Why Assad used chemical weapons

Why Assad used chemical weapons

Mohamad Bazzi
Why would Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has consolidated control over Syria’s largest cities in the past year, risk a new international backlash by using chemical weapons? 

The answer lies in al-Assad’s refusal to compromise or offer any significant concessions since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. Al-Assad overplayed his hand this time, after being emboldened by recent statements from White House officials that it was time for Western powers to accept the “political reality” of al-Assad’s continued dominance. Al-Assad likely decided to test those boundaries, not expecting U.S. President Donald Trump to respond militarily because the U.S. president has made it clear that he sees fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as his highest priority in Syria and Iraq.

Al-Assad’s staying power is rooted in a convoluted foreign policy, pioneered by his father, Hafez al-Assad who perfected the art of creating defensive alliances, nurturing proxies in neighboring countries and keeping his enemies stalled in costly battles.

Since he rose to power after his father’s death in June 2000, the younger al-Assad learned to keep all of his options open, and to play Syria’s friends and enemies off one another. Al-Assad has portrayed himself as the only one capable of keeping Syria’s army and other state institutions from disintegrating, and preventing the country from falling entirely into the grip of Islamic extremists. 

When popular protests first swept the Arab world in early 2011, al-Assad was confident that he had nothing to fear because he continued his father’s foreign policy legacy. He and his allies formed the “axis of resistance” – Iran, Syria and the Islamist militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. 

In refusing to make substantial concessions, al-Assad has relied on another tactic he learned from his father: The Syrian regime does not make compromises under pressure, whether external or internal. Al-Assad also saw the initial response to popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and he likely concluded that by not cracking down forcefully, those rulers appeared weak and encouraged protesters to broaden their demands. So when his own people revolted, al-Assad decided to hunker down and crush the uprising.

At the start of the rebellion in 2011, al-Assad used Islamic militants to destabilize his opponents. The Syrian regime released hundreds of al Qaeda activists and other militants from its prisons, and they went on to become leaders of ISIL and other jihadist groups. Many of those militants ended up fighting al-Assad’s regime, but they also became the focus for Western leaders worried about jihadist attacks in their own countries.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to avoid direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. After Trump was elected, al-Assad became more confident because Trump had pledged to end U.S. support for rebels fighting the Syrian regime and direct most American efforts to fighting ISIL. 

Since November, the United States has helped mobilize nearly 50,000 Kurdish and Sunni Arab fighters to encircle Raqqa, and cut it off from all sides. The offensive is supported by American air strikes and hundreds of U.S. troops. But Trump’s missile strikes could slow the offensive to oust ISIL from Raqqa and other parts of eastern Syria. The Pentagon coordinates with Russian forces in Syria, especially in launching air strikes, and Russian officials threatened to suspend the communications hotline after the April 7 U.S. attack on the Syrian airfield.

Al-Assad has now suffered a setback because of the American attack, but Trump’s limited intervention is unlikely to change the course of the Syrian war – and al-Assad will continue his scorched earth policy against rebels and civilians, even if he will now think twice about using chemical weapons.

*This abridged article is taken from Reuters