The Logic Behind Assad’s Use of Chemical Weapons

By Barbara F. Walter

Syrian soldier during Operation Desert Shield. Photo by Tech. Sgt. H. H. Deffner, via Wikimedia.
Syrian soldier during Operation Desert Shield. Photo by Tech. Sgt. H. H. Deffner, via Wikimedia.

Last week I asked why Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons even after Obama had drawn his “red line” and despite his regime’s ample conventional military capabilities. A number of readers offered compelling explanations for this puzzle. It’s quite possible that Assad used chemical weapons as a way to build a reputation for extreme toughness, as Christian Davenport suggested. In this case, signaling toughness would serve to demoralize the opposition and change their calculations for continuing to fight. It’s also possible, as Mila Johns argued, that Assad used chemical weapons to “signal to the global community that he does not recognize the authority of the international community’s global norms.” Finally, almost all of our commenters agreed that Assad was strategically revealing to his enemies just how far he would go to maintain power.

But I think something else is going on — or at least that the game is more complicated than this.

I think Assad is playing a strategic game with at least three players. Assad’s objective is to win the war and keep himself in power. One set of players is the Syrian people, in particular those who are neither firmly in the Assad camp nor firmly in the opposition camp. These are the majority of Syrian civilians whose main preference is for peace and security and just want to be left alone. The second set of players is Assad’s financial supporters, in particular Russia and Iran. Their preference is to have Assad remain in power or to place in power someone who would be equally sympathetic to their interests. The third set of players is the countries that financially support the opposition, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Whether Assad wins or loses the war will depend on these three players. In particular, it depends on: (1) the degree to which the Syria population supports Assad or the opposition, (2) the degree to which Russia and Iran continue to support Assad, and (3) the degree to which Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to support the opposition. Their decision about whether to support Assad or the opposition will depend in part on who they believe will eventually win the war. The more one side appears as if it will emerge victorious, the more support it will receive. Conversely, the more one side appears as if it will ultimately be defeated, the less support and money it will receive. No one wants to be known as the person or state who supported the losing side, especially once the outcome of the war was clear.

This is where the United States comes in. US intervention in the war would likely have been a game changer. Even if the US was able to confine itself to limited strikes, US intervention would still increase the chance that the opposition would win. American intervention, therefore, would have changed some people’s calculations about the likelihood of Assad ultimately winning the war, and affect their decisions about who to support.

Assad understood this. He understood that as long as Syrian citizens and the rest of the international community thought there was some possibility of US intervention, Syrian citizens and supporters of the opposition would hold out hope that the opposition would eventually emerge victorious. The result would be continued money and local support directed their way. Remove the hope of US intervention, however, and the more strategic players would begin to hedge their bets. This doesn’t mean that everyone would necessary start supporting Assad, but it does mean that less aid would be directed toward the opposition.

So here’s a provocative argument for why Assad decided to use chemical weapons in the face of Obama’s threat to intervene. Assad wanted to eliminate any uncertainty about US intentions. The world’s perception that the US might eventually intervene was hurting Assad’s cause, who would be much better off if he could reveal that the US had no intention of ever intervening even if Assad used chemical weapons.

Using chemical weapons didn’t help Assad make gains on the battlefield. It didn’t signal to Syrians that he was willing to use these weapons — he’d already proved that he was willing to use them. What it did do was provide hard evidence that the United States was not coming to the defense of Syrian civilians under any conditions, and that the US would allow Assad to continue to fight to remain in power. Both of these signals would have the effect of undercutting support for the opposition.

So will Assad use chemical weapons again? No. Even if the United Nations isn’t able to take control of his entire stockpile, Assad has no incentive to use them again. For one, the US will have a significantly easier time gaining domestic and international approval to intervene should Assad circumvent the latest agreement. Assad wants to to avoid that outcome at all costs. Second, Assad doesn’t need to use chemical weapons again. They won’t help him win the war and they’ve already served their purpose of revealing the US’ level of commitment. That’s enough to change everyone’s calculations and ensure that Assad has a better chance of staying in power.

  1. This argument assumes that Assad was awfully sure of what Obama was going to do. Meanwhile, a lot of people in Washington–who should have been expected to understand US domestic politics at least as well as Assad–seemed to believe that he was on the verge of doing the opposite.

    By the way, how should Assad’s three audiences interpret the outcome? Moscow declared itself willing to cooperate with Washington to disarm him.

  2. There’s the possibility of exactly the opposite response, that is that if the rebels look closer and closer to defeat Qatar and Saudi Arabia may decide to escalate support. It’s true that Assad may rely on the U.S. to urge them not to while the possibility of Syria giving up chemical weapons still exists, but that’s nowhere near guaranteed.

    And if Assad hadn’t made that offer, I would have said that the odds of U.S. intervention were still high even though opposition (especially among Republicans ironically) was higher than on Libya two years ago.
    True you might say that this was all orchestrated by Assad to first use chemical weapons and then show that America wouldn’t intervene so he could weaken the rebels’ faith in victory, but that was a serious risk to take especially when the odds of American intervention were already pretty low before August 21. He didn’t need to do it and by doing so he greatly endangered himself.

