Chemical weapons in Syria: What's the angle?


Disclaimer: I’m not a geopolitical expert. I’m just a schlub with a subscription to the New York Times.

Among all the stuff I’ve heard and read about the chemical attacks in Syria—and about the only thing I accept at face value is that there were chemical attacks in Syria—I’ve seen no discussion or attempts to explain the rationale behind their use. And when I try to figure it out myself, I come up with nothing but unsatisfactory answers.

Of course, this, to an extent, is to be expected when we are discussing something as evil and insane as the indiscriminate killing of a civilian population by such horrible means. But we can assume that someone expected to gain something from the tactic. But when I try to figure out what that is, I get stuck.

As is well known, President Obama and other Western leaders have said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime would be a trigger for a military response from the West, the so-called “red line.”

Based on the reporting in this NYT’s piece, the attack occurred in rebel held territory in suburbs around Damascus, the Assad regime’s stronghold. If we assume that is true, while ignoring the “red line” factor for a moment, the regime’s motive to use chemical weapons here would be to kill and drive out as many people as possible—rebels and civilians alike—both to impede the rebels’ ability to defend the territory and to remove the partisan population that makes the territory worth defending.

The use of chemical weapons would also communicate the absolute ruthlessness with which the regime was willing to pursue the fight. The regime can and has used conventional weapons against civilian populations, but chemical weapons have the tactical advantage of being more lethal and horrific against human targets, while leaving the battleground less damaged for the victor.

Continuing to ignore the “red line” factor, let’s assume that it wasn’t the Assad regime that launched the chemical weapons. What would the insurgency as a whole stand to gain from such an attack? Nothing that I can see.

But the insurgency is factionalized. Again, according to the Times article above, the area attacked with chemical weapons was held by more moderate, less Islamist factions. Would there be a strategic motive for the more fundamentalist factions to launch a chemical weapons attack against an area controlled by moderates?

If so, it’s really hard to figure out what that motive would be. It would be a strategically dumb move, if for no other reason than it would stoke popular opinion against the fundamentalist factions, both locally and globally. And militarily, it would seem to offer as much of an advantage to the Assad regime as any other faction contesting the territory.  

So absent the red line factor, the only side I can see having a motive to use chemical weapons is the Assad regime. And over the decades they’ve certainly exhibited the craven and calculating brutality required to undertake such a sickening attack.

Now, with the red line factor, it gets more complicated. Knowing the West’s credibility was on the line over the use of chemical weapons, the Assad regime, in its calculations, had to assume a high likelihood of a military response from the West.

After all, the West had backed itself against the wall. While weaseling out of responding to earlier suspected chemical attacks in the Syrian conflic, the West signaled that their weaseling quotient was spent and that “the next time” the regime wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

So given that the fortunes in the civil war have lately tipped back in the regime’s favor, why would Assad want to provoke an almost certain military response from the West? There’s no sane reason I can think of.

With the red line factor in play, the insurgency might seem to have a motive for using chemical weapons: to draw the military might of the West on their side. But to believe the insurgency did this, you have to assume several things that seem highly unlikely.

First, you have to assume that an insurgency that has been pleading for military aid suddenly found itself with access to chemical weapons and the delivery systems to use them. Highly unlikely.

Second, you have to assume that the insurgency would welcome military intervention from the West. Highly unlikely. Money and materiel from the West, yes. Western military intervention? No. Because once the Assad regime was crushed, arguably the West’s presence would make it more difficult for any one of the factions to gain dominance over the others.

Third, you have to assume an insurgency fighting to overthrow a brutal regime would even more brutally and callously murder its own partisans to further that aim. Highly unlikely.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. But as a poker player, I know that one can get burned by assuming that the motives of one’s opponent are rational. About the only thing I can conclude is that those responsible for this barbaric attack are not just evil, but totally insane.