A compelling theory explains the latest chemical attack in Syria -- and it looks like Assad got what he wanted

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty ImagesRussia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Sochi on November 20, 2017.
  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have carried out a chemical attack in Douma, Syria, over failed negotiations between his regime and the main opposition group in the region, Jaysh al-Islam.
  • The tactic may have worked in the short term, as Jaysh al-Islam agreed on Sunday to evacuate the area.
  • While it can’t be said with certainty that Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on Saturday forced Jaysh al-Islam to evacuate the area, circumstantial evidence indicates this.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reportedly used chemical weapons on his own people since at least 2013, with a number of attacks coming in the last few months.

An attack on Saturday reportedly killed at least 40 civilians and has drawn condemnation from around the world, including President Donald Trump. Immediately after reports and images from Saturday’s attack emerged on social media, Russian and Syrian Assad supporters began countering allegations that the government’s forces had carried out another chemical attack.

They claimed Assad had no reason to use chemical weapons, and that the Syrian government was winning the fight against the main opposition group in the region, Jaysh al-Islam. Russia even called the allegations “fake news.”

But Neil Hauer, an independent analyst focusing on Russia and Syria, tweeted a response to their claims, arguing that negotiations between the regime and Jaysh al-Islam, with Russia as a guarantor, broke down on Thursday.

The regime wanted Jaysh al-Islam to either lay down their weapons or be bused out of the area to central Syria, Hauer wrote, but the negotiations faltered. Jaysh al-Islam reportedly agreed to lay down their weapons only if they were allowed to stay in Douma as a local police force, which Assad didn’t favour.

Syria chemical attack DoumaThe White Helmets/TwitterA child is treated for suspected chemical gas poisoning in Douma, Syria on April 8, 2018.

As a result, the regime struck Douma hard with airstrikes on Friday, then allegedly used chemical weapons on Saturday. On Sunday, Jaysh al-Islam agreed to leave the area.

“Got it?,” Hauer tweeted.

Experts agree that Assad succeeded

“That’s right,” Jennifer Cafarella, a senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War, told Business Insider. “Assad attacked civilian targets in Douma after Jaysh al Islam refused to accept a surrender deal.”

“Assad’s goal was to break the will of the local population and force Jaysh al Islam to surrender. He succeeded,” Cafarella wrote in an emailed statement, adding that it was also to show “impunity after President Trump signalled his desire to withdraw from Syria.”

“Is there an effort to pressure [Jaysh al-Islam] to adhere to an evacuation deal brokered by the Russians?” Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor, told Business Insider. “Absolutely.”

“I don’t know if you can [make] a direct one-to-one: chemical weapons attack on Saturday, and then a sudden adherence to the evacuation deal on Russian terms on Sunday,” Hawthorne said. “That’s what it looks like when you read the press reports, but unless you have a source that’s within those negotiations, I just don’t know if you can say with absolute certainty that the chemical attacks produced that one-to-one effect.”

Chemical attack douma syriaScreenshot/The White Helmets

“But I think it’s safe to say that it’s a huge part of pressure tactics by the Syrian government to terrorize them,” Hawthorne said.

Trump said on Monday that he would make a decision as to how to respond within 48 hours.

“This is about humanity, and it can’t be allowed to happen,” Trump said, adding that the US was going to find out who was responsible for the attack. “If it’s the Russians, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out,” he said.

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