When Bashar al-Assad first used chemical weapons, in August 2013, he violated a “red line” that President Barack Obama claimed to have established. Mr. Assad escaped retaliation, but eventually he surrendered (or was supposed to surrender) his chemical weapons under a United States-Russia agreement, while being allowed to continue to wage war by nonchemical means. Mr. Assad got extraordinarily lucky.
Since then, his fortunes have steadily improved. In recent months, his war against Syria’s rebel groups has been going exceptionally well, with one victory following another. So why would he risk it all by launching another chemical attack, provoking American strikes on a Syrian air base and perhaps ending President Trump’s ambivalence about opposing his regime?
The truth is, Mr. Assad had every reason to use chemical weapons, and little reason to restrain himself.
Above all, he wants to retake all of Syria. The fall of Aleppo, one of the rebels’ few urban strongholds, in December brought the regime closer to victory than ever before. But the area he attacked this week with chemical weapons, Idlib Province, has remained a nuisance. Rebels have used the province as a base from which to launch attacks against regime forces.
Mr. Assad plans to eventually retake Idlib in what promises to be a long and bloody campaign. The use of what was probably sarin gas against civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun was meant to terrify the local population and the fighters who rely on their support. Mr. Assad hoped this would weaken their resolve and bring about their collapse and a clear path to regime victory.
While Mr. Assad may be brutal, he is not foolish. People close to the regime have repeatedly told me that Mr. Assad and his inner circle recognize that the United States is the single greatest potential threat to their survival. So Mr. Assad is unlikely to do anything that he believes would provoke an American military response. That certainly wasn’t his intention when he dispatched poison gas to Khan Sheikhoun.
For months, Mr. Trump has criticized conflict with the Assad government as a distraction from the war against the Islamic State and promoted reconciliation with Russia, the Syrian regime’s ally. Just days before the chemical weapons attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Mr. Assad’s fate would be “decided by the Syrian people.”
The Syrian people — half of whom are displaced, the other living in a police state or in ruins — are in no position to choose anything. The implication was clear to Mr. Assad: No matter what I do, the Americans will allow me to remain in power. Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, reinforced this impression when she told reporters, “Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” (Of course, this was preceded by six years of inaction against the regime by the Obama administration.)
To Damascus, this looked like a green light to show Syrian civilians and rebels that there were no limits to what the regime would do to win, that the government could kill by whatever means to get the job done most quickly. Mr. Assad believed this not because he is insane or reckless, but because the United States convinced him that it was true.
He must have been just as surprised and confused as the rest of us on Friday when Tomahawk cruise missiles began landing in the first direct United States attack against the Assad regime in six years of war.
Overall, the strike will probably have only a limited impact. Mr. Assad’s forces still have the upper hand. True, the Trump administration’s decision to take out a Syrian Air Force base signals a shift: The Assad regime cannot do whatever it pleases, use whatever weapons it thinks will bring it victory fastest. But that doesn’t mean the United States is necessarily ready to forcefully intervene to change the course of the conflict.
Mr. Assad will be shaken, but he now has a better sense of his limits and strengths. On one hand, Iran and Russia failed to defend him. Many analysts had warned that American military action in Syria would set off World War III, but Russia has so far responded with only words. On the other hand, Mr. Tillerson quickly made clear that the cruise missile strikes do not signal a change in American policy — so far there is no immediate plan to force Mr. Assad’s ouster, to protect the opposition or to establish safe zones in Syria.
The Assad regime will return to waging its war, with Russian and Iranian backing. If Mr. Assad is smart, he will do it without chemical weapons — siege, starvation and barrel bombs will remain his tools of choice. The United States has finally showed it will act against the regime under certain circumstances, but it hasn’t declared any new rules of the game. Unless it decides the violence in Syria, chemical or otherwise, must end, Mr. Assad will still be determined to win.
Faysal Itani is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.