By Henry Warner
Bashar al-Assad’s past decisions as leader of Syria make it nonsensical that he would use Chemical weapons at this point in time. By using chemical weapons, given the context, Assad would have to be either completely indifferent to threats made by Western powers, stupid or, fundamentally nihilistic and killing for fun. Since rising to power in 2000 Bashar al-Assad has shown that he is neither of these things.
When he assumed power in 2000 Assad ordered the release of 600 political prisoners, an act interpreted as an active attempt to improve the human rights image of Syria and to heal wounds within the country. In 2011 when security forces shot protesters in Deraa and the country erupted into mass protests Assad made Concessions including ending the nation’s state of emergency and releasing dozens of political prisoners. These events are among the many instances where Assad has demonstrated his desire to cling to power and his desire to improve his reputation in the eyes of regional and global powers. These releases show that Assad is a man who is willing to make small concessions to remain in power, not a nihilistic trait.
So perhaps Assad simply doesn’t care about the threat of Western intervention. Many of Assad’s actions could certainly have been intended to diminish regional and internal threats. He might not think the threat of Western intervention to be credible or unmanageable. This brings us to the question of why Syria signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013. One possible explanation is that the Syrian government was responsible for the Ghouta and other alleged attacks and that Syria was just easing Western pressure. The other explanation is that Syria’s government was innocent with regards to the accusations and that the signing of the convention was to prove this to the West. Either way, the motive was to reduce aggression from the West by trying to convince them, rightly or wrongly, that the Syrian army was not using chemical weapons. This is an acknowledgment that Assad and his government see Western intervention as a credible and dangerous threat.
This brings us to the most recent attack. We have a leader and government who have a track record of trying to cling to power and attempting not to give the West a reason to intervene. The war was almost won in Syria, Trump had called for a US extraction; the tactical advantage that the use of Chemical weapons would have brought the Assad regime is limited. There seem to be two realistic tactical goals; forcing the surrender of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group to all but eradicate the threat to Damascus or, to placate the Alawites (fervent supporters of Assad of whom thousands were imprisoned by Jaish al-Islam). Neither of these seems big enough advantages to risk Western intervention, an intervention which Assad and his government have consistently acted to avoid.
The argument against all of this is that Assad somehow knew that the West’s response was going to be, as has been the case, essentially symbolic. This could have been a daring and balanced strategy to achieve the aforementioned strategic goals knowing that the West’s response would be delayed and one off. However, this doesn’t seem likely. Hindsight is 20/20 vision and unless Assad is the only person able to predict the actions of the Donald then this strategy was a far too risky one to attempt. Assad is not a stupid man, remaining in power this long proves this, the use of chemical weapons at this point in time doesn’t make sense given what the world knows about Bashar al-Assad.
Before the strikes happened members of the general public were not given a clear representation of what they would entail. President Trump’s almost comedic tweet indicated that “an attack on Syria… Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Pre-strikes there was a ridiculous lack of clarity, no sensical motivations and, as Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said in February, there is still no evidence that the Syrian government has used sarin on its citizens previously. Active support for an attack was unjustified. Openness to the idea of an attack might have been reasonable, after all the videos and images online were terrible. But videos and images have been faked, by all sides, throughout this civil war. Little evidence was available and the cost and nature of the attacks were unknown: the strongest defensible statement would have been “something ought to be done.” Blind support for Donald, Theresa, Emmanuel and our “intelligence community” was by no means justifiable. There’s plenty on Syria that is confusing and narrative upsetting but the mystery of Assad’s motives demonstrate how uncertain things really are. The last thing the world and specifically Syrians need is a lack of scepticism and blind assumptions that could lead to disaster.
Photograph: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr