Why does Assad use chemical weapons?

What does Assad gain by using chemical weapons versus something more conventional? The downsides seem many in terms of international condemnation (he went from Trump ignoring him to threatening military action in one day). So what advantage outweighs that?

I can’t imagine it’s tactical, but maybe I’m wrong. My guess would be the terror aspect of chemical weapons, with the intention of demoralizing and crushing the spirit of the opposition. That seems like a small advantage, given that the opposition was already losing.

He can kill lots of his enemies with minimal effort, he doesn’t care about international condemnation (otherwise he would have abdicated ages ago, given his regime’s abysmal human rights record), and doesn’t expect that more powerful nations will actually do anything of consequence against him over it. So why not?

(emphasis added)

Is the bolded part really true? It’s easier and more efficient to use chemicals versus just dropping a bomb? I’d think a good bombing run could kill more than 86 people (or whatever the current estimate is).

In order to terrorize the populace?

Would you want the president of your nation, if under attack by a credible force capable of overturning your way of life, to place philosophical limits on what he would do to defend the nation? Or would you want him to tweet that he is sorry, he cannot defend the nation, because to do so, he would have to break the rules of war?

The situation in Syria is nowhere near as clean cut as many would like to present it. Assad took power with the anticipation of the international community that he would reform and liberalize the system, and shortly thereafter started to ramp up repression due (at least in part) to threats from various fundamentalst Islamic groups, ISIS being the largest aggregate of them. The US-backed rebels opposed the Ba’athist Assad rigme ostensibly for democratic freedoms, primarily represented as teh Syrian National Coalition and its military arm, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the FSA has had a lot of infighting and spent a lot of time in activities that would widely be regarded as terroristic, including destruction of infrastructure critical to the health and well-being of the citizenry.

Assad’s use of chemical weapons that are almost universally banned in lawful warfare probably represents the relatively weak state of the Syrian armed forces, a lack of intelligence about specific locations of rebel leaders or forces, and a demonstration of what happens to citizens who wilfully aid in the concealment of rebels. That he is killing many innocent non-combatants including children shows a calous disregard for basic human decency but I suspect Assed sees himself up against a wall with rifles pointed at him if he can’t control rebel forces to which his conscripts keep defecting and so is willing to do just about anything including perpetrating war crimes aganst noncombatants. It’s shitty, but in context understandable if not excusible.

Syria, of course, has become something of a proxy war between the US and Russia, with both sides providing aid, supplies, training, and probably weapons. Assad bears prinipal responsibility for the illegal and inhumane use of chemical weapons but everybody invovled has some blood on their hands. Arguments for increased US intervention, based on the premise that we must “do something”, ignore the point that withou direct large scale military intervention the Assad regime will probably remain in power indefinitely, and we’ve seen just how those regime-changing interventions in the have gone for us in recent memory, so even people who can’t remember back to forty years ago should still be able to comprehend why that is not a workable solution.

The situation is, in other words, a charlie foxtrot of magnificent proportions. Or, as the Marines call it, “A big mutha clustah fuck!”


Thanks, Stranger. So am I understanding you correctly that you think his use is both tactical (easiest way to kill people given the weak Syrian armed forces and lack of intelligence on rebel leaders) and terror (demonstration of what happens to citizens who hide rebels)?

I’m still not understanding the timing. The rebels had suffered significant losses recently, especially with the U.S. giving Russia more latitude to act as they desired. What made it advantageous to use chemicals now?

I can’t begin to understand the mentality of these guys. Why does Kim Jong-un develop nukes and fire ballistic missiles, while causing misery to his people? Why do some of these African, but not only African, dictators do anything to hang on to power when they have already ripped off millions, if not billions, that they could never spend in their lifetime. What did Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi’s power eventually get them? Murdered. They could have easily cut a deal and lived a life of luxury but that wasn’t enough.

There is something in the “power” mentality that has nothing to do with what you or I can understand. Murder and carnage is apparently more powerful than great sex and luxurious living to them.

I don’t think we can understand.

Facing a target that is well protected by solid building or field fortifications but doesn’t have protective gear, chemicals can increase your ability to effectively produce casualties. An agent, like Sarin, which is heavier than air will also tend to sink down into places like bunkers, trenches and basements that can be harder to target with conventional muntions.

Just looking at part of the casualty numbers (wounded are an issue typical media reports ignore) devoid of a full tactical situation hides some of the effects that can be useful as well. The start of my Army career still had us dealing with threats, usually dubbed the Krasnovians, employing Soviet doctrine with respect to how to employ chemical weapons. Since a lot of the potential adversaries used Soviet doctrine, or modified versions, along with Soviet produced weapons for conventional ops it wasn’t a completely off base threat for training.

