Why would Assad use sarin in a war he’s winning? To terrify Syrians

Annia Ciezadlo writes: In the summer of 1925, rebels from the Syrian countryside mounted a guerrilla uprising against French colonial rule. The French retaliated by looting, burning and carrying out massacres in villages they suspected of supporting the rebels. That October, French authorities executed around 100 villagers outside Damascus. They displayed 16 of the mutilated corpses in the capital’s main public square; La Syrie, the government newspaper, called the row of bodies “a splendid hunting score.”

The French had no military reason to do this. Although they had underestimated the rebels at first, they were sure to defeat the vastly outgunned Syrian peasants in the end. The line of butchered bodies was there to send a message: This is the fate of rebels and those who support them.

Last week, warplanes dropped a chemical agent — most likely sarin gas, according to doctors who treated the victims — on a town in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib called Khan Sheikhoun. As gruesome pictures emerged of men, women and children convulsing and foaming at the mouth before dying, a simple question came to dominate the discussion online. From the far right of Mike Cernovich and Ron Paul to the anti-imperialist left, the question was: Why would Assad gas his own people when he was already winning the war? The Syrian regime had already regained control of rebel-held east Aleppo and was in the midst of evacuating the country’s few remaining rebel-held enclaves. So why would Assad provoke international outrage with needless carnage, when he had much to lose and little concrete military gain?

“We still don’t know exactly what happened in Syria and who was responsible,” wrote the far-left writer and commentator Rania Khalek on Twitter, “but fact remains that Syrian govt gains nothing from a CW attack.” The far-right conservative commentator and talk-radio host Michael Savage put it more succinctly: “Now what would Assad have gained by doing that? Is he stupid?”

In the increasingly influential world of conspiracy websites like Infowars, this simple question — and the lack of definitive answers — has managed to sow doubt. As it spread online, the idea that Assad had nothing to gain from a chemical attack fed into a vortex of claims that the Khan Sheikhoun gas attack was a false flag, an elaborate hoax designed to justify a U.S. military intervention in Syria. President Trump’s missile strikes on April 6, and his administration’s abrupt about-face on the question of regime change, have only bolstered that theory.

What these American observers don’t grasp is that Assad doesn’t care about them: He plays less to the West than to his internal audience. The videos of children and first responders dying from sarin gas horrified people, but this is exactly what they were intended to do: They were meant to strike fear into rebels, and send the message that the war was over. [Continue reading…]

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