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Posts tagged ‘Syria’

Stalemate, Secession, and the Future of Syria

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

By Taylor Marvin

As the conflict in Syria drags on and grows ever more sectarian, it is becoming increasingly expected that whatever the war’s outcome, it will not include a unified Syria. While the rebels control 60 to 70 percent of mainly rural Syria, opposition forces appear to have lost military momentum, have fractionalized, and seem unable to threaten the regime’s hold over many urban areas and Syria’s western coastal strip. Likewise, the Assad government appears similarly unable to retake the rebel-held center of the country, and after two years of increasingly-sectarian warfare it is difficult to imagine how the Assad government could ever again govern the entire country.

As a result of this stalemate, ‘Syria’ is an increasingly obsolete concept: as recent reporting from AP and the Economist suggests, Syria is splitting into three distinct regions. Opposition forces hold the country’s predominantly-Sunni center, the regime the west, and Kurds enjoy increasing autonomy along the northeast Turkish border. While this division is nowhere near clearcut — the regime still holds many urban centers and military installations within rebel territory, for instance — these three regions are increasingly diverging, as each adopts different ad hoc institutions and overtly-sectarian cultures. Schoolchildren in the northeast now learn in previously-banned Kurdish, and various Sunni factions compete within the opposition to establish Islamist government in the country’s center.

Writing in Al-Monitor, David W. Lesch wonders if this incipit trifurcation heralds the end of the Middle East’s colonially-imposed boundaries. Borders between chaotic Syria and its neighbors have weakened, Lesch writes, noting that the borders drawn up by the post-Ottoman colonial mandate system artificially unite disparate ethnic and religious groups into countries that have been unable to forge durable national identities. Ottoman administration tended to follow sectarian and ethnic divisions, while the new order drawn up by British and French colonialists “was to all intents and purposes the imposition of the Western-based Westphalian nation-state system onto the Middle East,” and “centuries of pre-existing orientations were cast aside.” As the war in Syria drags on, Lesch concludes that “we may be witness to a generation-long process that will remap much of the Middle East.”

All this calls to mind Fred Kaplan’s recent piece in Slate arguing that, spurred by the US invasion of Iraq, these artificial borders are beginning a long process of reorganization. At the time I doubted Kaplan’s argument, noting that even “artificial” states that combine disparate ethnic and sectarian groups can be durable entities, and major modern-era restructuring is rare in other regions with similarly colonially-defined borders. (Notably, the post-independence national boundaries of South America were similarly artificial, and required a century of warfare to stabilize.) What’s more, I doubted that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that Kaplan cites has begun this reorganization when previous stressor events like the Iran-Iraq War did not.

So where does this leave the future of Syria, and the wider Middle East’s, boundaries? Syria’s eventual unraveling appears more likely today than in March, when Kaplan questioned whether sectarian civil violence would lead to “new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically ‘natural’ sectarian divisions.” But just how likely is Syria to split into two or three independent, widely recognized new nations?

In my mind, this question remains unclear. While Syria’s Kurdish region is, as Lesch notes, growing increasingly autonomous, Turkey remains enormously invested in preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. Given that Iraqi Kurdistan has existed semi-autonomously since the Gulf War and more so after 2003, it is unclear if an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region is sufficient impetus to finally allow for the creation of a formally independent Kurdish state.

Similarly, it is unclear if the Syrian conflict will lead to a permanent bi- or trisecting of Syrian geography. While the Assad government appears unable to retake control of most of the country now, the regime is determined to do so — Assad recently claimed that any diplomacy with the rebels is unacceptable and the conflict will “be decided on the field.” While it is unclear how genuine this resolve is, it remains substantial barrier to the prospect of a stable division as long as the regime retains conventional military superiority. Conversely, if the rebels do manage to consolidate their hold on the Euphrates river valley — an outcome that implies increasingly rebel military capabilities — it is unclear if the regime-dominated coast of the country will be able to successfully extricate itself from a now-lost Syria. When considering the possibility of an independent Alawite-dominated coastal strip, Steve Saideman wrote last year that the outcome of a rebel consolidation is more likely to be mass killings of those associated with the regime than successful secession: “The folks who win in Syria are not going to let their former oppressors escape, especially if they take the coastline along with them.”

