A Syrian man from Idlib is carried by Turkish medics wearing chemical protective suits to a hospital in the border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province. Photo: Ferhat Dervisoglu / Dogan News Agency via Reuters
A Syrian man from Idlib is carried by Turkish medics wearing chemical protective suits to a hospital in the border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province. Photo: Ferhat Dervisoglu / Dogan News Agency via Reuters

It is hard to explain why President Bashar al-Assad used nerve gas in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria’s Idlib province. On the surface at least it would seem to be a totally counter-productive and reckless move likely to cause anger in Europe and the United States or even worse.

Then why did he do it? He used nerve gas to block a peace process agreed by the US and Russia that would turn Syria into cantons and reduce Alawite control only to those districts where the Alawite minority dominates.

The nerve gas attack, most probably sarin, dropped by aircraft caused great surprise. It came immediately after the US strongly hinted that it was no longer going to pursue regime change in Syria, a major policy switch that should have reassured Assad that he could hang on as ruler of Syria.

Some pundits saw the US change in policy as an incentive to Assad, making it possible for him to revert to using highly lethal chemical weapons, especially sarin.

The pundits also argued that by using sarin, mainly against civilian targets, he could test whether the new policy was real. To some degree the announcement by British Prime Minister Theresa May that the UK had no retaliatory plans despite the attack might seem as some evidence for this argument. However, this is not what was behind Assad’s use of nerve gas.

It is a considerable stretch to think that Assad would use chemical weapons to test an American policy shift, particularly since one would think that such a change would help Assad and the Alawite minority in Syria in cutting a final deal that preserved their domination of Syria. It is doubtful that is the explanation.

The more likely truth is that Assad was deeply afraid that the US policy shift was part of a secret deal with the Russians, one that he had to head off.

One needs to remember that the ostensible liquidation of Syria’s sarin nerve gas stocks was a deal struck between Russia and the United States, in particular between Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and then US secretary of state John Kerry. Thus the guarantors of Assad’s compliance are both Russia and the United States. Assad’s use of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun thus was a direct challenge to both countries, but especially a challenge to Russia.

The Russians have been scrambling to come up with some way to explain how sarin came to be used. Had there been no Syrian aircraft over Khan Sheikhoun, the Russians would have brought out radar track maps to prove their case. Since, obviously the radar track maps most probably show Syrian planes operating over the northern Syrian town on the day of the attack, the Russians could not use this sort of evidence.

It took the Russians nearly 48 hours to come up with an argument. They said that a Syrian rocket hit a warehouse where the rebels were stockpiling chemical weapons, which then leaked killing the civilians in Khan Sheikhoun.

So far at least no one is buying this story. Technically, a release of nerve agents from leaking containers is far from convincing; in any case most governments and the UN have rejected the story as unconvincing and fabricated.

In practical terms nerve gas dissipates fairly quickly and is not persistent – and there is scant evidence that the rebels in Syria have any (and if they did they had plenty of opportunity to use it but didn’t).

The Russians are in a very difficult position and probably are hoping that Assad’s return to sarin nerve gas will soon be forgotten. But the Russians also know that Assad’s use of nerve gas was a direct challenge to Russian policy and a direct slap in President Vladimir Putin’s face.

Why? The answer is that Assad, as paranoid as he surely is, suspected that the American  announcement on a change in policy against regime was an opening bid by the United States to cut a deal with the Russians on a general Syrian settlement.

Russia’s attempt to get a deal on its own has failed and its negotiating efforts stalled when both the Syrian regime and the rebels basically disowned reaching any deal.

In addition, Russian support for Kurdish autonomy in Syria angered Assad. From Assad’s point of view, he is totally hostage to the whims of the Russians and their surrogates such as Iran. He most likely sees his regime being sold out, or Syria cantonized (actually Russia’s plan), which appeared to him ever more likely if the US and Russia were colluding.

Even the Syrians read newspapers, and they would conclude (as the Democrats in the US and some Republicans like John McCain are trying hard to promote) that Trump is in league with Putin. In Syria you believe such stuff, no matter if it is nonsense. Syrian policymakers would say that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ongoing probe is proof of a Trump-Putin alliance.

In this light, Assad’s turn to bombing targets with sarin nerve gas was intended to demonstrate independence from both superpowers and make it nearly impossible for an engineered settlement to be imposed on his regime.

With the US angry and up in arms, and the Russians looking for some sort of excuse to explain away Assad’s deviation, the sacrifice of some hapless civilians is in the Syrian President’s view a cynically effective way to hold off the dogs.

Dr Stephen Bryen has 50 years of leadership in government and industry. He has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the deputy under secretary of defense for trade security policy, as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, as the president of Delta Tech Inc, as the president of Finmeccanica North America, and as a commissioner of the US China Security Review Commission. Dr. Bryen is a senior fellow at the Yorktown...

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