At the same time the Trump administration is discussing military strike options and deliberating over the extent of the retaliation for the Assad regime’s latest chemical-weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, the U.S. intelligence community is very likely at work trying to figure out why Bashar al-Assad would use his chemical arsenal at this point in the conflict. The attack, in addition to being barbaric and inhumane, was also puzzling. Why, despite winning the war and pushing his rebel opponents into ever smaller pockets of territory, did Assad find it necessary to leverage the most terrifying weapons at his disposal?
If Bashar al-Assad has exhibited any characteristic during this eight-year conflict, besides his complete disregard for human life, it is cleverness. He didn’t get where he is in the war today by being stupid—and yet dropping chemical munitions on a rebel-held city that his forces would have taken anyway is a decidedly stupid move. What possible motive did Assad have to launch a third, large chemical-weapons attack against civilians, particularly knowing that the United States would have no recourse but to respond with force of its own?
We may never know the full extent of the answer until Assad is captured and treated to a series of Saddam Hussein–style interrogations—and even then, Assad may simply deny he is responsible for any of the atrocities. But here are three guesses as to why the regime rolled the dice and yet again deployed chemical weapons.
1. He Was Desperate to Clear Ghouta Once and for All
The eastern Damascus suburbs in Eastern Ghouta were some of the very first areas in Syria to join the anti-government demonstrations that began in 2011. The area was transformed into a staging ground and transit point for armed opposition battalions that attempted to break into the capital and take the fight to the government’s seat of power. Indeed, when a bombing in July 2012 took out intelligence chief Assef Shawkat and wounded Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s ruthless younger brother, residents of Douma took to the streets and openly celebrated—assuming (understandably) that the assault would deal a mortal wound to Assad’s ability to survive.
That assumption, of course, didn’t bear fruit. The suburbs surrounding downtown Damascus, including Douma and Harasta in the northeast and Kaff Batna in the east, were pummeled mercilessly by airstrikes and artillery by the Syrian army in the years since. Assad’s troops surrounded the area in 2013 and relied on siege tactics to starve the opposition into surrendering or reconciling on the government’s terms. And yet the constant indiscriminate bombing and security cordon were still not enough to cow one particular rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, into agreeing to evacuate.
Assad may have grown tired of waiting, perhaps calculating that a gas attack would break the will of Douma’s fighters once and for all. If that was his assumption, it turned out to be right; a few hours after the chemical strike, Jaish al-Islam finally agreed to throw in the towel, hand in their weapons and be bussed to miserable exile in the northern countryside. As a spokesman of the group commented, “The chemical attack is what pushed us to agree.”
2. He Thought He Could Get Away with It
When the Syrian Air Force dropped sarin on the rebel-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun last year, President Trump responded several days later with a barrage of missile strikes on the Syrian airfield where the attack originated. It was the first time Washington took military action against the Syrian government since the civil war began. The retaliation, however, was minimal—a Trumpian version of President Bill Clinton’s cruise-missile strikes against Al Qaeda in 1998. Assad stopped using chemicals on the battlefield for a few months, but the Tomahawk missiles had little deterrent impact on how the regime pursued its war strategy.
Assad may have believed that he could get away with employing chemical weapons again due to the considerable Russian protection he has received ever since Vladimir Putin deployed Russian bombers to assist the regime’s air campaign. It is not an unreasonable thought; the last thing Washington wants to do is pick a fight with Moscow over a subject like Syria that is far more vital to Russia’s foreign-policy interest than America’s. Extensive retaliation from the United States runs the considerable risk of killing Russian troops or destroying Russian assets that are stationed at Syrian military bases.
To Assad, clearing the last major opposition holdout near Damascus and solidifying his control over the most important part of the country could have been worth the trouble caused by the Trump administration’s response. With a Russian security blanket cloaked over him, Assad feels immune from extreme punishment.
3. Keep the Alawites On His Side
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.