It’s been all over the news, and as far as the actual events are concerned you probably know as much as I do. There are a few items worthy of note, however, that aren’t all over the headlines, and it’s highly likely the details will be forgotten as the global situation continues to develop.
First, a quick recap: On 04 April, following a government airstrike on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, several civilians began experiencing symptoms commensurate with the aftereffects of a sarin gas attack. Local medical personnel working for the opposition reported this; it was later confirmed by independents, journalists, and aid workers. Syrian officials stated that this was a result of their airstrike destroying a rebel munitions factory or warehouse, and the Russian defense ministry echoed them; the majority of the world’s governments found this implausible. On 07 April, President Trump ordered a retaliatory missile strike against the Syrian airfield from which the strikes originated.
Assad’s government has a history of using sarin against opposition strongholds, and until recently Syria had signed no international agreements prohibiting its use. In 2013 this was changed, and the United Nations supervised the removal and destruction of massive gas stockpiles. Some attacks occurred while U.N. inspectors were actually in the country, after which then-President Obama asked Congress to authorize military action in response. Congress declined to act.
Veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has reported that Assad did not in fact use poison gas in the past, and in his articles he does raise some interesting points. However, verifying his sources for many of his major points has proven problematic, and the general premises of his articles have been extensively debunked. In particular, both the delivery mechanisms and level of manufacturing capacity of the rebel groups at that time was demonstrably not as Hersh asserted. (Confusion over “Volcano” rockets is natural, as Syrian government forces and the rebels each use a different weapon with this name. The government rocket is complex and huge, whereas the rebel rocket is something that could be produced in a simple machine shop. I’ll get into sarin manufacture later.)
There is, then, little disagreement that this sort of gas attack would be in character for Assad and his government. And yet, this would seem a shortsighted, even a Quixotic, action given the present circumstances; the United States has recently deployed a small detachment into the north of the country, and has been working well with Russia. As late as last week, members of the international community have spoken in favor of re-legitimizing his rule. So why would he discard all of these potential gains now, of all times, and in exchange for such a small thing?
The answer to this is bound up in that to another, larger question: Why would Assad need chemical weapons at all? Why would anyone, especially in a day when they are considered inhuman?
The most cogently expressed answer to this question that I’ve found to date was in a 1991 policy paper published by the Washington Institute, a non-partisan think tank which offers expertise on the particular problems in the Middle east. This paper, entitled “The Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb“, explains the reasoning behind the pursuit of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capability by the governments of Syria, Iran, and Iraq under Hussein. Briefly, it’s that these countries are seeking supremacy among themselves by finding an answer to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The dream is that one government will become preeminent by forcing a solution to the Palestine problem, and then raise a Caliphate which will claim rulership over all the nations of Islam. (Arguably, Iran can reasonably be thought to be more concerned about India.)
Of more immediate practicality, a strongman dictator like Assad is constantly engaged in a dance of dominance within his own country, drawing supporters away from his rivals by engaging in displays of strength and machismo. (Imagine a vice-presidential candidate going skeet-shooting for a comparison.) In order to retain power, he cannot be seen as a puppet, and he needs to show his willingness to oppose or at least defy the traditional enemies of his people. By maintaining a chemical weapons stockpile in defiance of the United Nations, Assad is very clearly demonstrating not only that but also his ability to manipulate his ally, Russia. Recently, he fired at Israeli jets that were sortieing against Hezbollah militants operating in the north, showing his independence from Iran; firing gas weapons in Idlib, if done with impunity, would likewise show the stability of his power.
We can conclude then that Assad had a motive — perhaps not a sane motive from our perspectives, but nevertheless a reasonable enough one for a strongman dictator in the Middle East. And, despite the inspectors and the destruction of stockpiles, it’s quite likely that he had the capability; the facilities that he used in the past to generate sarin still stand, and his government is known to hold several hundred tons of the chemical precursors.
Unlike chlorine or even mustard gas, sarin is quite difficult to produce. It requires a fairly complex reaction, but it could be generated in tiny quantities in someone’s garage. The Tokyo attack in 1995 showed that domestic manufacture was possible outside a sophisticated laboratory, but it also demonstrated the limitations of such; the gas released by Aum Shinrikyo was of poor quality and concentration, and above all was excessively difficult to handle due to the high acid content. All military production has to be chemically stabilized for storage; otherwise, it can rapidly destroy the warheads and rockets used to deploy it.
So it’s unlikely rebels would have had the capacity to produce military-grade sarin in quantity, and given that they have known stockpiles of simpler, cheaper, and more stable gas weapons like chlorine, it seems even less likely that they would have wanted to. The only plausible scenarios which place sarin in rebel hands involve either illicit stocks stolen from government forces (which would in turn demonstrate recent manufacture) or imported warheads. A deliberate “false flag” event perpetrated by rebel forces would be logical, but the difficulty of organizing it would have been extreme. The official explanation, that of an airstrike impacting on a rebel bomb factory, would only match the dispersion of this attack if the sarin was stored pre-mixed on or near a powerful high-brisance explosive device — itself unlikely, as the acid vapors given off by sarin would be likely to contaminate high explosives or even detonate them on contact.
In time, most of these questions can be answered with a high degree of certainty. Soil samples gathered from the affected area would reveal traces of the acids and stabilizing agents used in sarin manufacture, and the corpses of victims examined in Turkey would also retain enough for analysis. This information could easily be used to trace the gas all the way back to its manufacturer. To be sure, given the time involved, it’s not at all unlikely that American intelligence went through all those steps before the attack, though there’s no way to know.
But it was geopolitically expedient for President Trump to act, and act quickly. The strike was precisely timed to coincide with his dinner meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, and it served to emphasize the role the Trump Administration would like for China to play in restraining North Korea. Viewed in that fashion, it was an act of brutal and yet almost sublimely eloquent diplomacy — one that would certainly be perfectly understandable to any strongman dictator.
Like Assad, for instance.