The Khan Sheikhoun attack of April 4 2017, which killed dozens and injured hundreds, drew a response in the form of targeted US missile strikes on a Syrian airbase. As far as the West is concerned, it was clearly just the latest in a long line of chemical weapon attacks authorised by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad; a recent French intelligence report lists seven sarin attacks which it either presumes or is confident were ordered by the regime – this in addition to some 22 incidents of chlorine use.
All this is broadly in keeping with public statements and declassified reports released by other Western states. From a Western perspective, the Assad regime has for years now played cat-and-mouse with the international community, using chemical weapons to kill, terrorise, demoralise and displace both militants and civilians. He has attempted to employ such weapons below the threshold that would trigger greater Western intervention, or the threshold which might lead Russia or another ally to withdraw vital support.
These thresholds are neither clear nor stationary – and Damascus has hedged its bets time and time again on the benefits of use. This included the use of chemical weapons at, and in the run up to, the 2013 Ghouta attack. It was also reflected in Assad’s decision to secretly retain sarin stockpiles when it was forced to give up its chemical weapons in the aftermath of the Ghouta massacre. From this perspective, the persistent use of chlorine by the regime also fits the pattern.
The Syrian and Russian governments have consistently publicly denied that the Syrian government has ever employed chemical weapons, either before or after it declared and destroyed some 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents and decommissioned some 27 production facilities. But, more than that, Russian and Syrian officials still challenge the Western narrative by questioning whether the attacks in question were staged, carried out by rebels or – as in the latest case – a consequence of rebel groups stockpiling sarin supplies of their own. They argue that pinning chemical weapon use on Assad is a Western tactic to undermine his regime – and to leverage public support for Western intervention.