The opposition may have every intention of evicting the regime and punishing its supporters, but after a year of military stablemate appears unable to do so. While the current stalemate does not appear stable, if rebels manage to take and hold the cities and military bases within their area of influence and avoid further intra-opposition conflict, it’s plausible that the conflict will stabilize leaving three de facto states, with the regime and opposition territories both laying claim to all of Syria. (Though the accelerating disunity of anti-Assad forces suggests that a de facto post-rebel state will only arise after a violent sorting process within the rebel “coalition”.)

So where does this leave the future of the Syrian state construct? Of course, it’s impossible to say, and history is no clear guide: as my recent post reminded, states are transient entities. But formal secession is difficult, and the idea of a state is a norm that’s similarly difficult to erase: Syrians both for and against the Assad government remember Syria as a unified state, and both have incentives to regain control over it by defeating their rival. Today’s apparent military stalemate makes this currently unlikely, but it is similarly unclear if this stalemate will persist long enough for desires to reunify the country to dissipate; “none of the sides can speak of confidently retaining the terrain they control,” AP reports.

Similarly, there are still many step to formal statehood. Will possibly future negotiations to end the fighting recognize these de facto boundaries, and will the opposition be able to present a unified anti-Assad front? Who will recognize these new states?

It’s also worth remembering that any type of “stable” division is unlikely to be welcomed by the international community, as it implies mass migrations and ethnic cleansing.

Barring a major shift in the Syrian conflict — whether caused by one side gaining military momentum or a decisive foreign intervention — the current stalemate appears set to continue. If it does, Syria’s three regions will grow farther apart, suggesting greater de facto future independence. But it is important to not overgeneralize this shift: it’s possible that the Syrian war will ultimately see Syria divided into two or three formally independent states, but there are many, many people with an incentive to forestall this future, avoid negotiated settlement, or forcibly reunify the country. Whether current inertial will overwhelm this desire remains to be seen.

Update: On Twitter Danny Hirschel-Burns adds, “As I see it, contradictorily, both a united Syria and the redrawing of state borders are going out of fashion simultaneously, which could have grave consequences for a negotiated solution.”

Miltary Defections, Civil Resistance, and Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Erica Chenoweth has an excellent piece at Waging Nonviolence on how military defections can hamper, not help, civil resistance movements. In Egypt, collaboration between the military and anti-Morsi organizers contributed to the country’s recent coup — and uncertain future of democracy. Military defections vary in intensity, Chenoweth writes, from “full defection” to “partial defection,” and reluctance to follow orders running from “shirking” to “outright disobedience.” The challenge is preventing defections from allowing military elites to co-opt civil resistance movements, as the Egyptian military has done to preserve its privileges. If civil resistance organizers cannot retain their leadership positions in the aftermath of military defections to their cause, movements run the risk of leading to civil war or military juntas. While military defections can be important contributions to the success of civil resistance movements, organizers should “see that security forces have their own interests, and they can easily manipulate the movement to suit their own purposes in ways that undermine the movement’s own agenda.”

In Syria, Chenoweth notes, military defectors brought their skills and equipment into a previously non-violent movement, contributing to its shift into a civil war:

“In the cases of Libya and Syria, nonviolent action led to defections among the armed forces early on in the conflicts. However, the defectors took their weapons with them, regrouped as armed challengers, and essentially undermined and supplanted nonviolent campaigns by initiating armed struggle.”

The sectarian aspects of the Syrian conflict have contributed to this dynamic. While firm supporters of the Assad regime dominated the pre-war Syrian military leadership, they were not its entirety, as high-level military defections have shown. However, by self-selecting out of the military defectors have left a unified force whose loyalty the regime can count on. As Chenoweth wrote last year, “although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging.” According “senior official” in Damascus quoted in a May 2013 Crisis Group interview, defections have strengthened the military they leave behind:

“Defections among army ranks have been numerous. We estimate that tens of thousands switched sides. But that meant they left behind the more reliable and motivated troops. In my view, defections are the single most important factor in explaining subsequent army cohesion”

Sectarian divides contribute to this selection dynamic: those who remain in the regime’s military are constantly told that the war is a sectarian conflict pitting Alawites and Shiites against Syria’s Sunni majority, with no option other than victory — ‘Sunnis fight out of fear and Alawites out of conviction,’ in the words of one regime defector.

