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Posts tagged ‘Chemical Weapons’

If the Anti-CW Norm Should Be Enforced, Unauthorized Use Matters

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Yesterday at Political Violence @ a Glance I posted a brief piece summarizing President Obama’s Tuesday speech on Syria, in which he called on Congress to delay a decision on whether to strike the Assad regime in favor of a potential diplomatic solution that would, with Russian support, see Assad give up his chemical weapons under international supervision. Commentators’ reaction to the diplomatic initiative was mixed. On the one hand, it allows Obama to avoid either the unpopular airstrikes that his previous ill-advised red line had rhetorically committed him to or an unprecedented rejection of his plan in Congress. If the initiative succeeds it will also strengthen the international norm against chemical weapons use much more effectively than limited, internationally unpopular, and likely irrelevant airstrikes. However, it remains unclear if the diplomatic plan will succeed, effectively cataloging and destroying Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria’s chaotic civil war looks to be an extremely difficult and risky task requiring extensive international commitment, and the plan does nothing to end the war that has already killed over 100,000 people and appears to be degenerating into a bloody three-sided stalemate.

In contrast to Noah Schachtman and Colum Lynch’s worries that cooperating with the Assad regime on chemical weapons legitimizes it, Max Fisher writes today that it will not — while the Obama administration has maintained that “Assad must go” since the civil war’s inception, “Obama never actually sought to remove Assad from power against his will and has consistently acknowledged him as Syria’s head of state.” While this is true, it’s also clear that the lesson that chemical weapons use will at most result in a diplomatic effort to peacefully destroy these weapons and not airstrikes is not an encouraging one for Syria’s rebels, regardless of the potential airstrikes’ wisdom.

In his excellent piece on how Obama’s speech succeeded and failed, Kevin Lees highlights an important observation: Obama never definitively established that Assad ordered the Ghouta gas attack:

“Whatever the US government knows (or thinks it knows) about the Assad regime’s fault for the attack on August 21, it’s certainly been incredibly bashful about sharing it with the rest of us.  Middle Eastern armies often distribute gas masks to their troops, and the Syrian army is firing a great number of rockets into a great many neighborhoods these days.  That alone tells us nothing — it’s certainly information that can supplement the case for Assad’s blame, but it’s ultimately circumstantial.”

Claims that the rebels and not the regime were responsible for the August 21 attack that killed at the least hundreds of people, highlighted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his op-ed in today’s New York Timesare not credible. As Erica Chenoweth and Human Rights Watch both noted today, international investigation overwhelmingly holds the regime, not opposition, culpable for the August 21 attack. But the Obama administration’s reluctance to draw a direct line between Assad and the attack doesn’t mean that there’s any real doubt what player was responsible. Most obviously, it’s possible that the Obama administration simply doesn’t want to reveal in detail its sources, for any number of reasons. Secondly, as Lees notes, it’s possible that a rogue regime commander or garbled orders were responsible. As I wrote in May, this loss of control is a more pertinent danger associated with chemical weapons than other strategic arms. Since chemical weapons are typically battlefield tactical weapons mounted on limited-range delivery platforms, they must be distributed to the battlefield before use. This gives local commanders direct control over chemical weapons, and it is possible that Assad did not directly order their use — either a local commander or regime subordinate could have acted on their own initiative, misunderstood orders, or believed Assad wished the attack launched when he did not. It is similarly possible, as recent reporting suggests, that the attack was either launched on an angry whim by Assad or was more lethal than intended.

But even if the August 21 attack was due to a loss of control over the regime’s chemical weapons or operational mistake and not directly ordered by Assad in a manner the US can document, it is unclear in my mind whether this should have any bearing on the decision to punish — whether diplomatically or otherwise — the regime. Leaders understand that distributing chemical munitions to military units in war zones is a risky delegation of the authority to actually use them. Ultimately it is this decision, not the act of actually pushing the button that launches a rocket or drops a bomb, that bears the responsibility for chemical attacks. If the goal of punishing chemical weapons use is to preserve the anti-CW norm — and this is a big if — then that is the decision that should be punished. Loss of control or operational mistakes ar not an excuse.

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.

Will Assad Use His Chemical Weapons?

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.