One result of Trump’s confusing Syria policy is that Assad and his backers can’t quite be sure what America is planning—a pullout or a pushback. Hence another chemical attack, which will test the range of America’s response and, perhaps, will paint Trump into the same corner where Obama’s Syria policy languished.
For Assad, there is utility in such a feint, and no real risk. In 2013, he and the rest of the region braced in fear for an expected American response, which was widely expected to jolt the regional state of affairs. Assad has learned his lessons since then. No meaningful American response will be forthcoming, no matter how hideous the war crime. America remains deep in strategic drift, unsure of why it continues to engage in the Middle East, and prone to spasms of hyperactivity rather than sustained attention.
Although we can’t be sure—yet—exactly what happened in Ghouta, we can be confident that it was no accident. Assad is determined to cement his grip once again over Syria, no matter how thoroughly he has to destroy his country in order to restore it. And with Putin’s backing, he is determined to thoroughly discredit what remains of the international community and U.S. leadership. They can’t be sure what Trump will do, but their apparent cavalier use of chemical weapons on the one-year anniversary of the Khan Sheikhoun attacks suggests they’re reasonably confident that the U.S. president won’t take serious action.