Why would Assad risk backlash by using chemical weapons?
The April 7 strike against an airbase in northern Syria shows that US President Donald Trump is more willing to use military force in Syria than his predecessor, Barack Obama, but it raises other questions.
Why would Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime has consolidated control over Syria’s largest cities in the past year and put the rebels on the defensive, risk a new international backlash by using chemical weapons? If he is winning, why would Assad take such a risk?
The answer lies in Assad’s refusal to compromise or offer any significant concession since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. Assad overplayed his hand after being emboldened by recent statements from White House officials that it was time for Western powers to accept the “political reality” of Assad’s continued dominance.
Assad likely decided to test those boundaries, not expecting Trump to respond militarily because the US president has made it clear that he sees fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) as his highest priority in Syria and Iraq.
Aside from his brutality, Assad’s staying power is rooted in a convoluted foreign policy pioneered by his father, Hafez Assad. Syria played the role of a regional broker and Arab nationalist standard-bearer since 1970, when the elder Assad seized power through a military coup. He perfected the art of creating defensive alliances, nurturing proxies in neighbouring countries and keeping his enemies stalled in costly battles.
Since he rose to power after his father’s death in June 2000, Bashar Assad learned to keep all options open and to play Syria’s friends and enemies off one another. Assad seems determined to replicate the foreign policy of his past, when he was able to hold on to power by being brutal, focusing outward and waiting for regional dynamics to change in his favour.
When popular protests swept the Arab world in early 2011, Assad was confident that he had nothing to fear because he continued his father’s foreign policy legacy: He did not depend on American military and political support like the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen.
Instead, Assad and his allies formed the “axis of resistance” — Iran, Syria and the Islamist militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. They boasted that the revolts had proved that they are the true representatives of the majority of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds, who for decades had been stifled under regimes that sold out to the United States.
In refusing to make substantial concessions, Assad has relied on another tactic he learned from his father: The Syrian regime does not make compromises under pressure, whether external or internal. This principle had served it well in times of crisis.
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, Assad decided to crush the uprising.
At the start of the rebellion in 2011, Assad used Islamic militants to destabilise his opponents, as he had done nearly a decade earlier in Iraq. The Syrian regime released hundreds of al-Qaeda activists and other militants from its prisons and they became leaders of ISIS and other jihadist groups.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to avoid direct US involvement in the Syrian conflict, which had expanded into a regional proxy war. Russia and Iran, along with Shia militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, helped Assad consolidate control and regain territory he lost to the rebels.
After Trump was elected, Assad likely became more confident because Trump had pledged to end US support for rebels fighting the Syrian regime and direct most American efforts to fighting ISIS. Since November, the United States has helped mobilise 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 US troops.
Trump’s missile strikes on the Syrian airbase could slow the offensive to oust ISIS from Raqqa and other parts of eastern Syria. The Pentagon coordinates with Russian forces in Syria, especially in planning air strikes, and Russian officials threatened to suspend those communications after the US attack on the Syrian airfield.
Assad has suffered a setback because of the American attack but Trump’s limited intervention is unlikely to change the course of the Syrian war and Assad will continue his scorched earth policy against rebels and civilians, even if he will now think twice about using chemical weapons.