Following the April 4 chemical weapons attack against Khan Sheikhoun, located in Syrian’s Idlib governorate, the Syrian regime and friendly media outlets developed a counter-narrative of what had taken place. They claimed that the attack, which killed 70 people, had targeted a warehouse containing chemical weapons and underlined that the regime had no motive for committing such a crime.
Soon after the massacre, the chemical warehouse claim was debunked. The correspondent of London’s The Guardian newspaper, Kareem Shaheen, invalidated the claim. He reported from a warehouse next to the scene of the attack that he had “found nothing but an abandoned space covered in dust and half-destroyed silos reeking of leftover grain and animal manure.”
The question of motive remains a major element of the regime’s narrative. Why would the Syrian regime jeopardize its gains at the international level, especially so soon after members of the Trump administration had stated that the removal of President Bashar al-Assad was no longer a priority? The regime’s logic crept into mainstream European media outlets, such as the German Deutsche Welle public broadcaster. It cited Gunther Meyer, the director of the Research Center for the Arab World at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, as saying that the regime may not have had a compelling motive to use chemical weapons. “Only armed opposition groups could profit from an attack with chemical weapons,” Meyer declared.
Similarly, Richard Black, an American state senator from Virginia, told Russia’s Sputnik news agency that “there is zero chance that President Bashar Assad authorized the use of chemical weapons in Syria considering he had no motive to do so as he is on the verge of defeating jihadists across the country.”
However, three realities can contextualize the Khan Sheikhoun attack, helping to discredit the view that the regime had no motive. First, Khan Sheikhoun is strategically located on Syria’s main highway linking Aleppo to the cities of Homs and Hama, all under government control. Second, since the start of the Syrian war there has been a string of atrocities against civilians in the region where the town is located, including chemical weapons use. And third, the attack was a culmination of weeks of military escalation that threatened regime positions.
While Khan Sheikhoun is administratively within Idlib governorate, its military relevance is largely a consequence of its proximity to the battle zones in northern Hama governorate. Accordingly, Khan Sheikhoun has served “as a logistical base for operations in Hama province,” Mohammad Safi, an opposition activist from the region using an assumed name told me in an interview for this article.
With the exception of Qumhana, a pro-regime Sunni town located just north of Hama, the northern Hama battlefield is mostly a sectarian fault-line between Alawi and Christian towns in the west and southwest under regime authority and Sunni towns in the northeast controlled by the opposition.
Since 2012, northern Hama governorate has been the site of some of the Syrian war’s worst atrocities. On June 7, 2012, regime-affiliated forces killed 78 people, including women and children, using knives, sticks, and guns in Al-Qubeir—located 40 kilometers south of Khan Sheikhoun. The massacre took place over a period of a few hours, which led to the town’s being emptied of its inhabitants. In July 2012, regime forces were accused of killing nearly 200 civilians in the town of Traimseh, where some victims were stabbed multiple times.
This type of sectarian violence had already been present further south. On May 25, 2012, regime shelling of the town of Houla killed over 100 people, mostly women and children. The attacks, according to The Guardian newspaper, were launched from Al-Fullah and Al-Qabou, two of the four Alawi towns surrounding Houla. Months later, a major massacre of Alawites took place in Aqrab, and was seen as retaliation for the killings in Houla.
According to Abdul Salam Hajj Bakri, a Syrian journalist interviewed for this article who has worked in and reported from Hama governorate, “The area’s mixed sectarian makeup renders it more sensitive for the regime.” Hajj Bakri also pointed to the region’s strategic importance, given that “Mount Zein al-Abedin is crucial,” as it overlooks the city of Hama and the governorate’s military airbase.
Local activists speak of the opposition forces’ two separate agendas in the area. On the one hand, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra), which recently pushed an Islamic State-affiliated group out of the region, is actively seeking to control the city of Hama, and potentially Christian and Alawi towns in the western part of the governorate. On the other hand, local factions, especially Jaish al-Izzah, which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, has sought to put the Hama governorate’s military airbase out of service. Jaish al-Izzah has been attempting to move its positions closer to the base in order to place it within range of its artillery fire.
For those reasons, both Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Jaish al-Izzah, among other opposition factions, launched simultaneous attacks on regime positions in northern Hama governorate on March 20, taking over towns and threatening two in particular: the Christian town of Muhradah, northwest of Hama, and the pro-regime Sunni town of Qumhana. Last month, the battle for Muhradah intensified, with recurrent reports in both regime and opposition media of a Russian warning to the rebels to halt their advance. Jaish al-Izzah said its intention was to occupy the town, whose demographics it accused Iran of changing.
However, a more ominous precedent had been set in this sensitive area three years ago. The regime’s repeated failures to defend its positions there pushed it to use chlorine gas in attacks against the opposition-held town of Kafr Zita, south of Khan Sheikhoun, in April 2014 and again in October 2016.
All this suggests that far from lacking a motive, the attack against Khan Sheikhoun was part of a wider conflict between the regime and its adversaries in the strategically important, mixed sectarian region of northern Hama governorate. Moreover, the regime had an incentive to target a place that had served as a support base for opposition military operations against regime areas. And as the evidence suggests, this was not the first time that the regime had used chemical weapons in northern Hama governorate, or engaged in terrible crimes to ensure that those communities sympathizing and potentially cooperating with the opposition would flee the area.
The summary line of this article was changed, as the original misstated the intention of the author.