- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
One of the intriguing uncertainties surrounding the Syrian chemical weapons crisis is the question of motive: Why would Bashar al-Assad’s regime do something that would risk U.S. military reprisals? Framed in this "who benefits?" way, the question seems to answer itself: Surely Assad does not want a U.S. military reprisal, so he would not have done something that would catalyze a reprisal. The rebels, however, did want to draw the United States in. Since, according to this line of reasoning, the rebels are the ones most likely to benefit, isn’t it possible that they manufactured the chemical use? This is the official Syrian position, backed at least by the Russians. And there is some historical precedent for this, as Alan Kuperman has argued with respect to the Balkans.
Barack Obama’s administration is confident that this is not what happened in this case. Indeed, without using the unfortunate phrasing, it has boasted that it has a slam-dunk case of Syrian guilt. There is always a chance that the Obama administration and the über-confident intelligence assessment are wrong. And it may be years before we have all the evidence we need to reach a conclusion provable in a court of law.
However, we already know enough to reason our way to a plausible explanation that answers the "how could the Syrian regime miscalculate this badly and do something that triggers a U.S. response" question in a manner that supports the Obama administration’s side of the story. All that is needed is two crucial steps to be true:
Step 1: The Assad regime must have believed that it could get away with small chemical attacks — attacks big enough to terrorize the rebels and divert rebel resources, but small enough to avoid triggering U.S. action. According to Obama administration sources, Assad’s regime may already have done this in the spring. The Syria-related signaling from the Obama administration has been confusing over the past two years, but one unmistakable message has gotten through: President Obama is reluctant to intervene in the Syrian crisis and has tolerated a humanitarian disaster far in excess of what any single chemical weapons attack could produce. This is not to claim that Obama has been insensitive, uncaring, or even necessarily wrong in his judgment about U.S. national interests and the utility of U.S. military options. But let us be clear: The Assad regime had lots of reason to doubt Obama’s resolve and to believe that it could escalate a bit without triggering a U.S. response.
Step 2: The Assad regime did not expect the chemical attack last week to be quite as vivid an escalation as it turned out to be. A crucial part of this explanation is that the regime must have wanted a smaller escalation than the one that happened. According to FP‘s Noah Shachtman, that is exactly what happened. In an exclusive based on intelligence sources, Shachtman claims, "Last Wednesday [Aug. 21], in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people." In other words, the allegedly overheard conversations convinced the intelligence community that the Syrian regime knew that it had done the chemical attack but was shocked at the scale of the results. Thus, whether due to human error, the friction of military operations, or other miscalculations, the Syrian regime overshot its purported target of escalation and may have inadvertently triggered a U.S. response.
This is not the only plausible interpretation of the available evidence. The intelligence Shachtman cites could also indicate unauthorized use by lower-level commanders that surprised the regime not merely in the scale but also in the very existence of the attack. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps Assad actually wants to draw the United States in because he calculates that Obama’s manifest desire not to intervene in the civil war will yield a tepid U.S. strike that Assad can easily withstand. Defying the United States and living to boast about it might be the game-changer Assad needs to demoralize the rebels into making major concessions. Or perhaps key parts of the evidence are flawed and something else entirely has happened. It would not be the first time that the intelligence community missed a slam dunk.
However, we know enough to say one thing: The possibility that Assad might not have wanted to suffer the U.S. military reprisal that seems imminent is not strong evidence that the regime did not authorize the chemical attack. In fact, the preponderance of the evidence available at this time makes it highly plausible that Assad thought Obama was bluffing and thought he, Assad, could get away with calling it, provided he did so on the margins.