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.