Al Assad is a ruthless man: He would not hesitate to use chemical weapons if he had to. He is also a very rational man: He would use chemical weapons only if that were his sole option. At the moment, it is difficult to see what desperate situation would have caused him to use chemical weapons and risk the worst. His opponents are equally ruthless, and we can imagine them using chemical weapons to force the United States to intervene and depose al Assad. But their ability to access chemical weapons is unclear, and if found out, the maneuver could cost them all Western support. It is possible that lower-ranking officers in al Assad’s military used chemical weapons without his knowledge and perhaps against his wishes. It is possible that the casualties were far less than claimed. And it is possible that some of the pictures were faked.
All of these things are possible, but we simply don’t know which is true. More important is that major governments, including the British and French, are claiming knowledge that al Assad carried out the attack. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a speech Aug. 26 clearly building the case for a military response, and referring to the regime attack as “undeniable” and the U.S. assessment so far as “grounded in facts.” Al Assad meanwhile has agreed to allow U.N. inspectors to examine the evidence onsite. In the end, those who oppose al Assad will claim his supporters concealed his guilt, and the insurgents will say the same thing if they are blamed or if the inspectors determine there is no conclusive evidence of attacks.