I am no fan of the Assad regime, and I have no problem using the word “regime” to describe it. Dictators do hold and win elections. I have lived in severe dictatorships and seen from the inside how they do it. The human rights abuses of the Assad regime have been well documented for decades.
But Bashar al Assad is neither stupid nor unsophisticated. Aided by Putin, he outwitted Obama by quickly giving up his chemical weapons to be destroyed and accepting transparency in verification. There is no justification for the destruction of Iraq, but if Saddam Hussein had been able to swallow pride as completely as Assad, he too could have had a very good chance of averting disaster.
Assad had seen his position go from strength to strength, thanks to Putin’s astute deployment of Russia’s limited military power. Militarily the balance had swung dramatically in Assad’s favour, while Trump had said the unsayable and acknowledged that putting Syria into the hands of Wahabbist crazies was not in the United States interest.
So I cannot conceive that Assad would risk throwing all of this away for the sake of a militarily insignificant small chemical weapons attack. It would be an act of the most extreme folly. It is not impossible – hubris is a great temptation to dictators – but given how Assad has played it so far, it seems out of character and extremely improbable. What is less improbable is a local battlefield decision by pro-Assad forces. In my close observation of dictatorial regimes, a fascinating feature is that they operate an image of the perfection of the state. They are highly adverse to admitting mistakes.
What did happen I do not profess to know. There are at least eleven major identifiable state and non-state forces involved in the fighting around Idlib. In going through them all and considering opportunity and motive for each, I continually find that those whose motive would be false flag stand to benefit a great deal more than those who might have been seeking military advantage.
I am therefore for now unconvinced that this was a deliberate use of chemical weapons by Assad forces. I do not rule it out, but it would take much more concrete evidence than currently offered to prove they did something so strongly and obviously against their own interest. But western governments and media have determined to make that the narrative, so the truth is, as so often in modern geo-politics, entirely incidental to the course of future events.