After the April 4 chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun, the world is reeling with most major western governments questioning what their next move should be. U.S. President Donald Trump responded to the attack by launching 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian government-held Shayrat Air Base.
Most of the world seems to be at a consensus that Bashar al-Assad, the long-time president of Syria, is behind this chemical attack, using these weapons in a visceral reaction to his own desperation. All of the evidence seems to stack up against the regime, so it would be very easy to prove why Assad did do it. However, there are still questions in regards to the validity of that accusation. Chiefly, there is no good reason why Assad would want to alienate its largest backer, Russia, especially when the war seemed to be swinging in Assad’s direction only months before.
Presumably, it is highly likely that Putin would be infuriated with the Assad government if Assad did in fact use the chemical weapons. Russia has been fighting Chechen separatists, who are Sunnis, for years. Idlib Governorate, where Khan Shaykhun is located, is a predominantly Sunni region of Syria. This could greatly anger Chechen fighters both in Chechnya and Syria who may be compelled to go back and wreak havoc in Russia. The Sunni rebels, including the Islamic State group, in Syria may be motivated by this attack to fight harder against Assad, putting Russia in an increasingly expensive and complicated position.
Another reason for Assad not to employ chemical weapons is that the war has been going well for the Syrian government up to this point. Assad’s military was already making large gains in the civil war prior to the Idlib attack. The Lebanese online newspaper Al-Masdar reported that the Syrian army has retaken 226 communities and about 3,500 square kilometers (2,174 square miles). Most notable was Assad’s capture of Aleppo in December, which marked a turning point in the war as all of Syria’s industrial capacity had been recaptured.
Nonetheless, there are perhaps some reasons why Assad would resort to chemical weapons. Chiefly, it is possible that he used the weapons as a ploy to regain Syrians’ loyalty. This chemical attack could have been utilized to send a message; the mass death is a byproduct of their deployment. The Syrian government is trying to tell the civilians in these areas to leave and return their allegiance to Assad. This undermines the rebels especially when the government has cut off food supplies, medical care and commerce which have been observed throughout the war. It could also be suggested that Assad’s army does not have the capacity or ability to recapture the entire country which is why Russia has gotten involved, indicating Alawite (a religious and ethnic minority in Syria of which Assad is a part) power may be collapsing with Assad trying to hold it together.
This is an extremely complicated conflict, with both sides committing completely depraved actions. Nonetheless, one must look at Assad’s reign before the war, as well as his father’s, from a holistic perspective, understanding the development the Assads brought to Syria. However, it would be wrong not to acknowledge the fact that Assad probably does not have a high chance of remaining in power when the war is over, reinforcing the concern for Alawites and Christians that the life they knew under the Assads may be history.