BEIRUT—Since Syrian regime forces were accused of conducting a chemical-weapons attack on Saturday on Douma, the largest rebel town near Damascus to surrender, the world has waited anxiously for the U.S. response. In the aftermath of the suspected attack, President Donald Trump spoke of imminent retaliation and had tough words for Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, and his patron Russia; he has since hedged to say an attack could come “very soon or not so soon at all!” Still, the last time such a large-scale chemical attack was suspected in Syria, Trump followed through on his threats, albeit with a limited response.
Given the potentially greater consequences Assad and his allies could face, it’s unclear why he would risk using chemical weapons, especially when his regime had already declared victory in its Russia-backed assault on Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel-held area near Damascus, which also encompasses Douma. Numerous theories have been offered, including Assad’s need to further terrorize his population into submission, as well as a desire to dare and humiliate an impotent West.
One crucial and largely overlooked explanation is the pressure he has faced from the Alawites, members of the minority Shiite-linked sect to which the Assads belong. Many Alawites believe Douma’s main insurgent group Jaysh al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, has been holding up to 7,500 Alawite prisoners in and around the city—including army generals, soldiers, and civilians—kidnapped or taken captive by rebels over the years to try to extract concessions from the regime. Though the Alawites represent a small proportion of the country overall, they hold key regime positions, dominate the police, and supply the main fighting forces who have been defending the regime since 2011. Many of their families are missing loved ones whom Assad can’t seem to get free, even as he tells them he wants still more of their sons to fight.