Finally, a knowledgeable former state department insider deconstructs the Syria situation. Read William R. Polk's entire article in the Atlantic, or just this crucial portion, part 4.
Who Are the Possible Culprits and What Would be Their Motivations?
Since such information as we have is sketchy and questionable, we should seek to understand motives. As a historian, dealing as one always does, with incomplete information, I have made it a rule when trying to get at the “truth” in any contentious issue to ask a series of questions among which are who benefits from a given action and what would I have done in a given situation? Look briefly at what we think we now know in light of these questions:
First, who gains by the action. I do not see what Assad could have gained from this gas attack. It is evident that while the area in which it took place is generally held to be "disputed" territory, the government was able to arrange for the UN inspection team to visit it but not, apparently, to guarantee their safety there. If Assad were to initiate an attack, it would be more logical for him to pick a target under the control of the rebels.
Second, to have taken the enormous risk of retaliation or at least loss of support by some of his allies (notably the Russians) by using this horrible weapon, he must have thought of it either as a last ditch stand or as a knockout blow to the insurgents. Neither appears to have been the case. Reports in recent weeks suggest that the Syrian government was making significant gains against the rebels. No observer has suggested that its forces were losing. All indications are that the government’s command and control system not only remains intact but that it still includes among its senior commanders and private soldiers a high proportion of Sunni Muslims. Were the regime in decline, it would presumably have purged those whose loyalties were becoming suspect (i.e. the Sunni Muslims) or they would have bolted for cover. Neither happened.
Moreover, if it decided to make such an attack, I should have thought that it would have aimed at storage facilities, communications links, arms depots or places where commanders congregated. The suburbs of Damascus offered none of these opportunities for a significant, much less a knockout, blow.
Third, as students of guerrilla warfare have learned guerrillas are dispersed but civilians are concentrated. So weapons of mass destruction are more likely to create hostility to the user than harm to the opponent. The chronology of the Syrian civil war shows that the government must be aware of this lesson as it has generally held back its regular troops (which were trained and armed to fight foreign invasion) and fought its opponents with relatively small paramilitary groups backed up by air bombardment. Thus, a review of the fighting over the last two years suggests that its military commanders would not have seen a massive gas attack either as a “game changer” or an option valuable enough to outweigh the likely costs.
So, what about the enemies of the Assad regime? How might such an attack have been to their advantage?
First, a terrorizing attack might have been thought advantageous because of the effect on people who are either supporting the regime or are passive. There are indications, for example, that large numbers of the pathetic Palestinian refugees are pouring out their camps in yet another "displacement." The number of Syrian refugees is also increasing. Terror is a powerful weapon and historically and everywhere was often used. Whoever initiated the attack might have thought, like those who initiated the attack on Guernica, the bombing of Rotterdam and the Blitz of London, that the population would be so terrorized that they might give up or at least cower. Then as food shortages and disease spread, the economy would falter. Thus the regime might collapse.
That is speculative, but the second benefit to the rebels of an attack is precisely what has happened: given the propensity to believe everything evil about the Assad regime, daily emphasized by the foreign media, a consensus, at least in America, has been achieved is that it must have been complicit. This consensus should make it possible for outside powers to take action against the regime and join in giving the insurgents the money, arms and training.
We know that the conservative Arab states, the United States, other Western powers and perhaps Israel have given assistance to the rebels for the last two years, but the outside aid has not been on a scale sufficient to enable them to defeat the government. They would need much more and probably would also need foreign military intervention as happened in Libya in April 2011 to overthrow Muamar Qaddafi. The rebels must have pondered that situation. We know that foreign military planners have. (See “Military Intervention in Syria” Wikileaks reprinted on August 25, 2013, memorandum of a meeting in the Pentagon in 2011.) Chillingly, the just cited Wikileaks memorandum notes that the assembled military and intelligence officers “don’t believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Ghadafi [sic] move against Benghazi.” (See Time, March 17, 2011.) As in Libya, evidence of an ugly suppression of inhabitants might justify and lead to foreign military intervention.
Clearly, Assad had much to lose and his enemies had much to gain. That conclusion does not prove who did it, but it should give us pause to find conclusive evidence which we do not now have...