In addition to contributing to the Syrian protest movements transformation into a military conflict, had these defections no occurred Assad likely would have been constrained by the uncertain loyalty of the armed forces overall. But defections have left Assad with a smaller but more dedicated military whose existence is tied to that of the regime. This information has allowed Assad to avoid the fear that unrestrained violence would lead to further defections — indeed, defections have significantly fallen off since the second half of 2012 (though not halted), suggesting that either opposition sympathizers within the military are now rarer or that fence-sitters are no longer prepared to bargain on the conflict’s outcome. While the Syrian military was never a non-sectarian actor defections have shaped it into a body unlikely to survive the fall of the regime, and thus much more closely associated with it.

Anyway, a really interesting take. Read the whole thing.

Syria, Hindsight, and Difficult Choices

By Taylor Marvin

As I have before, today I wrote the weekly discussion question feature at Political Violence @ a Glance: given what we know today about the costs of the Syrian conflict, imagine you could advise President Obama at the outset of the conflict. What would your advice be? How would this differ from the policy options you favor today?

I think this is an interesting question, and one I can offer no real answer too. If policymakers in 2011 knew the Syrian war would eventually kill at least 100,000 people, there would likely have been a much stronger push for an international intervention to stop the violence. But today, with neither side apparently capable of gaining control over the entire country, it appears likely that the war will kill many more people before it is over, and there is still little real international desire to intervene.

Alternatively, the optimal strategies for ending the violence could have shifted between 2011 and now. It’s arguable that opportunities for a diplomatic solution existed then, before the conflict radicalized into the general sectarian war it increasingly resembles today. But then again, it’s very unlikely that the Assad government and its sectarian power base would have ever accepted any form of power-sharing agreement. Similarly, it is also arguable that arming the rebels with the heavy weapons necessary to make them competitive with regime forces was more politically feasible early in the conflict, before the ideological fracture of the opposition and overt entry of al Qaeda, Iran, and Hezbollah into the conflict. The same logic applies to an international military intervention — but again, the Syrian opposition never appeared to be a united force able to serve as a military partner to Western airpower as in Libya.


Rebel Public Relations and Military Intervention in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week Erica Chenoweth highlighted an interesting McClatchy story reporting that CIA officials warned Hezbollah, through Lebanese government intermediaries, of an immanent al Qaeda attack on political targets in southern Lebanon. Reportedly American intelligence was able to listen in on encrypted calls detailing the planned attacks — “America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said,” a Lebanese intelligence official remarks — and tip off Hezbollah, allowing the Iranian-backed group to arrest the conspirators. Perhaps ironically, al Qaeda’s reported motivation for the planned attack was Hezbollah and its Iranian patron’s support of the Assad government in Syria, who both the United States and al Qaeda wish to see ousted.

Even more thought-provoking is a pair of quotes from a Lebanese laborer and Hezbollah commander:

“We all think that the (Syrian rebels) are al Qaida and backed by the CIA and Israel,” said Abu Ibrahim, a 53-year-old day laborer from Haret Hriek, which hosts Hezbollah’s main complex of offices and homes for officials. “So why would they help us? Maybe they’re realizing how crazy their friends in Syria are.”

The Hezbollah commander said he thought the warning was more pragmatic.

“The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”’

First, it’s entirely possible that the commander’s opinion doesn’t represent Hezbollah or the Assad regime’s strategic thinking and is simply spin. It is reasonable to suspect that publicly benefiting from the CIA’s superior intelligence in their own backyard is deeply embarrassing to Hezbollah — in a potentially deft bit of ass-covering the commander is earlier quoted claiming that Hezbollah had previous knowledge of the attack — giving it an incentive to save face by claiming that the CIA’s links to Syrian rebels is even more embarrassing. Similarly, individual Hezbollah members likely view the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels in the harshest terms possible, an ideological bias that potentially leads them to unreasonably underestimate the opposition’s ability to gain international support.

But this does raise an interesting puzzle: Does the Assad government and its allies truly believe that American support for the Syrian opposition will necessarily decline as international perceptions of the rebels dim?