    Of course without the classified documents and interviews with key figures that won’t be available for decades we’re looking at a very incomplete picture and it’s entirely possible that something else was involved that we don’t even know exists.

  3. This is spot on; with a few minor caveates and nuances. First, I think it is important to consider the possibility that it was not Assad who ordered the strike. I am not suggesting the rebels (although there is strong support for that thesis in many circles in the region) but rather more hard-line elements within the regime who have grown impatient and enraged with the number of personalized attacks on their ranks by the rebels. But this supports, not weakens, the argument that the timming of the CW attack was linked to a fear that rebels were gaining ground and influence on the prospect of a US attack leading to more arms and muscular intervention.

    Second, while I agree the objective of the CW attack was exposing US unwillingness to get involved, I don’t think anyone expected that Obama would collapse like a house of cards and hand Putin a decisive diplomatic victory. On the contrary, I I think that Assad and those around him, as well as many in the region (including me!) thought Obama would strike, but that the strike would be an inconclusive “pin-prick.” (Isn’t this the logical devolution from “shock and awe,” and then “leading from behind?”) This pin-prick would have had costs in the short term, but would have eventually galavanized regime support and cast those opposing Assad in an elaborate US/Zionist/Saudi-Qatari conspiracy that involves US/Zionist air-cover for saudi-qatari funding al-qaeda-esque Jihadis (Remember, such explanations have considerable traction in this part of the world and are already present in the discourse). When it became clear that US would only strike once, there would be a move to consolodate positions and cut a deal that kept Assad in power.

    So no, Assad won’t use (or tolerate the use) chemical weapons again as the primary objective of proving US impotence has been achieved. Moreover, another CW attack would harm the newfound presitige of the regime’s most important backer: Mr. Putin and a resurgent Russia.

    The one bright spot may be a hastened return to talks on a power-sharing deal, evident in the unexpected announcement by Syria’s deputy PM that the war has reached a stalemate. Throw in the overtures from Iran and things start to look really interesting…… Pax Russiyah? Let the jockeying for poll position in the post US primacy era begin.

  4. That was very enlightening. Maybe next you could weigh in on why Spartacus decided to deploy Harrier jump jets against the Roman Centurions.

  5. president assad, all elements of the syrian govt did not use chemical weapons.

    zionist america’s allies/thug mercenaries did.

  6. The story assumes that Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons. Has that been established as a fact? Because if not, then there is not much use speculating on what reasons he may have had for doing so. There are only so many hypotheses one can stack on top of one another before they fall over.

    As to throwing good money after bad, I think it’s obvious that at least the U.S. is willing to do this rather extensively when playing imperial games — the support for the Contras in Nicaragua being one good example. We can expect its ally-satellites Saudi Arabia and Israel to follow, and thus keep the war against Assad going indefinitely. Similarly, the Russian Department of Imperial Games will no doubt spend much to keep Assad in power and thus keep their Syrian naval base. Iran is motivated by holy war which allows for no compromise. Everyone is a loser and no one wants to recognize it and thus the war will continue.

    The only interesting thing that has come out of this ugly situation so far is that an American president got turned down for his next war. I don’t think that’s happened since Congress refused to let Nixon invade Angola way back in the 1970s.

    1. No, Anarcissie. The responsibility has not been established:
      And, please, all, read the comments at the article, too.

      Before people ask these types of questions, Ms. Walter, they should be facts in agreement. There aren’t.

  7. 1. Not sure Syrian government forces employed chemical weapons.

    2. Assumes Assad knew that USA & allies wouldn’t ignore Security Council and attack regardless. Did Assad have any foreknowledge or control over the UK parliamentary vote?

    3. Even if confident USA doesn’t attack directly, wouldn’t Assad have reason to avoid giving the USA & allies an additional pretext for much greater indirect military support for Syrian rebels?

    Let’s not be oversubtle.

