Because if he’s neither of those two things, I see no reason why he would have ordered a chemical attack on his own citizens at this time.
By most accounts, the tide of war in Syria shifted not too long ago in Assad’s favor. With the support of the Russian Air force and ground forces from Iran and Hezbullah, Assad managed to halt the advance of rebel and terrorist forces and has begun pushing them back on various fronts in Syria.
He did so with great brutality, true, but the results are what matters to dictators fighting for their life and the survival of their family and clan, not morality.
It is the reality on the ground that prompted the American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to recently declare that Assad’s fate would be decided by the people of Syria and not be determined by diktat from abroad. To put it simply, neither the US nor any other country or coalition of countries is willing to expend the capital and fighting men it would require to remove Assad by force, especially since Russia has taken on a more active part in the war.
And what would have been the only act by Assad that might have changed that policy? Precisely the one he supposedly took — the gassing of his own citizens.
Would he have not known it? Would the Russians, with whom he would have been likely to consult before such an attack, been oblivious to what the American reaction would be?
And what special benefit would such an attack bring? Assad’s forces have been bombing their opposition indiscriminately with virtual impunity for years now. The world has grown callous to the sights of bombed out streets, strewn bodies, and miserable ordinary Syrians rummaging through rubble or weeping over their dead loved ones. Whatever military objective a chemical attack might have yielded Assad, he could have achieved the same result with conventional weapons.
I’ve heard it said (or read it, would be more accurate) that this attack was meant to terrorize Assad’s opposition, to instill in them the knowledge that he will not be removed and that he can do anything to them. This, to me, sounds like a weak explanation, and I suspect those who made it feel that way too.
Terror bombings do not require chemical warfare. You can do it with firebombs, carpet bombings, or the barrel bombs Assad forces seem so enamored with. Again, Assad has been winning this war. Demoralizing his enemies is not on the top of his most urgent to-do list.
If Assad is behind this attack, then he is either very stupid or crazy. If he’s either of those things, it is unclear why he’d waited this long to use chemical warfare again (after the previous time in which Obama neglected to enforce his Red Line).
In addition, if Assad is indeed crazy or stupid, then the missile attack ordered by President Trump might do little to deter him from further action.
And there is also the matter of Israel.
Israel had largely steered clear of the war in Syria, a wise policy which should be applauded. But it has from time to time carried out surgical strikes against advanced weapons convoys and deliveries to Hezbullah. Each of these strikes was a slap in the face of Assad. So far, he has not retaliated (a wise decision), but if he is indeed crazy or stupid, he might do so at any time. Israel will then respond by massive force, perhaps enough to tilt the war in the opposition’s favor, but if he is stupid or crazy, Assad may not care. After all, he didn’t care that he would be turning American policy on its head, pushing Trump toward intervention in Syria. If he did that, he might act rashly against Israel too.
I hope the government in Israel is taking this under consideration.
Of course, if Assad is neither stupid or crazy, then an entirely different set of questions arises. I’ll leave those to the conspiratorial mind of you, dear reader.