BEIRUT — 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 about 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.
This month, warplanes dropped a chemical agent — most likely sarin , 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 attack his own people when he was already winning the war? The Syrian regime had regained control of rebel-held east Aleppo and was in the midst of evacuating people from the country’s few remaining rebel enclaves. So why would Assad provoke international outrage with needless carnage, when he had much to lose and saw little concrete military gain?
“We still don’t know exactly what happened in Syria and who was responsible,” far-left writer and commentator Rania Khalek wrote on Twitter, “but fact remains that Syrian govt gains nothing from a CW attack.” 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 such as 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 attack was a false flag, an elaborate hoax designed to justify 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 poisoning horrified people, and 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.
History tells us that Assad had plenty to gain from using chemical weapons, U.S. Tomahawk missiles notwithstanding. Since last year, the Syrian government has been mopping up rebel-held enclaves around Damascus and offering their residents “cease-fire” deals — essentially negotiated surrenders. Each agreement is different, but most allow some people to evacuate to Idlib, the most significant remaining redoubt of rebel-held territory. The area around Khan Sheikhoun had seen sporadic fighting in the days before the sarin attack; for anyone contemplating a desperate last stand in Idlib, the message was clear: Don’t even think about it.
The chemical attack came at a time when Assad’s military is overstretched. Chemical weapons are a cheap, effective force multiplier — a way to inflict terror despite limitations of manpower and supply. Their use instills fear in civilians and rebels alike. By discouraging them from joining the last pockets of resistance, this tactic saves Assad something more precious than money: time. The sooner he finishes cleaning up, the more money he saves, and the sooner he can start raking in the billions that international donors and investors have already pledged to “reconstruct” his shattered country.
So much for not having anything to gain. As for what Assad had to lose, that’s a more complicated question. He wouldn’t have been foolish enough to use chemical weapons after agreeing to give them up, according to one common line of thinking, because that would open him up to exactly the kind of military and diplomatic reprisals that the Trump administration is now threatening. If he did use chemical weapons inside Syria, the journalist and commentator Elijah Magnier wrote, “the consequences would be entirely to his disadvantage on all fronts, military, political, and international.”
But there’s a major hole in that argument: Assad has already used chemical weapons to kill his own people, and he has paid a negligible price. Why would he risk it again? Because his experience shows him that he’ll probably face only minimal consequences. In fact, a look at history — particularly Syrian history — shows that he has everything to gain.
If Assad did, in fact, miscalculate his advantage, it wouldn’t be the first time. He may have overplayed his hand, but he has done so before, like his father did, and has always survived. In 2005, when a massive truck bomb killed the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq al-Hariri, a onetime ally who had turned against Assad, pundits predicted the Syrian president’s downfall. White House officials stepped up efforts to isolate him; then-French President Jacques Chirac lobbied for Hariri’s killers to be brought before an international tribunal; the United Nations launched an investigation of the killing. That investigation is still dragging on, all but forgotten. The same strategy worked in 2013: By agreeing to give up his chemical weapons and engaging in pointless “peace talks,” Assad bought himself enough time to let the memory of the attack recede.
Assad has enough experience in the language of political symbols to know that the recent U.S. airstrikes are insignificant in military terms. Much like the Khan Sheikhoun attack, they are more about sending a message and projecting an image. Never mind that the U.S. military had already conducted 7,469 airstrikes inside Syria by the end of March; Trump’s missile strikes drew attention away from the very chemical attack they were intended to punish — as well as from Trump’s political flounderings — by pushing them both off the front page in favor of breathless coverage of the largely symbolic strikes.
The history of warfare is littered with dead rebels. In 71 B.C., after putting down Spartacus and his slave rebellion, the victorious Romans lined the Appian Way with the crucified bodies of 6,000 defeated slaves. The Romans had nothing to gain; the slaves had already lost. They did it to send a message.
“Punish them as they deserve, and teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death,” said the Athenian leader Cleon during the Peloponnesian War. A populist known for dramatic, bloodthirsty speeches, he urged Athens to execute all males from the rebellious Greek city of Mytilene. “For if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling.”
Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, might have been following Cleon’s advice in 1982. When the Muslim Brotherhood seized control of the city of Hama, Hafez al-Assad sealed it off and sent in his military. Over the next three weeks, the army killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people — to this day, no one knows exactly how many — most of them civilians. His son Bashar was 16.
Hafez al-Assad never paid any price for the massacre. On the contrary, he gained: The rebellion was put down, and he went on to become a valuable strategic ally of many countries, including the United States. He ruled until his death in 2000. His son inherited the presidency.