When reports of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government began emerging late last week, they were met with skepticism. Among the questions raised was why Syrian President Bashir al-Assad would do such a thing. Syrian government forces had been making battlefield gains, and were not in the sort of desperate position that would explain such a dramatic action. Such a massacre - Doctors Without Borders reported 355 dead men, women, and children, killed by a neurotoxin, and over 3000 injured - would be a highly provocative act that brought with it the possibility of armed intervention by the West. What motive could they have for such an act?
Join me below the calligraphy dp for one possible explanation.
Throughout the Syrian Civil War, and for many years prior, the Syrian government has been an Iranian ally. As regional politics have broken down along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni vs. Shia, in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, that relationship has only grown stronger. Against this backdrop, the United States has been engaged in a standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. American-led international sanctions have brought relations to a low point. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad took a hard line against a negotiated settlement with the United States, and both countries settled in for the long haul. This was all to the good for Syria.
And then, in mid-June, the Iranian Presidential elections were won by Hassan Rouhani, who signaled throughout his campaign that he would take a softer line towards talks with the Americans, and who confirmed his desire for a negotiated settlement upon taking office.
Fast forward five weeks, and this happened: the CIA released documents confirming - to the utter surprise of nobody - that it was involved in the 1953 coup that overthrew Iranian President Mohammed Mossedegh. This past weekend, the CIA, perhaps discovering that confession is good for the soul, came clean on yet another old sin: they released files showing American complicity in the Iraqi chemical weapons attacks against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.
Why the sudden openness, and why about Iran? One explanation is that the Obama administration is taking steps to demonstrate its good faith ahead of a new round of talks with Iran. Syria has a great deal to lose from any rapprochement between Iran and the US, particularly given its reliance on support from the Iranian government and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, another Iranian client. An American attack on Syria could put any such warming of relations on indefinite hold.
Why would Assad launch a chemical weapons attack at this juncture, knowing that it could well generate an American military response? Perhaps because provoking an American military response is exactly what he is hoping for.