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Why Would Assad Use Chemical Weapons?

Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war. Via Wikimedia

Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war. Via Wikimedia

By Taylor Marvin

Recent evidence suggests that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in its long civil war against the Syrian opposition, potentially violating the Obama administration’s “red line” prohibiting their use. While the evidence remains inconclusive, if Assad has indeed used sarin gas this violation gives calls for a NATO intervention to halt the violence new urgency.

While citing the need for caution, arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis warns that failing to enforce the international prohibition on chemical weapons use sets a dangerous precedent. “If Assad is using chemical weapons to hold on to power,” Lewis argues, “we have an interest in ensuring that his government falls and that the responsible regime figures take their turn at the Hague.” The New Republic’s John B. Judis seconds this argument, again citing the future reputation costs of failing to enforce the anti-CW red line, as does the Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board. While the Obama administration’s response to the news is developing, new reporting suggests that it is moving towards supplying rebels with lethal equipment, though this policy shift is possibly a negotiating tactic designed to convince Russia’s Vladimir Putin to abandon his diplomatic support for Assad.

Setting aside its effect on Western demand for intervention, why would the Assad regime use chemical weapons anyway? Importantly, the chemical weapons use observed so far is not a large-scale strategic shift designed to end the war; instead, it appears to have been “small scale,” isolated employment. If Assad has no expectation that its employment of prohibited chemical weapons in the manner they’ve been used so far is capable of ending the war, the regime must consider how breaking its precedent of stockpiling, but not using, chemical weapons will affect the continuing war.

If the United States is adamant that chemical weapons use will be punished, why would Assad ignore these warning? Here are three possibilities:

Loss of political control. This is perhaps the most obvious explanation for the extremely limited chemical weapons so far observed, and the least strategic. There have been previous indications that the regime has prepared and loaded chemical weapons onto geographically disseminated munitions. Given that chemical munitions were available, it is possible that a local commander, for whatever reason, elected to use them without authorization from Assad himself (given their strategic importance it is unlikely that Assad would delegate the decision to use chemical weapons to anyone else). This would explain the small scale use of chemical weapons — instead of a signifying a major shift in the regime’s strategy, Assad has not made the decision to use these weapons at all.

Loss of physical control is a problem for all strategically important weapons, but is more likely for chemical weapons than the nuclear weapons they are often lumped together with under the WMD banner. Because of nuclear weapons’ extreme destructive potential, they are tightly controlled with numerous safeguard preventing unauthorized use. This is particularly true of modern strategic nuclear weapons, which are delivered by long-range platforms that allows them to be securely stored on ICBM bases, ballistic missile submarines, and air bases. However, chemical weapons are typically battlefield tactical weapons, and unlike strategic weapons must be stored close to the battlefield to be useful. This makes it more difficult to erect effective safeguard preventing the unauthorized employment of tactical chemical weapons than strategic nuclear ones.

Once chemical weapons have been loaded onto weapons platforms and distributed around Syria, it’s entirely plausible that a local commander either misunderstood an order or employed chemical weapons on his own initiative, without the approval of the regime.

If chemical weapons were used against Assad ‘s wishes, than punishing the regime for their use would be difficult to justify. While this punishment may create an incentive for future governments to give up chemical arms entirely out of fear that policymakers will lose control and be subsequently punished for use they did not authorize, this uncertainty complicates the idea that the anti-chemical weapons norm can be enforced in a comprehensive way, particularly for chemically-armed governments engaged in civil wars.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac, via Wikimedia.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac, via Wikimedia.

Assad judges violating the chemical weapon red line worth the risk. The international community has attempted to deter the Assad regime from using its chemical weapons stockpiles through threat of retaliation. However, there are reasons to think that these threats are not credible, and thus insufficient to deter the Assad regime. First, the international community has no desire to intervene in Syria. Despite two years of war, the Syrian military remains a fighting force capable of imposing high costs on an intervening force. Air strikes are an ineffective way of safely destroying chemical arms and actually securing Syria’s chemical stockpiles would require tens of thousands of ground troops, a commitment far exceding NATO’s stand-off intervention in Libya.

