A while back, the world was presented with yet another appalling spectacle – the use of chemical weapons in Syria against civilians. The Assad regime has denied that it was responsible, but no one takes that denial seriously.
The question remains – why do it? The downsides were clear. Triggering moral outrage, for one. And using chemical weapons revealed to the world that Assad cheated on the deal that he made to get rid of his chemical weapons stockpile. An Israeli official made this assessment
While the regime did comply with destroying much of their stockpiles as well as the infrastructure to produce them, removing over 1,290 metric tons of chemical weapons – including sarin, VX and sulfur mustard, a precursor to mustard gas – according to the senior official, the Assad regime has residual amounts of between 1-3 tons of the deadly chemical agent.
So what was the upside that counterbalanced the above downside?
Using gas has had no significant military impact. It has not won the war or made it more likely that Assad can prevail in the war. It might be taken as a signal that Assad is ready to do anything to remain in power. But there was no apparent reason to give that signal now. Thus, I think we can rule out an immediate military objective.
It there was an objective, it was more likely to be political. Some have theorized that it was a test of US resolve under a new president. Would Donald Trump do nothing? If so, that might weaken the resolve of factions that rely on US support. And it was a possibility, especially in light of comments that candidate Trump made about staying out of the Syrian conflict.
If this was the motive, what did this test reveal? The president ordered a largely symbolic assault against the air base that delivered the chemical weapons attack. In other words, the US responded, as opposed to doing nothing, but in a cautious manner. I would argue that the test — if it was a test — was therefore not conclusive. It did not reveal what Assad and perhaps Putin might have wanted it to reveal – that the US is a paper tiger. If this is so, the use of chemical weapons might have been a nasty “one-off” event that has no broader significance.
Of course, there is another possible explanation. It may be that the Assad regime simply acted irrationally. The chemical attack might have been ordered out of deep frustration that the fighting is not producing significant Assad victories, despite help from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Assad might have simply lashed out. BTW, that is the view of the above Israeli defense official.
If this is true, what would that tell us?
For one thing, it confirms that the war is most likely not winnable for anyone. Russian support for Assad means he cannot be defeated. But it does not mean that he can win. And there is no obvious way to build a coalition that has sufficient power to defeat everyone else. That is a painful reality because it means that the war is likely to drag on. Again, from Israel
The senior IDF official stated that it was unlikely that a political settlement to the conflict in Syria will be agreed to in the near future.
“The Syria we once knew is gone and will never be again.”
In short, a disaster for the Syrian people. And a disaster that may not be reversed at this time. The US may obliterate ISIS, but that will have no significant effect on the overall situation. The fighting will continue. It might lessen in intensity, but it might also flare up at any time.
It is not a pretty picture. And it is not the way things always will be in Syria. But it does appear that this is what we are stuck with for now.