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Posts tagged ‘Bashar al-Assad’

What’s the Political Value of the Red Line?

By Taylor Marvin

After recent reports that Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, last week I speculated about what motives would prompt Assad to violate the Obama administration’s red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, whether purposefully or inadvertently. At the time the Obama administration’s red line was widely criticized, from both directions. If Assad decided to use chemical weapons despite American threats the red line could force the US into a Syrian intervention it had no desire to fight and little ability to decisively resolve. Conversely, if the Assad regime used chemical weapons and Obama didn’t intervene, his inaction would damage American credibility and demonstrate to future human rights-violators that US threats could be safely ignored.

Worse, by declaring that the US would punish chemical weapons use the Obama administration broke the cardinal rule of deterrence by issuing a threat that was neither clear nor credible. On what scale would chemical weapons have to be used to cross the red line? Obviously, the US would not commit itself to a major war if the Assad regime used chemical weapons in small amounts, especially as the deaths of 70,000 Syrians hadn’t already prompted an intervention to stop the killing. By declaring a fuzzy red line — Obama’s statement that Assad would have to use “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons to trigger intervention appears designed to avoid rhetorically committing the US to punishing minor chemical weapons use — the US left ample room for confusion and uncertainty, lessening the deterrence value of the threat. Similarly, the Obama administration’s reluctance to fight in Syria is obvious. Since Assad knows that Obama has little ability to force his future self to intervene if the red line is crossed, the threat is less effective.

However, new reports have surfaced suggesting that Syria’s rebels, not regime forces, had released small amounts of chemical weapons (Syria’s rebels of course dispute the claim). While this confusion has made discussions of the anti-chemical weapon red line less urgent, criticism of the policy remains. Critics argue that tying US entry into the war to chemical weapons use gives the rebels an incentive to mislead the US, for example, and small-scale chemical weapons use can be very difficult to verify, giving Assad room to employ them but avoid punishment. But if the regime has not employed chemical weapons, does that mean the red line is an effective deterrent? Or does it remain an less-than-credible threat unlikely to successfully coerce Assad if he actually does decide to use chemical weapons?

On Twitter, Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell asked an interesting question:

You can make the admittedly contrarian case that Obama’s red line is a tool to decrease domestic demand for intervention in Syria (though recent reporting, noted by Erica Chenoweth, that the red line was an off the cuff improvisation makes divining its political motivations difficult). The Obama administration has no desire to intervene in Syria, whether by arming the opposition, destroying Syrian air defense systems in order to enforce a no-fly zone, or launching an air campaign targeting Assad’s forces. While domestic demand for US involvement in Syria is low, it’s possible that as the casualties grow American public opinion could slowly shift toward favoring an intervention to stop the killing. While the administration would, of course, make the final call on any intervention, public opinion could pressure Obama into an intervention policy he seeks to avoid.

Again, history suggests that presidents are rarely punished for inaction while atrocities continue. But there is a real possibility that elite opinion could coalesce around a perceivably-inexpensive intervention plan centered around airpower, rather than a boots-on-the-ground invasion (which no one is seriously discussing).

Setting the red line around chemical weapons use, instead of an arbitrary number of Syrian dead, is a potential way for the administration to avoid these domestic political pressures. There is considerable reason to suspect that the Assad regime will continue to avoid high-profile chemical weapons employment, in spite of its brutality. Chemical weapons are imprecise, difficult to use effectively, and would inflict massive civilian casualties if used to target rebel fighters in the urban battlefields that characterize Syria’s civil war. Even before accounting for the risk that chemical weapons use could draw down international intervention, it’s reasonable to suspect that Assad is unlikely to engage in full-scale chemical warfare.

By setting a red line prohibiting crimes Assad is unlikely to engage in anyway the Obama administration can present itself as invested in the outcome of the Syrian war and ready to intervene, while hopefully avoiding being actually forced to do so. Daniel Byman hinted at this logic in a recent New York Times op-ed, noting that red lines can potentially “placate domestic critics” of non-intervention. Of course, dedicated advocate of intervening in Syria will find this watchful distance intolerable; Shadi Hamid’s complaint in The Atlantic that “in saying that chemical weapons are a red line, the Obama administration is also saying that the killing of 70,000 Syrians is not a red line” is certainly true. But the chemical weapons red line dismisses a core argument in favor of intervention by replacing an ambiguous trigger for intervention — Assad’s brutality — with a more concrete, if still fuzzy, one Assad is less likely to cross. If Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons and the US continues to stand by the Obama administration isn’t “doing nothing”; instead, it is simply abiding by its stated red line. While not enough for many proponents of intervention, it does reduce their ability to drum up political support for US entry into the conflict.

