Even before the first deadly chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians by the government of president Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Civil War has been one of the worst and most brutal conflicts in living memory. Now, the world has witnessed yet another horrifying chemical weapons attack as reported early last week in the village of Khan Sheikhoun near the rebel-held city of Idlib. Though Syria's ally Russia had apparently helped broker a deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons after the first major attack in 2013, it's clear that not everything was removed from this stockpile. Despite international condemnation and retaliatory strikes by the U.S. military, it isn't quite clear yet that Assad has been deterred from the continued use of these weapons. Why? Because, to put it simply, they work. This week, we'll explain the three main reasons why Assad's chemical weapons attacks are totally working in his favor.
1) Domestically: He is able to terrify those who oppose him
Obviously, the group that is most impacted by these attacks is the Syrian population itself. In addition to the physical casualties that the rebel supporting populations have incurred, chemical weapons attacks also have a substantial psychological effect. Though Assad's forces have killed far more civilians and rebel fighters through methods such as starvation, conventional weapons, and barrel bombs, chemical attacks are intentionally used to terrify civilian populations to persuade them against supporting rebel groups. And the modern age of social media and live video streaming means that the horrific videos of these attacks can be seen and heard by nearly every person in the country.
It's tough to tell exactly how effective this tactic has been on discouraging rebel participation or support. But if Assad's current progress in winning the Syrian Civil War is any indicator, it likely isn't hurting his chances. Adding to this tragedy is the reality that in many cases the rebels are just as brutal as the Syrian governmental forces, so many civilians have little choice but to support them anyway. Still, a ruler who is willing to use chemical weapons against his own citizens is not likely to maintain the lasting support of his people. Fear can only keep people in line for so long.
2) Regionally: It Shows He Has No Reservations About Using Them In a Regional War
Assad's chemical weapons attacks don't just terrify his own people, they also send a strong signal to his many neighboring adversaries in the Middle East. If he is willing to use them against his own people, would anything stop him from using them in a regional war? Chemical weapons attacks were a devastating hallmark of the Iran-Iraq war (which lasted nearly a decade and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths). Syria's regional enemies (Israel, Jordan, parts of Iraq...) now have little reason to believe that Assad wouldn't immediately deploy chemical weapons on their armies or cities in the event of regional hostilities. You may recall the use of chemical weapons was one of the biggest fears of the First Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.
But that's not the only problem here. Chemical weapons are not unlike nuclear weapons in that deterrence is key. When one nation obtains these weapons, others are encouraged to get them too in order to prevent getting attacked themselves. If left unchecked, this could spark a chemical weapons arms race as other nations begin to build their own programs to help protect themselves against a chemical first strike (though to be fair that didn't quite deter this behavior in the Iran-Iraq war).
3) Internationally: It Puts Everyone Else In A No-Win Situation
But in all, the biggest factor which likely led to this latest attack was the international reaction. One of the biggest consequences of the first attack was that it forced President Obama to commit to his "redline" (where Obama declared that chemical weapons attacks would merit a strong U.S. response). When he (and the rest of the world) didn't back it up, it proved to Syria that it could get away with almost anything and it showed America's allies in the region that the U.S. and Europe didn't really have their backs in regional conflicts. This new attack has essentially put the new administration to the same test. After all, the attack came only one day after administration officials declared that Syria was no longer a vital American interest. So after Assad's attack killed over a hundred civilians, it all but ensured at least some American response. If Trump did nothing, it would have proven America is still not willing to back up its allies or that its threats are credible.
But last week's missile strikes and promises of continued action are at least proving that the United States will enforce the international norms against chemical weapons attacks. However, it also opens America up to all of the problems of getting involved in a regional war (and means that the U.S. may need to partially own the result of the war once it is concluded). The United States has already deployed a small (but increasing) number of military forces into Syria, supposedly for the fight against ISIS in its self-declared capital of Raqqa. So the added escalation of missile strikes directly against the Assad regime further increases the reality that America will need to have a solid postwar plan for Syria.
In all, it's fortunate to see the United States once again enforcing international norms against the use of chemical weapons. Since last week's military strikes were targeted specifically against the Syrian airbases which were believed to have launched the attack, it serves a dual purpose. First, it obviously helps prevent Syria from launching another chemical airstrike (though they still likely have artillery they can use which can fire chemical rounds). Second, it forces the Russian air force to either increase its support for the Assad regime to replace Syria's lost fighter jets, or let Syria go without the critical air support it will need to continue the war. Already, there are reports that Syrian planes are flying out of the targeted airbase to launch new attacks, so the impact of this strike is somewhat questionable already. Still, the administration must be cautious about limiting the scope of this intervention. If the response is too strong, it could risk embroiling America in a direct war against the Syrian government. If the response is too weak (or nonexistent), it further discredits the stated commitments and promises of the American military. And finally, it would do nothing to discourage the continued use of these terrible weapons that, as we have seen these past few years, clearly work.