BEIRUT: While Western powers have blamed Syria’s regime for this week’s suspected chemical attack, questions remain over why it would make such a move following a string of victories and a diplomatic comeback.
The alleged toxic gas strike in Syria’s northwest prompted the United States to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airbase in the early hours of Friday morning.
US President Donald Trump said Damascus was “directly linked to the horrific chemical weapons attack” on Tuesday which killed at least 86 people including 27 children.
But it remains unclear why President Bashar al-Assad’s government would have ordered the strike — and to what extent his inner circle was involved.
“It’s not an isolated thing. They have been doing this for quite some time,” said Salman Shaikh, founder and CEO of regional consultancy the Shaikh Group.
The government had carried out previous chemical attacks as a “test to see if there is pushback” from the West, he said.
This time around, Shaikh said, there were indications senior regime officials, including Assad’s powerful brother Maher, were “in a panic,” perhaps revealing the operation may have been carried out without their approval.
The West has pressed sanctions against Syria’s regime since the early days of the conflict, which erupted in 2011 with anti-Assad protests.
But efforts for stronger action at the UN have been repeatedly blocked by Assad’s main ally Russia — even after a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb killed hundreds in 2013.
Backed by Russia, the regime has been gaining the upper hand in the war, recapturing second city Aleppo in December and continuing to position itself as a potential partner against extremist groups.
Reed Foster, an analyst at IHS Jane’s, a London-based think-tank, said it remained unclear why the regime would carry out such an operation — particularly in light of Trump’s reaction.
“The attack itself opened the way for further US or Western military intervention to degrade Syrian military capabilities,” he said.
Malcome Chalmers, research director at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), said the strikes were part of a “pattern we’ve seen again and again”.
“This is part of a very established pattern of seeking to demoralise civilian populations in areas not under government control. These were not military strikes, these were very clearly intended to demoralise civilian populations,” he said.
“The regime still believes it can establish control over much larger areas of Syria.”
Some analysts believe Syrian forces may have carried out the attack without the go-ahead of President Assad.
“I think there are hardliners in Damascus who ordered the strike to get back at the Russians who are negotiating at the expense of the Syrians,” said Fabrice Balanche, an analyst at the Washington Institute.
“If the Russians and the regime stay calm, there will be no further escalation after Friday’s strike. The aim is to punish the regime for its excesses, not to get into a confrontation,” Balanche said.
He suspected that Russian President Vladimir Putin was likely furious with Assad over the strike but felt “obliged to support him”.
Some suspicion has also fallen on Iran carrying out the suspected toxic air raid, envious of the clout Russia has gained in Syria.
A Lebanese researcher who did not wish to give his name as he works inside Syria said “Iran should not be ruled out because it does not want to see a rapprochement between the United States and Syria.”
‘No interest’ in confrontation
Observers had expected Assad to be keen to preserve his return to the international fold, particularly after US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Washington no longer prioritised his ouster.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said during a late March visit to Turkey that the once-embattled leader’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people”.
Waddah Abed Rabbo, editor-in-chief of Syria’s pro-regime Al-Watan daily, said the regime had “no interest in launching a chemical attack especially just after Assad obtained got what he’s wanted for six years — recognition and legitimacy from the United States.”
“Why would he ruin this opportunity by launching a chemical attack in a town of no strategic or military importance?” he asked.
It was “likely the Turks who carried out the operation because the rapprochement between the Syrian government and Washington is unacceptable for them,” he said.
“This whole operation put them back on the main stage and brings them closer to the Americans, with the hope that Washington will change its mind about Assad,” he said.