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.


  1. Mcdave

    It probably wasn’t Assad, it was Obama’s friends the “rebels” aka Al Qaeda who used the weapons. They don’t care about human life, and this kind attack looks like something from this Obama admin. So, is this related to Bengazi cover up?

  2. Aaron

    Two possible scenarios I was thinking about, but could be rather far fetched:  (1) Unmarked rockets that contained chemical agents were accidentally or even maliciously mixed in with conventional munitions. Thus, the confused messages sent from different regime officials.  (2) Rebel infiltration within SAA ranks with the objective of unleashing chem attacks on rebel held areas to facilitate greater Western intervention. 

    I don’t discount your analysis above, it very well could be like you state.  Assad cares only for survival and will go to whatever lengths to achieve it. However, when a group conducts suicide attacks to achieve success and to serve a religious purpose greater than the cause, whats to say they wouldn’t conduct chem suicide attacks for that greater purpose?  

    In any event, the next few days and how the US responds will be interesting. 

  3. John I think this may be a clue to your question as to whether Assad would order a chemical attack.  He likely didn’t order the chemical attack but a “rogue” General did. Which if that is what happened it matters little if Assad personally ordered the attack, only that he empowered the rogue commander to do so, which means that at some point and time someone knew that the chemical warheads left the “lab” and entered the battlefield. To Aaron’s comment about being an unmarked missile, with chemical and explosives mixed, I have always been under the impression you wouldn’t mix the two as the explosives would burn the chemicals, which is why the rockets which were used are largely intact?  But to your second comment, it is possible, although I don’t see how that would make a difference because I would assume that the control of the chemical agents, and loading them into warheads, and then releasing them into the field isn’t handled by one infiltrator. With all of the “red line” crossing rhetoric and the pressure that is mounting for the Administration to launch a strike against Syria, I don’t see how waiting a few days/weeks to make sure isn’t an option.  The dead are dead and no number of cruise missiles are going to bring them back.  

  4. Pingback: Why? Understanding the Ghouta Chemical Weapons Strike | Syrian Conflict News

  5. mario bianchi

    I am definitely unpersuaded by the evidence made public so far. It simply does not make sense from a tactical and strategic vantage point for Assad to have used the internationally proscribed weaponry. If chemical agents were used, it makes more sense for the rebels to have done it, seeking to trigger international support…

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