the kind of environment where regime forces could act and, if challenged, shrug off the accusations as just more opposition propaganda. Perhaps that was their plan all along? They have certainly put significant effort into that angle in their communications. Clarity is lacking, profoundly so, and that benefits the regime.
So to sum it up Assad cares about survival – not global public opinion. He certainly doesn’t care about the lives of others. He doesn’t believe that western forces will intervene in any way that would actually tip the balance of power (Even now, as cruise missiles are moving into place, it is unlikely that regime change is our goal). He also beleives, without a doubt, that Iran and Russia will not recoil in horror if he kills a extra few thousand women and children on the way to stability. He may not be right about that when it comes to Russia but that is beside the point. What, from that skewed and isolated perspective, is there to lose?
Actually, there is much to lose but I can see how someone like Assad could convince himself otherwise. Dictators have a knack for doing that. More responsible powers also have a knack for correcting them – eventually. We seem to be moving into that phase of this conflict now.