The Skeptics

3 Reasons Assad May Have Chosen Another Chemical-Weapon Attack

Writing in the Atlantic, reporter Sam Dagher posits another theory for Assad’s chemical warfare: the Alawite community wants the war finished and wants the regime to do everything it can to free the thousands of Alawite prisoners who were thought to be held by Jaish al-Islam in Douma. In his travels in western Syria, Dagher encountered a lot of angry and upset Alawite families who were wondering why Assad was not doing more to get their sons and daughters released. Many in the community believe they have come to the regime’s rescue and sacrificed mightily in order to preserve their coreligionist Assad’s grasp on power, and are not receiving much from the strongman in return other than men coming back in coffins (in April 2015, the Telegraph—citing Western diplomats and local sources—reported that a third of the 250,000 Alawites of fighting age have been killed).

Without the Alawite community on his side, Assad’s reign would have likely ended years ago. It is this imperative for him to keep his supporters happy, lest they ditch him entirely. Dropping gas canisters on Douma may appear to be a strange way to fulfil that task, but if it compels the rebels to hand detainees back to their families after years in captivity, perhaps the ends justify the means.

Could there be other motives for Bashar al-Assad’s latest war crime? Certainly. There is always the chance that the Syrian dictator “enjoys” killing his people with poison gas, as President Trump suggested on Twitter. Maybe the incident in Douma was a case of a Syrian military commander making his own decisions without Assad’s explicit authorization?

Whatever the reasons, the gas was used—adding one more grisly scene to a war that has long descended into a horror show.

Daniel R. DePetris, a fellow at Washington-based think tank Defense Priorities. He is a columnist for the National Interest and the American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter at @dandepetris.

Image: A boy looks through a bus window during evacuation from the besieged town of Douma, Syria, March 22, 2018. Reuters/Bassam Khabieh.