It’s entirely possible that Assad will judge Obama’s threats not credible and use chemical weapons anyway — and potentially force the US into war — but again, it’s similarly possible that political pressure could eventually force Obama to intervene in the absence of a broken chemical weapons red line. As Assad is much more likely to kill large numbers of Syrians through conventional means than chemical warfare, the red line is conceivably a device intended to separate Obama from a hard choice.

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.

More Problems with Arming Syrian Rebels

By Taylor Marvin

Image via .

Image via Wikimedia.

As detailed by Robert S. Ford in recent testimony, the United States is already providing considerable non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. However, the Obama administration has so far remained wary of directly supplying the rebels with weapons, a proposal supported by the French and British governments. But this non-lethal assistance hasn’t stopped proposals for the US to begin supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition, calls supported by the rebels themselves. This, of course, is an attractive compromise for Western governments: barring a major shift in the two year old conflict the Syrian rebels appear unable to militarily defeat Assad’s forces, but Western governments have been reasonably hesitant to directly enter the conflict.

In Foreign Policy John Hudson recently listed the weapons systems that could “change the game” if supplied to the rebels. The arguments Hudson makes are true, in a limited sense. If widely proliferated to the opposition weapons supplies would, as Hudson argues, increase their combat capabilities. Supplying modern MANPADS to the rebels would restrict the operational freedom of Assad’s air assets, and anti-armor weapons systems would allow rebels to better destroy regime armor and restrict regime mobility. But importantly, even if these weapons systems were supplied to the Syrian rebels they would only represent potential marginal gains in their ability to contest territory with the regime, and wouldn’t necessarily ‘turn the tide in their favor’. Western governments’ assurances that weapons would be kept out of the hands of jihadi-influenced rebel groups, reportedly more capable, dedicated, and experienced than their less-radicalized compatriots, casts doubt over the optimistic assertions of arms supplies’ proponents, even if there was any way to reasonably assure donor governments could control whose hands their weapons actually ended up in. A clear-sighted of arming the Syrian rebels should conclude that it’s unlikely the marginally increased combat capability granted by increasing weapons flows to the rebels would meaningfully increase their potential to end — or, more accurately, win — the war.

Organizational and logistic assets, not weapons, are the greatest determinant of a fighting force’s practical capabilities. Even if Western militaries could train elite rebel units, as Hudson suggests, it is unclear if the intensity of the ongoing conflict allows opposition forces leeway to build these capabilities. Ultimately international observers probably suggest shipping arms to rebel fighting’s simply because it is one of the few options available to practically oppose the regime while still low-commitment enough to remain acceptable to intervention-wary domestic audiences, not because of any reasonable expectation that arming the rebels will significantly increase the prospect of an Assad military defeat.

Indeed, the greatest problem with arming the rebels is that while it is a low-commitment option, it isn’t commitment free. Arming the Syrian rebels necessarily ties international credibility to the possibility of an opposition military victory, while falling short of the commitment necessary to tangibly increase the chances of said victory. This is a (much) milder problem of the commitment problem Western militaries encountered in Libya. Committing NATO airpower to the conflict invested Western prestige in its outcome, while for months rebel fighters aided by Western air and UK special operations forces assets appeared unable to bring the conflict to a close. Because arming Syria’s rebels avoids direct international involvement this policy avoids much of the commitment problem that plagued the intervention in Libya. But it still is a potential problem. Arming the rebels will — eventually — publicly invest outside governments into the conflict’s outcome to a much greater degree than the are now. But arming the rebels falls even farther below the commitment threshold necessary to end the conflict than Western airpower’s entry into the Libyan conflict did. Outside governments should be wary of committing themselves to a conflict they are not prepared to directly win.

(Non)Costly Signaling

By Taylor Marvin

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has issued a law restricting genetically modified foods in the interest of public health, the AFP reports. Most observers seem to be greeting the news with puzzlement, or at least irony: why does Assad care about GM food when killing tens of thousands of his own people?