Red lines work best when leaders force their own hands by devising mechanisms designed to compel their future selves to follow through on their threats, even if they don’t want to. These mechanism can include a trip wire force, like the US force stationed in South Korea or the small numbers of British Royal Marines garrisoned on the Falklands Islands before the 1982 Argentine invasion — when these forces are humiliatingly defeated, leaders must respond more forcefully than they otherwise would. Alternatively, reluctant leaders can be constrained by the prospect of domestic political costs if they are perceived as weak and unable to follow through on their commitments.

Because the international community has not created hands-tying devices to compel it to intervene if Assad crosses the chemical red line — indeed, Obama’s ambiguous statements on what exactly breaking the line would constitute can be seen as an attempt to avoid hands-tying rhetoric — their threats are not credible. Erica D. Borghard and Jack Snyder recently addressed this problem, arguing that audience costs rarely constrain leaders, and democratic electorates are unlikely to punish perceived rhetorical inconsistency. Given these commitment problems, Assad could rationally judge that limited use of chemical weapons is not sufficient to create a demand for intervention in Western countries and would not be punished.

Secondly, even after using chemical weapons Assad would retain the capability to threaten Israeli and Turkish civilians, preserving his ability to detere a Western intervention. If the international community does elect to intervene in spite of this deterrent, Assad has previously stated that he would use chemical arms in response to an international intervention — another profound disincentive.

It is also possible that Assad believes the red line is genuine, but believes that he is guaranteed to lose the civil war if he does not use his chemical weapons stockpiles and preferes the risk of outside intervention over the certainty of defeat and probable death at the hands of his countrymen. However, the limited battlefield utility of chemical weapons suggests this is unlikely, as it is difficult — but not impossible — to imagine a scenario where the regime’s chemical arms are the difference between victory and defeat against only the rebels.

Finally, perhaps Assad has authorized chemical weapons use, but only on a small enough scale that uncertainty over whether their use was deliberate or unauthorized prevents a coherent international response. It is also possible that Assad plans to slowly escalate his use of chemical weapons past the current Obama administration “systematic” red line. Perhaps Assad plans on using chemical weapons, but has rationally judged that their sudden large-scale use would horrify the international community and increase support for intervention. However, if the regime slowly begins using chemical weapons on larger and larger scales, it may be able to use chemical weapons in a strategically significant way without generating demand for intervention — after all, many more would have supported intervention at the start of the war had they known it would kill at least 70,000 people.

The anti-chemical weapon norm is not enforced. Perhaps Assad has decided that the red line prohibiting chemical weapons use is not credible at all, and he can begin using his stockpiles with impunity. After all, there are historical reasons to suspect that this is the case. Throughout the last century chemical weapons have been used or not used based on the character of the conflict in question, not on the strength of any enforced international anti-chemical weapon norm. During World War II Nazi Germany and Japan declined to introduce large-scale chemical weapons use because they feared that it would prompt the Allies to respond in kind on a greater scale — introducing chemical warfare would likely hurt the Axis war effort more than it would help. Similarly, during the Iran-Iraq War Saddam Hussein employed chemical weapons on an enormous scale because he knew it would be difficult for the hard-pressed Iranians to respond with further escalation and, as most outside powers opposed the revolutionary Iranians, chemical weapons were unlikely to attract any serious international punishment.

The Iraq example is key. Hussein’s wanton use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war went conspicuously unpunished. Similarly, while the 2003 invasion of Iraq was partially justified as a response to Hussein’s genocidal 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, it’s notable that this “punishment” came over a decade and a half late. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq wasn’t a case of enforcing the norm against chemical weapons use at all; the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq anyway, and Hussein’s past chemical weapons use against his own people was only a convenient justification for the war. Indeed, in the months before the invasion the real justification for war offered by the Bush administration was Hussein’s future, not past, chemical weapons use: Halabja was merely offered as evidence that Hussein was deranged enough to launch an irrational WMD attack against the United States, not cause for long-delayed righteous punishment. Of course, the Bush administration did this for a reason. Americans would not support the invasion of Iraq only to enforce the no-chemical weapons norm, but instead out of fear that Hussein was a madman who directly threatened the US.

The lesson for Assad is clear: if he follows Hussein’s example and uses chemical weapons to kill over thousands of his own people he can only expect to be punished over a decade later, and then only if an American president wants to invade Syria anyway. This is a less than compelling deterrence, to say the least.

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