Importantly, it is extremely difficult for even specialists to try and divine what informs the Assad regime’s thinking, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to do so. Additionally, even if the Assad regime does believe that the rebels will eventually alienate potential international backers, it is difficult to say that this would induce it to behave any differently than it would otherwise. The belief that serious international aid to the rebels is not forthcoming could make the regime even less likely to consider a negotiated solution to end the conflict, but the regime also has a strong incentive to outlast the rebellion anyway, so it is unreasonable to suspect that this belief would have any practical affect on its behavior.

That said, there are reasons to find this theory credible. The strongest is that we have already observed it in action. The opposition has been unable to prevent news of gruesome atrocities and violent political fragmentation from reaching Western media, as recent high-profile coverage of a rebel commander accused of ritual cannibalism shows. As Fred Kaplan wrote in a Friday column, Britain is already backing away from its previous push to supply the rebels with arms, citing “the reports that the Syrian rebels were killing one another with more gusto than they were killing soldiers of the Syrian regime.” Similarly, support among the American public for intervening in the conflict has fallen over time, an aversion at least partially due to opposition infighting and the popular conception that the opposition is dominated by radicals.

As the bloody conflict in Syria drags on, the rebels’ reputation is likely to grow more internationally tarnished. This is unsurprising, on multiple levels. Most obviously, the rebels entered the conflict with a largely ‘clean slate’ and a longer war simply gives them more time to commit high-profile atrocities, which anti-Assad foreign fighters and opportunists appear prone to committing. Secondly, as the war continues it has grown more ideological, increasingly morphing into a general sectarian conflict. Irrespective of ideology, as the war’s horrors continue combatants on both sides can be expected to grow more radical, a radicalization process on clear display in a BBC interview with the rebel commander accused of eating a regime soldier’s heart:

“In the beginning, when we captured an Alawite fighter, we would feed him, make him feel comfortable. We used to tell him we were brothers. But then they started raping our women, slaughtering children with knives.”

Of course, this same logic applies to the regime, whose artillery, armor, and airpower allow it to threaten greater atrocities than the opposition. But importantly, international public opinion is less important to the regime than the rebels. The regime entered the war as an international pariah, and its Russian and Chinese support in the UNSC appears to only be risked by much graver atrocities than it has so far perpetrated. Similarly, the conflict’s status quo favors the regime, especially in diplomatically: the Assad government already receives more practical support from its international allies than the opposition. The rebels, however, appear unlikely to favorably shift the conflict’s balance unless they are able to gain further international support. As instances of rebel atrocities unavoidably grow, they become another barrier to a prospective international military intervention on their side.

This logic is particularly important because, despite its fragmentation, the anti-Assad opposition is to some degree viewed as a unified body by its prospective international patrons. Despite Iran and Hezbollah’s increasing entry into the conflict America has no core national interests at stake in Syria, and the Obama administration has framed its interest in the conflict on humanitarian grounds. While the American public may not care about foreign policy, the administration is not likely to pursue a military intervention into the conflict with public opinion firmly against it, and atrocities committed by some rebels affect public perception of them all. Lionel Beehner recently wrote that ‘more violence means less support for intervention,’ but this can be more precisely stated as more evenly-distributed violence means less support for intervention, because violence — and accompanying atrocities — suggests that both sides “are just as bad” in the public consciousness. Whether this is true or not, this perception is a barrier to elected leaders looking to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

Why the Broken Red Line Didn’t Force the Administration’s Hand in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week the Obama administration decided to expand the “scope and scale” of American assistance to the Syria opposition and begin arming rebel forces. Concluding that the Bashar al-Assad regime had indeed violated the “red line” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces, the administration announced Thursday that it would begin supplying the Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition, though the White House maintains it has no interest in imposing a no-fly zone at this time. While reporting from this April suggested that the administration was slowly moving towards a consensus in favor of arming the rebels, the news still comes as a major shift in President Obama’s Syria policy.

In a statement Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes framed the administration’s decision as a response to the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons use, arguing that “while the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”

However, its rhetoric aside it is difficult to argue that Obama was compelled to act by Assad’s apparent breaking of the international red line prohibiting chemical weapons use. Instead, the administration’s decision to arm the rebels can only be understood as a deliberate choice.