  8. Breathtaking that people who reside in the usa can be so . . brainwashed. Just because the beltway bandits and the msm all sing from the “the evidence is overwhelming – Assad did it” song sheet, doesn’t mean it is so & may I remind everyone that NO ACTUAL EVIDENCE has been presented by the “lets start ANOTHER war” crowd. On the oppossing side there appears to be much evidence that Assad did NOT do it. German intelligence have briefed parliamentarians that phone tapes have shown that Assad has continually REFUSED to let generals use CW’s . . . why have they wanted to use them ? because the cannibals have been using them all year!! We have the families of some of the dead “rebels” saying their sons died in a tunnel from MISHANDLING the CW’s supplied by Saudi Arabia – they apparently hadn’t been given adequate instructions. We have the 2 journalists that had been held captive saying on release that they’d heard their captors saying it was al Nousra Front that had launched the attacks. We have multiple videos of rebels boasting of having already used CW’s & would continue to do so. We have another video dated stamped the night of the attack, although somewhat blurred, showing them launching rockets while wearing GAS MASKS. The Russians have also stated (and supplied this to the UN) that Syria never got the rocket type that was used to deliver the CW’s but that Libya had . . . and we all know where the vast majority of the rebels weapons have come from don’t we? Yes – Libya ! As to the videos showing all the dead & dying several were posted to You Tube on the evening of the 20th BEFORE the actual attack. There are also numerous CW experts from round the world who are not convinced that the symptoms are of Sarin, question why the doctors & helpers aren’t wearing masks especially since they seem to be treating victims who are still frothing at the mouth or spasming. I have looked at quite a few of those videos & have yet to see anyone in full spasm – there are some with legs going, some with arms, but no one with legs, arms & body all at once. We have the Turkish police busting al Nousra with a large amount of Sarin & Turkish prosecutors have charged others attempting to procure chemicals to make Sarin. Even Carla del Ponte has said that it is most likely that it was the rebels who used CW’s around Alleppo earlier in the year., incidents that the white house screamed they had proof that it was Assad.

    Lets make no mistakes here The Syrian army is starting to cut swaths into the rebels who are also turning on each other over religious grounds but surely the best evidence there is, is why would Assad use CW’s on his own people the day the UN inspecies arrived in town ?? NATO has said THEIR own survey shows Assad has 70% support, 20% undecided & only 10% opposed . It defies all logical thinking that he would do this unless he was totally mad – seeing him being interviewed, playing with his children, etc shows he is certainly NOT MAD & has more compassion than the lying pieces of crap that inhabit the upper echelons of the current administration. Nobel Peace Prize winner indeed.

  9. In considering why Asad used CW, it is important to consider that Ghouta was almost certainly NOT the first regime use of CW. Rather, it was the one use that broke the threshold of casualties that provoked a US response.

    As the UK JIC report makes clear, there had been a pattern of small-scale tactical CW use by the Syrian regime for some time. These were sufficiently ambiguous (and casualties sufficiently low) as to not trigger a US response, however. What changed the equation in Ghouta was the high number of casualties. While this may have been because more agent was used, the UN CW report also make it clear that meteorological conditions that night (cooler air, a temperature inversion that created a downdraft) would have substantially increased the lethality of the agent used (Sarin, which normally evaporates quickly, especially in warm weather). In other words, the regime may not have been aiming at casualties of this magnitude.

    Far from a deliberate signal, therefore, it may have been an accidental foot over a somewhat fuzzy line.

    1. First it seems that we have to establish that Assad did, indeed, use — order the use of — the weapons in question. No use trying to slip past this question no matter how much you admire our Great Leaders and their imperial project. In fact, this particular side-step is getting to be a pretty tedious move. Can’t some evidence be created?

  10. This kind of thing qualifies as journalism? This is the dumbest and most speculative and unrealistic BS I´ve read in a long time. Trying to sound clever, eh dude? And failing miserably. BTW – you never even broached the possibility that it wasn´t Assad at all. Oh, yeah, I forgot, John Kerry saw the whole thing on “social media”.

  11. The use of chemicals in Syria was investigated and was proven; however, it wasn’t for a fact that Assad ordered it. I am not advocating the bloodthirsty- SOB but the author fails to address Turkey’s involvement in Syrian war. The opposition groups to Turkey’s government brought evidence that the sarine gas used in the attack was sent from Turkey. Given the Turkey’s ambitions to quench any Kurdish autonomy in Syria, it might very well used the chemical and blamed on Assad. In Obama’s term, the use of chemical was his “red line”. In a time where the thugs, such as al-Nusra and ISIS supported by Turkey, failed to retreat the Kurdish dominance at norhern Syria despite all the training, arms, and money provided by Turkey, it needed a less costly and more effective plan: plan B, the direct involvement of the US. By doing so, Turkey tied Obama’s hands and hoped to have US’ direct military involvement in the war so that it coukd pass the buck. In such a scenario, It would also embolden the anti-Assad forces such as al-Nusra, a branch of al-Kaeda to fight both Assad and Kurdish forces.

  12. Could it be that the terrorists fighting as opposition to Assad used chemical weapons on their own people to try to draw the West , in particular , America into the war ?

  13. . . . . And four years later, Assad uses chemical weapons again after all! Perhaps he is testing the waters with the new Trump administration?

  14. If I were the Rebels: I would throw gas as often as possible to make the whole world believe how bad this Assad is and so the US military would finally intervene directly. (Red Line and things like that)

    If I were Assad: I would not throw gas at all on my own people killing my reputation and my own people and eventually make the US military eventually intervene in Syria.

    It is quite simple. Of course one could twist his brain and think Assad will think that we think that …. In the end most lies will be revealed. The US military can deal with lies. The rebels can deal with lies. But will the Syrian people still follow Assad then ?

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