Why did Assad do it? What did he have to gain?Some think this apparent lack of motive makes for a compelling argument for Assad's innocence. Dina Formentini and Chris Ernesto make the same argument in a Counterpunch piece titled "Assad Had the Upper Hand So Why Would He Gas His Own People?," 11 April 2017:
The simple answer is: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
With the help of Russia, Iran and Hizbullah, Assad is slowly winning the civil war that has been ravishing Syria for years, He already holds almost all the major cities that constitute the core of Syria. He has enough weapons to kill as many enemy civilians as his heart desires.
So why, for Allah's sake, should he use gas to kill a few dozen more? Why arouse the anger of the entire world, inviting American intervention?
There is no way to deny the conclusion: Assad had the least to gain from the dastardly deed. On the list of "cui bono", he is the very last.
This major policy statement by the US took regime change off the table, and was obviously great news for Bashar al-Assad. Combined with Syrian military gains on the ground, Assad was in the strongest position he’d been in since the war in Syria began.These are just two examples but the Internet is crawling with many more because it is a staple of all of the Assad defenders. Whether they are from the "anti-imperialist" Left, or the Alt-Right, whether they agree Assad bombed a terrorist warehouse that released the sarin, or claim the sarin was released by the terrorists after Assad dropped a conventional bomb on the street, they all agree that it is ridiculous to think Assad would risk the outrage when the is so close to winning without it.
So, why 5 days later would he gas his own people?
The principal flaw in this argument, this time, is that it was made by many of these same personalities after the sarin attack that killed more than 1400 on 21 August 2013. It was widely held then also, that he was so close to winning that it would be ridiculous for him to risk direct Western military intervention by carrying out the sarin attack he was then accused of. Here are a few examples of that era from just one source, Counterpunch. Andrew Levine used "Cui Bono" to defend Assad in that attack, 27 August 2013:
Maybe Assad really is culpable; he has never been a leader who bothered much about ethical side constraints, and he does seem intent on holding onto power by any means necessary.Stanly Johny chimed in, 30 August 2013:
But the cui bono? (who benefits?) principle suggests the opposite. The Syrian government plainly has enough popular support to withstand the forces arrayed against it. Indeed, it seems to be winning the war.
The Assad government says it is rebels who used chemical weapons. Backers of the regime asks why it should use such weapons at a time when it’s already making gains in the civil war.Ajamu Baraka thought Hillary Clinton much more dangerous than Donald Trump. Last year he was the Green Party vice presidential candidate and together with his running mate, Jill Stein, they diverted enough progressive votes to put Trump in the White House, but in 2013 he was part of the Assad didn't do it chorus, 2 September 2013:
The justification for this breech of the United Nations Charter is based on the dubious claims made by an insurgency, armed and trained by those same western powers and their regional allies, that a chemical attack was launched by the al-Assad government. An attack that illogically and irrationally took place at the precise moment the Syrian government was clearly winning the war against the so-called rebel forces and when United Nations inspectors were already in the country.Now do you see the problem with this argument? It seems rather lame to have argued after the 2013 sarin attack that Assad wouldn't have done it because he was on the verge of winning, and then come back after the civil war has been raging on for another four years to make that same argument, that he wouldn't have done it in April 2017 because he is still on the verge of winning. It just has a kind of "fool me twice, shame on me" feel to it. So maybe we should start looking at some reasons why Assad may have used sarin.
In past blog posts, I have pointed out that chemical weapons, while relatively ineffective against a prepared enemy force, are a preferred weapon for use in the suppression of rebellious civilian populations because it can injure or kill people without destroying property. For precisely that reason, milder chemical agents like tear gas and pepper spray are legal and used by almost every government on the planet. Given the growing intensity of the class struggle worldwide, it is not much of a stretch to imagine a bourgeois desire to bring back stronger toxics, and a plan to use the Syrian conflict to normalize their return. This is in fact, what has been happening. Chemical weapons, once effectively banned, have now been used dozens and dozens of times in the past 5 years, and not just in Syria anymore.
Since Assad's concerns are more immediate, I don't think his desire to normalize the use of CW would play a big role in his decision to use them, but I do think those with broader concerns, in Moscow, Tehran, and even Washington, might see the normalization of CW use as a big win, and be willing to push Assad in that direction. That argument applies to all the CW attacks but also explains why some must be so massive and graphic as to make the news. If people don't know chemical weapons are being used with impunity, their return can't be normalize.
With regards to this most recent attack and response, the cui bono question gets much more complicated. Clearly Donald Trump benefited big time. Before the sarin deaths and his cruise missile response, he was way down in the polls. Most importantly, things had been coming to a head in the investigation into his ties to Putin. Trump's Nunes gambit had fallen apart, and although we didn't know it at the time, Paul Manafort was preparing to register as a foreign agent, we were about to find out that a FISA warrant had been issued on Carter Page, European intelligence agencies were about to weigh in, and much, much more. He badly needed to be rescued. Just about any mass casualty event that allowed him to look presidential would do, and Assad, at Putin's prodding, was only too happy to help him out. I admit this scenario is highly conspiratorial and therefore pretty unlikely. It sees Assad doing the sarin attack so that Trump could bomb the empty airbase and have a big show of falling out with Russia, proving to everyone that there couldn't possibly be any collusion between Trump and Putin. Assad isn't the prime beneficiary in this scenario either, again he would be doing it at the behest of a patron, but that happens quite often. Those gifts are rarely free.
But perhaps the best argument for why Assad would use sarin again in spite of all the downsides, can be found in a couple of tweets I saw this morning:
TRUMP! PUTIN FOOLED OBAMA EVERY NOW AND THEN.— Raed Fares (@RaedFares4) April 16, 2017
Kafranbel 16 April 2017 pic.twitter.com/FgRosUn0tv
#Kafranbel : Some say one million have been killed in the war. @RaedFares4 pic.twitter.com/3R7u4QznpQ— Christian Turner (@CombatChris1) April 16, 2017
Trump! toppling Assad down to stay far away from to be the next— Raed Fares (@RaedFares4) April 16, 2017
Kafranbel 16 April 2017 pic.twitter.com/lSTgpWN1OH
That is because the spirit of revolution lives in the hearts of the people. It is not a question of numbers killed or territory conquered, as long as the flames of liberty remain alive in the people, the revolution is not defeated. In point of fact, it can never be defeated, only delayed. Braking the revolution requires breaking the people's spirit. This is why such horrific violence is employed against civilians. LBJ-Nixon thought they could whip the rebellion out of the Vietnamese and killed more than three million trying. Assad has killed a half million of his own people and still they will not bow down to him. A sarin attack, especially if there is no effective response from the world, is extremely demoralizing, and after six years he is becoming increasingly desperate and willing to try anything. I think that is the main reason why he used sarin on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, 4 April 2017.
Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!