The law is less puzzling than it appears, and can’t be separated from the Syrian Civil War. Assad’s path to victory rests on his ability to retain support among unaligned members of the populace and erode support for the rebels. His best way to do this is by projecting an illusion of strength; few opponents will lend tangible support to the rebels if they see a government victory as inevitable. If government forces can’t win major victories or reliably punish even minor transgressions, the best way for them to project strength is through an illusion of normalcy. Passing mundane laws is a way to convince fence-sitters that the civil war is not an existential threat, the government retains the ability to protect those that support it, and that supporting anti-government forces is misguided and suicidal. Of course, if Assad really is relying on passing inconsequential legislation — which the rebels have no means or interest in disrupting anyway — as a signal of the government’s resiliency, stronger ways of convincingly exhibiting the regime’s strength and commitment are likely not available.

“Voluntary Purging” and Ethnic Regimes

By Taylor Marvin

At Political Violence @ a Glance [full disclosure: I edit contributions for the site] Erica Chenoweth flags an interesting quote by Bashar al-Assad included in Hassan Hassan’s recent piece in Foreign Policy“Practically, this process is positive,” Assad remarked, commenting on recent defections.

Chenoweth argues that the Assad regime sees the rebellion as less of an existential threat and more of a useful way of sorting out who’s loyal and who isn’t:

“Apparently, Assad would prefer a small, committed core of officials committed to crushing the revolt than a broader regime infiltrated by traitors,’ as Hassan puts it. Although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging, thus strengthening the regime.”

In Hassan and Chenoweth’s telling, the civil war is a loyalty test that functions as a voluntary purge — because remaining with the regime is costly, especially for military officers and diplomats stationed abroad, those who elect to stay are the most committed. This “self cleaning” is useful for autocrats whose power rests on a small, empowered portion of the population, often in the economic elite or security forces. For these to be an effective bulwark of regime authority, however, they must not be compromised by dissent. Purging is a way to ensure this. Of course, it is often difficult to tell who is loyal, and who isn’t; because dissidents within the regime power structure hold positions of privilege and can expect harsh punishments for disloyalty, they have an incentive to fake compliance, weakening the regime’s security.

If authoritarians cannot easily assess loyalty, they either over- or under-purge. Over-purging, most famously by Stalin and Mao, weakens the regime by mistakenly removing capable supporters. Stalin’s purges during the 1930s paved the way for early Nazi victories after the German invasion and, as Stephen F. Cohen notes in “The Stalin Question” many of those who survived purges later rose to prominent military and economic positions; presumably, these high-quality Soviet citizens would have contributed more to the strength of the state had not languished in the gulag. Smaller scale purges are also costly to the regime if it overreaches, especially when focused on purging a technocratic or military support base. Under-purging risk missing dissidents, who can safely continue to slack or assist other dissenters external to the regime support base.

Ethnic-based regimes avoid this problem by using an extremely costly signal of loyalty, ethnicity. Conflating ethnicity with the regime makes it difficult for co-ethnics to defect by tying their personal security to the regime’s in a very visible way. Unfortunately for ethnicity-minded authoritarians, the loyalty benefits of ethnic-based regime types only work in narrow circumstances. If the regime’s ethnic group is large, ethnicity is no longer a costly tie to the regime and does not reliably signal loyalty; after all, not everyone can be part of the elite. If the ethnic group is too few, it would be difficult to entirely staff the upper echelons of the military and policy with loyal co-ethnics. This is the case in Syria, where Alawites, the religious minority the Assad family belongs too, make up less than ten percent of the population. While Alawites fill most elite Baath Party and security force positions, there aren’t enough of them in Syria to staff the entire government.An interesting question would be if ‘voluntary purges’ like Assad’s are more common in countries where the ruling elite comes from a ethnic minority large enough to motivate an ethnic-based regime but not large enough to rely on entirely.

Of course, there’s another potential explanation to Assad’s statement: he’s bluffing. Assad’s remarks quoted by Hassan were given to the pro-regime channel Addounia TV, and Assad knew they would be heard both by regime loyalists and the wider international community. Assad has an incentive to project a credible postion of strength, both to bolster regime forces and discourage foreign intervention — admitting that the defections hurt doesn’t accomplish this. Framing defections as positive “self-cleaning” is a credible way to lie.