The World

When Chemical Weapons Are Smart Politics

During a rally on Sept. 1, 2013, in Hatay, Syria, a protester waves a Syrian flag with the photograph of a deeply cynical—and tragically effective—man.

Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

In the two weeks since the gas attacks in the suburbs of Damascus that killed more than 1,000 people and may yet trigger a U.S. military response, a lot of people have been wondering what Bashar al-Assad could have been thinking. Given that President Obama had made it quite clear that the Syrian government could do whatever it wanted without triggering U.S. intervention except for using chemical weapons, why would he tempt fate? The question of motivations has even led some commentators to question if the Syrian government actually did carry out the attack, or whether the rebels themselves might have been trying to trigger an international intervention.

For some clarity on what might have motivated Assad, I talked today with NYU political scientist Alastair Smith, co-author with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of The Dictator’s Handbook. The 2011 book is a brutally cynical analysis of why autocrats behave the way they do. In Smith and Bueno de Mesquita’s view, leaders are motivated almost entirely by the desire to stay in power, and to understand their behavior, you have to look at their “winning coalition”—the small cadre of supporters who actually keep them in office. Dictators fall from power not when their people rise up against them, but when their core supporters abandon them—think of how Egypt’s powerful military turned on Hosni Mubarak and then Mohammed Morsi.

In the Syrian case, Smith told me that he thinks the use of chemical weapons was a risky but shrewd move that had less to do with punishing the rebels than with sending a signal to his core supporters—predominantly members of the Alawite religious sect—and his most important international allies:

First of all, using chemical weapons has absolutely cemented that for Assad there can be no soft landing. That has two effects: Domestically, it has signaled to his coalition that they should stick with him. He’s there for the long run and there’s no easy way out for him, so they know he won’t desert them. These crimes against humanity have also made it very clear that it’s going to be very bad for the Alawites if there’s any political transition, which makes them even more loyal to him. They have nowhere else to go.

It’s also been a brilliant play internationally. The extent of the chemical weapons has not been so much that Obama’s willing to put ground forces in. The airstrikes they are discussing are unlikely to be a decisive military factor. And Russia and Iran would love to snub the nose of the U.S. and this is a perfect way to do it. The U.S. is going to have to go it alone if they do it, and this is a great way for Russia and Iran to make the U.S. look impotent and pathetic. Russia’s going to continue supplying [Assad] with weapons and Iran’s going to keep supplying him with money. So this was actually a brilliant play from him.  

If you take this view of Assad’s motivations, it doesn’t bode well for the potential of U.S. airstrikes to change the dynamics of the conflict or even deter future chemical weapons use. Smith feels that Assad is “probably terrified of losing some of his fighter jets, but there’s only so much the U.S. can do. The more the U.S. tries to blow stuff up, the more the Iranians will give him money and the Russians will give him hardware.”

The Dictator’s Handbook view of politics is often illuminating but rarely encouraging. When I asked Smith what lessons other autocratic leaders are likely taking from Assad’s handling of the civil war, he replied, “Be brutal. Use whatever means you have to get money, find international allies to fund you, and use brutally repressive techniques because it will work. If he hadn’t been brutal, he would be gone.”