Mostly Soviet chemical doctrine was not about maximizing casualties so much as synchronizing the chemical attack to support the overall mission being successful. Chemicals can deter unprotected forces from moving in/through the affected area potentially allowing an attacker to shape the battlefield and isolate other elements from support. The need to check for contamination, decontaminate those exposed, and treat casualties that didn’t outright die all place strains on mission command and logistics while slowing the pace of operations for those affected and those nearby.

The goal in battle is rarely just to maximize the efficiency of killing, although Assad has some distinct motivations to heavily attrit both the rebels and their supporting populations. Killing is a tool achieve the overall endstate not the endstate itself. It’s hard to tell in the media reports just what the situation is and how the strike might have been synchronized with it. It’s kind of like seeing only one card in your own poker hand and wondering why Assad made the bet he did based on the 51 other cards he might hold.

New US President. Putin wants to see what happens when he’s under pressure.

I agree, but I’m not trying to understand why he wants to stay in power. I’m curious about the specific calculation that using chemical weapons now is the best option for him. If the rebels were poised to overrun his last hideout, then I’d understand going with whatever he had available. But that wasn’t the case - he was already winning. I don’t think Assad is stupid, so what’s the reason?

ETA: DinoR, your post helps with my understanding (or at least realizing there are probably why I don’t understand).

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There was a phrase from the sand table portion of training tactics at my Officer Basic Course that might shed a touch more light. It sort of become rote, especially for the test ;), to summarize just what our tank platoon was doing during the assault portion on a defensive position. “Using all weapons at the appropriate ranges on the appropriate targets.” It was discussing our various machine guns and the tank main gun at the very small tactical level. There’s some relevance to your question.

Assad has demonstrated a willingness to treat chemicals as just another weapons system. He’s used them repeatedly and is in a pretty safe position to continue to use them as long as Putin continues to support a veto of any UNSC resolution to refer him to the International Criminal Court. (Syria isn’t a signatory to the ICC. UNSC action is the other way to indict him.) As long as he stays clear of going so far the IC outright invades there’s not much more to lose by using using them more. He doesn’t need to save them for only the most extreme circumstances.

He may well just be using them at “appropriate ranges on the appropriate targets.”

Troutman: you keep saying :“the rebels”. That’s your first mistake.

There aren’t “the rebels”. There are a couple dozen groups each fighting each other *and *the government. There is no coherent opposition nor do any of the rebel groups share any goals except individual success leading to individual rights to spoils.

As such, the Assad regime is to the point that it really can’t tell anything about anything on the ground. Anyone out there in the Syrian public is either in the uniform of the regime or is a civilian / rebel / refugee / sympathizer / who knows / who cares.

At which point simply killing them all and letting Allah sort them out becomes a “logical” approach for the regime to take. By the evil logic of total warfare.

Yeah, my question wasn’t so much “why kill them,” it was why use chemical weapons versus other weapons. DinoR’s responses are more in line with what I was attempting to ask. But your points are well taken and help give context for the kind of battle he is fighting.

The question being asked is exactly the question Assad himself asked, not just after this newest chemical attack but also the chemical attack in East Ghouta in 2013 that triggered Obama’s “Red line”. In that episode the Syrian government claimed that it was a false flag attack by the rebels in an effort to draw the US into the war. In this current episode there is no such claim, instead it is claimed that conventional bombs had struck a rebel stockpile of chemical weapons. It’s not implausible that the rebels might have chemical weapons, Syria pre-civil war had a large stockpile of CWs and the rebels have through capture and defection obtained large stockpiles of government weapons of all kinds. It’s not a bad point, really.

And by “rebels” I mean “Al Qaeda”, since the area the attack happened is controlled by Al Qaeda and there will not be any sort of western reporting in the location because Al Qaeda will kidnap and behead any reporters who show up, as they have done in the past. There are non-Al Qaeda groups that operate in the area but they cannot guarantee anyone’s safety from AL Qaeda.

Indeed. Remember that the previous administration highly touted its negotiation of an agreement in 2013 whereby Syria supposedly destroyed all of its chemical weapons. This attack is a pointed repudiation of that effort and an implicit challenge to the current president.

I dunno about ‘implicit’. Hey, Putin did him a favour waiting 70 days.

All Assad did was to assure that he will end up dancing on the end of a rope ala Sadam or spend the rest of his life in prison. He really has no positive way out of this.

I was listening to nor talk about this. The argument is that assad isn’t just trying to intimidate his enemies, he is letting his allies know that he expects to stay in power. Using wmd is a way to say to Iran, Russia, etc that the regime is willing to flaunt international law because they know they are in power and will stay in power, and have nothing to fear.