By Taylor Marvin
On Sunday the New York Times reported that the Assad regime had begun to move its chemical weapons stockpiles. These ominous signs were echoed by a Danger Room piece Monday reporting that the Syrian government had begun to combine limited amounts of the precursor chemicals to sarin gas.
Prompted by the news, President Obama repeated his warning to Assad not to use these weapons, warning their use would result in “consequences”. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen seconded the warning, stating that “if anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community.” The United States has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons, or belief that their use is immanent, is a “red line” that would prompt international action against the Assad regime. For its own part, the Assad government has stated that it would use chemical weapons against an international intervention force.
It’s debatable whether Assad is actually prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people. Chemical weapons are imprecise instruments of destruction; subject to dispersal by wind and other atmospheric conditions, they are best deployed against massed troops, or as a indiscriminate terror weapon. Given the weapons’ limits in the chaotic urban combat characteristic of Syria’s civil war, Assad is unlikely to deploy them as a tactical weapon. It is more likely that if Assad elects to use chemical weapons, he will do so as a coercive instrument of terror. Barbara F. Walter noted this logic last summer, in the context of regime massacres of children:
“The game Assad is playing is a game of intimidation. Assad wins if he can convince Syrian citizens – especially those whose sympathies lie with the rebels – that he is able to kill any individual who does not fully support him.”
The problem here is that the regime would be unable to even remotely pretend that all of those killed by chemical weapons are rebel sympathizers. It is certainly true that massacring children is not a precise targeting of rebels (assuming that these massacres are actually ordered by the regime, and not just local commanders). But they do send the implicit message that those who do not fully support the regime will have their loved ones horribly killed, and rebel forces cannot protect them. By discouraging people from supporting the rebels, massacres function as strategic coercion. It is debatable whether indiscriminate chemical weapons can send this precise of a signal, because the nature of the Syrian conflict means that their are few geographic areas populated entirely by regime-perceived rebel sympathizers — unlike Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iraqi Kurds. The Assad government has razed Damascus homes and indiscriminately shelled areas of Aleppo and Homs as collective punishment, but chemical weapons really cannot be targeted at the district-level. This has apparently not stopped the regime from considering their use, though — NPR reports that Iranian Quds Force officers have encouraged the regime to use chemical weapons in Homs.
Another possibility is that prospective regime chemical weapons use is a form of hostage taking. The regime possesses chemical weapons; the rebels do not. While these weapons are not suited to targeted collective punishment or tactical use against dispersed rebels in urban environments, they do give the regime the ability to kill many, many more people than the rebels. Given the the rebels value the lives of most Syrians, especially their coethnics, the regime can use its own citizens as hostages at attempt to compel rebels to stop fighting. This threat is one sided — because the rebels lack WMD and can’t kill large numbers of civilians, they can’t take hostages of their own. Of course, unlike a personal hostage situation, the regime can actually use chemical weapons to demonstrate resolve without actually “killing” the hostage. The regime can kill thousands of civilians with chemical weapons, and still threaten the lives of vastly more.
Importantly, this threat — to kill more Syrians than the rebels are willing to see die — is credible because of the regime’s lack of other options. Assad and high-level officials know they cannot flee the country because of the threat of prosecution for war crimes. Other regime coethnics, including Alawite-dominated security units, know that they are unlikely to survive a regime defeat. This lack of an escape route for defeated regime partisans suggests that Assad could be willing to escalate to indiscriminate chemical weapons use against civilians, despite the threat of NATO intervention.
Can Assad be deterred from using chemical weapons? Possibly. The regime hopes to prevent NATO entry into the war; if we accept NATO and the Obama administration’s statements that chemical weapons use is a red line that will trigger intervention, their threat has deterrence value. However, the threat to intervene if chemical weapons are used is not entirely credible. NATO leaders certainly would face increased domestic pressure to end the war and topple the regime if Assad did use his weapons. But Western audiences haven’t demanded a military intervention so far, despite the deaths of over 40,000 Syrians. Chemical weapons use would probably lead to a NATO air campaign targeting regime forces and weapons depots. But actually securing the weapons — the only reliable way to prevent their use — would require a ground invasion, which no one wants.
Importantly, using chemical weapons against his own people is not the last step in Assad’s escalation ladder. The Assad regime would still retain the ability to threaten Turkey and Israel (despite the prospect of deploying Patriot batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border, these systems are not guaranteed to intercept all Syrian missiles in an attack; a single Scud armed with a chemical warhead is sufficiently dangerous to be a powerful deterrent), and it is unclear if NATO’s resolve to punish chemical weapon use is strong enough to overcome this threat. David Blair (via Andrew Sullivan) ignores this regime card when he deems an intervention following chemical weapons use “certain”:
“From his point of view, the only rationale for using these weapons would be if his downfall would otherwise be absolutely inevitable. On the other hand, if he did choose to gas his enemies, that would be certain to trigger a US-led intervention that would seal his fate anyway. So rationality dictates that he should not use these weapons under any circumstances.”
Of course US and NATO officials have an incentive to appear resolute when posturing; it’s an entirely other question whether they would carry out their threats. Any form of entry into the Syrian war is a deeply unattractive prospect leaders will be reluctant to follow through on. If Assad judges defeat at the rebels’ hands to be assured, risking unassured NATO intervention is the rational choice.
This is particularly true because NATO has not been able, to the best of my knowledge, to create any type of commitment device to force their hands in a crisis. Michael Koplow ably highlighted this theory last week while arguing that Turkey should allow non-Turkish NATO troops to operate Patriot batteries deployed to Turkey:
“The reason for this is quite simple; if non-Turkish NATO troops are operating the Patriots and NATO is deciding when they should be used, the likelihood of deterring Assad – assuming that he can be deterred, which is a big if – from lobbing missiles toward Turkey or from shelling the Patriot positions is greatly magnified. This is the tripwire theory of deterrence, which purposely places troops in harm’s way in order to ensure that an offensive will be met with a forceful response.”
Tripwire commitment devices significantly enhance threat credibility. But there’s no real way for NATO to create a commitment-binding tripwire Assad must trigger to use chemical weapons — there’s no NATO or international personnel that can be put in harm’s way. That leaves only NATO credibility as motivation for following through on their threats; given that NATO isn’t treaty-bound to intervene in Syria, it’s unclear how powerful this motivation is. Obviously NATO leaders will continue to insist that the Assad regime will be punished if it uses its chemical weapons. But observers shouldn’t take it as a given that these threats are credible, or that Assad will be unable to deter international entry into the conflict if he does use his WMD.
Since it remains unclear that the rebels can militarily defeat the regime, it is unlikely that Assad has sufficient motivation to use chemical weapons just yet. But NATO policymakers should be prepared for the possibility that their threats are not sufficient deterrence to prevent their use.