First, as many others have argued, there is no compelling reason why the murder of 100 to 150 Syrians by chemical weapons demand international restitution more than nearly a hundred thousand by conventional means. But despite arguments that chemical weapons are uniquely terrible it is incorrect to claim, as Rhodes does, that strong norms against chemical arms use have existed for decades and requires enforcement. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that chemical arms — which are difficult to handle, subject to dispersal by weather conditions, often just as likely to incapacitate friendly troops as the enemy, and widely stigmatized – are rarely used because of their few practical battlefield uses and reputation costs, rather than any enforced international norm. Indeed, the United States has turned a blind eye to chemical weapons use when it is politically convenient, ignoring Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War and only nominally punishing his chemical massacres of Kurdish civilians decades later. Given that the norm against chemical weapons use is strong in spite of, not due to, international enforcement efforts and few leaders have incentives to use chemical arms anyway, it is unlikely that Obama administration officials were compelled by the belief that the norm against chemical weapons needed to be upheld.

Secondly, it is similarly unlikely that the administration was forced to act by its previous rhetoric. Red lines sanctioning chemical weapons use are inherently fuzzy. Unlike, say, nuclear weapons, there is nothing inherently intolerable about chemical weapons use. If Assad had used chemical weapons to kill thousands of civilians in a single, high-profile attack, the United States would likely have been compelled to act. However, Assad did not; instead, he apparently used chemical weapons in limited, isolated attacks. Indeed, the fact that it took the US government nearly two months to officially verify his use of chemical weapons is indicative of just how limited this use was. Perhaps Assad’s limited use of chemical weapons suggests that he lost political control over them rather than ordering their use, or that he was deliberately testing the strength of the international red line. Whatever the reason, though, this inherent fuzziness made it difficult for the Obama administration to issue an obviously credible red line prohibiting any specific degree of chemical weapons use, and it similarly could have ignored Assad’s limited provocation if it really wanted to.

Third, the Obama administration had deliberately avoided binding itself to act if Assad did violate the red line. Red lines often suffer from a fundamental credibility problems, because their targets can often not distinguish a credible threat from a bluff. Since leaders rarely like being forced into unpopular wars, red lines work best when the actor issuing the threat constructs mechanisms to force their future self to respond if their bluff is called. However, the administration had used shifting semantics and ambiguities about what the red line actually entails to avoid rhetorically binding himself to action, suggesting that Obama wished to avoid an iron-clad public commitment he might later regret — exactly the kind of commitment device he’d value if Obama valued credibility over flexibility.

All these factors suggest that, contrary to its own rhetoric, the Obama administration is not being forced into the Syrian conflict. Despite the administration’s red line, President Obama could have avoided further intervention in the conflict if he truly wished to. Arming the rebels is growing less, not more, popular among Americans, and Obama is unlikely to face any significant domestic political costs for inaction. Finally, it is immediately obvious that the Obama administration is doing the least it can to punish the Assad regime’s transgressions. Small arms supplies are unlikely to turn the tide in the rebels’ favor, and if anything the Obama administration’s present actions send a reassuring signal to potential human rights violators: as long as you abstain from chemical weapons the international community tolerates massacres, and even if you do use chemical arms, it will only half-heartedly begin arming your enemies. As Sara Bjerg Moller recently wrote, “rather than redeem American credibility, the lesson other states are likely to draw is that (at least in the short term) they can get away with crossing well-established red lines while the US government conducts a multi-month internal policy debate on what to do next.”

While the Obama administration’s decision to begin arming Syrian rebels is unlikely to quickly end the conflict, it is a major shift in Obama’s Syria policy. Despite its public justifications, however, it is a mistake to see the administration’s decision as a forced reaction to Assad’s chemical weapons use. Instead, the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war more decisively than ever before is a deliberate policy choice that reflects his own views on liberal interventionism, the precarious position of the secular opposition, and international responsibilities.

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.

Recognizing Genocide

By Taylor Marvin

At The Spectator, Alex Massie argues that Syria is not “Obama’s Rwanda”, a conclusion Daniel Larison seconds. But the biggest problem with allusions linking the West’s failure to act in Rwanda to its current inaction in Syria isn’t the post-Rwanda precedent of the Iraq War that makes the American public even more hesitant to intervene in outbursts of ethnic violence. Instead, the greatest distinction is that the Syrian crisis is not a genocide. Recently Erica Chenoweth and Oliver Kaplan addressed the inappropriateness of the term genocide to describe Syria’s violence:

“A more appropriate term might be politicide, where violence is directed against political opponents. But these days, it is also clear that the Free Syrian Army and its militia affiliates are themselves responsible for plenty of deaths as well, meaning that it is a civil war (albeit a lopsided/asymmetric one) by any conventional standard.”

This is entirely true. While the Syrian conflict has a clear ethnic dimension, Assad’s war crimes targeting the opposition and civilians do not meet the criteria of genocide. Given that armed opposition groups appear to be a serious threat to regime military forces it’s unclear if Assad actually possesses the capacity to pursue a genocidal campaign, even if he desired to.

But if the Assad regime’s brutality doesn’t meet the criteria for genocide, why is it frequently referred to as such? Actual campaigns of genocide are comparatively rare, but this rarity is obscured by the popular and academic attention the genocides that do occur rightly attract. Given the popular attention devoted to the horrors of genocide it isn’t surprising that the term is often abused. First, as Chenoweth and Kaplan note, both Syrian and international advocates of intervention in Syria have an incentive to portray the conflict as one-sided as possible, an asymmetric gravity the term “genocide” certainly conveys. Secondly, there really isn’t another commonly-recognized term that conveys the horror of large-scale killings that nevertheless fall short of genocide. Chenoweth and Kaplan’s “politicide” isn’t in common usage, and anyway — unlike “genocide” — doesn’t specify the scale of violence. Similarly, in the public mind the more accurate designation of “war crimes” is more-often understood as reference to smaller-scale atrocities like the Mai Lai massacre, rather than systematic violence. In the absence of a better, popularly understood term for massive, long-term systematic terror campaigns, the ultimate designation of genocide will continue to be abused.

This is problematic for two main reasons. First, abusing the term disrespects the victims of actual genocides, whether Armenians, European Jews or Slavs, or Rwandan Tutsis, among many others. Of course, this isn’t to say that the suffering and loss victims of non-genocide war crimes experience is any less than the victims of genocide, but it is important to recognize that genocides are horribly unique. Linking the Syrian civil war with the Holocaust obscures more than it reveals. Secondly, because using the term genocide as a catch-all for large-scale war crimes lessens its impact in the popular imagination, this practice makes it easier for policymakers to ignore future genocides.

Applying the term genocide to the Syrian crisis today is particularly problematic because it may be terribly applicable in the future. Again, while this doesn’t disparage the suffering of today’s victims of violence — whether inflicted by the regime, the opposition, or third parties — deeming the conflict “genocide” now will lessen the term’s impact if it ever does actually apply. If Assad is overthrown Syria’s Alawite minority will likely face extensive, bloody reprisals. Depending on the scale of these reprisals Syria could witness a genocide, though one that targets the supporters, not opponents, of the regime. Unfortunately, this outcome of the war has become more likely the longer the conflict has dragged on. Even if the opposition is unable to actually overthrow Assad the regime will likely be unable to ever regain its pre-crisis control over the country — too many Syrians are too bitterly opposed to the regime, and too many weapons have flowed into Syria for Assad’s government to ever again effectively administer the entire country. This future weak state capacity throughout Syria will be conductive to ethnic violence by anti-regime militants. If Assad is overthrown, former rebels will be able to pursue reprisal campaigns targeting Alawites with even greater impunity.

If genocide targeting Alawites does occur in Syria, it will be very difficult for the international community to prevent or halt. Even if a victorious opposition is engaged in genocidal violence against communities perceived as regime partisans, if will be difficult for international leaders to convince their own domestic audiences of the necessity to oppose the previously-victimized opposition they once supported. Similarly, Western leaders have little leverage over the Syrian opposition that perceives itself as abandoned by the outside world today; if the opposition manages to unseat Assad without decisive outside help, the international community will likely have no leverage to prevent reprisal campaigns. While the outcome of the Syrian crisis remains uncertain, international organizations should begin to examine their options for preventing genocide should the regime fall.

(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.