An Attack on Syria Isn’t About Chemical Weapons

Syrian soldier in gas gear during Operation Desert Shield. Via Wikimedia.
Syrian soldier during Operation Desert Shield. Via Wikimedia.

Guest post by Brent Sasley

It is increasingly likely that the United States, along with a coalition of allies, will engage in a limited attack against Syria. The public reason is the Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons against the opposition. There are plenty of other good reasons to support such an attack — over 100,000 Syrians have been killed in a war featuring mass rape, widespread torture, and sheer cruelty; the civil war has trickled into neighboring countries; Syria is in danger of becoming a failed state; and opposition groups likely to be hostile to American interests have been growing in strength — but it’s a mistake to argue that without a U.S. strike the anti-chemical weapons norm is in danger. A U.S.-led attack won’t save the norm against their use because the norm isn’t in danger of collapse. And other governments know this.

A norm isn’t a law; it’s a standard or expectation of behavior. But the very notion of having a standard implies that the norm is sometimes violated. The less often it’s violated, the stronger the norm is. And the anti-chemical weapons norm is very strong, indeed.

The history of the use of chemical weapons by states since World War Two is one of exceptions that prove the rule. Their use has come under specific conditions of war that have more to do with the particular government in power, the particular determination of national interests, and the nature of the conflict.

Evidence indicates that the United States used chemical weapons in Vietnam (1960s), Egypt used them in Yemen (1960s), the Soviet Union may have used some in Afghanistan (1980s), Libya attacked Chad with them (1987), Iraq used them against Iranians and Kurds (1980s), and Russia deployed some against Chechen terrorists (1990s).

But when these states decided to use their chemical weapons against their enemies, they were not interested in following international norms because they clashed with what they thought were their (more important) national interests. They also didn’t fear retaliation from the international community, because they knew they were too strong to be held accountable (U.S., U.S.S.R., Russia), because they assumed they had the backing of powerful countries (Iraq, Egypt), or because they simply didn’t care (Libya, Iraq).

In addition, when these states decided to stop applying chemical weapons against others, it wasn’t because of outside pressure but because the conflict started to wind down (Libya, Egypt), because the weapons simply didn’t help them achieve their victory (U.S., U.S.S.R.), or because it did convince the other side the war was lost (Iraq, Russia).

In short, there are very few states that might consider using chemical weapons; and the conditions under which they would use them are very limited — and that’s despite the lack of norm enforcement.

Those governments that decided in the past to use chemical weapons did so because they felt they were either above or outside existing international legal and normative structures in that particular context. The Syrian regime long ago ceased caring about what the international community thinks, and about what it might do; its priority is survival, and the biggest threat to surviving comes from within. But most states do care — they want to be good citizens of the international community; they see chemical weapons as inherently cruel but also as unnecessary; and, though it costs less to produce chemical weapons than it does to build nuclear bombs, it’s still expensive to create, stockpile, and store enough chemicals to kill large numbers of people — and they don’t see the need to pay those costs.

This isn’t to say that the use of chemical weapons shouldn’t be discouraged; it should. Nor is it to argue that there should be no punishment for breaking the norm; there should be. But let’s face it: there are few forms of sanction or punishment that would matter to Syria at this point short of full-scale invasion.

If the United States wants to exercise leadership in international affairs, contribute to the maintenance of regional peace and security, prevent mass atrocities, and help keep the anti-chemical weapons norm in place, it must act at the onset of violence rather than wait until so many have been murdered and raped.

It’s too late to do this in Syria. But if the U.S. wants to punish the Asad regime for its violence, then it should say so and do it. Latching on to the anti-chemical weapons norm only serves to mock it, because U.S. action is more about the long cruelty of the civil war and Washington’s sense that it needs to do something at this point. That won’t convince others that the United States is committed to saving the norm that most states already firmly believe in and abide by.

Brent E. Sasley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington and tweets at @besasley.

  1. Brent: In this case I disagree–I think CW concerns are a major factor in the decision. Partly these are Syria-specific, namely a fear that the regime has been employing CW with increasing regularity (the UK JIC report confirms at least 14 prior uses) and might continue to escalate if not deterred. CW, used widely, to have the potential to aggravate the humanitarian disaster significantly, and badly hurt the opposition too.

    However, the more general norm concerns are there too.

    Moreover, I think the US can certainly apply a level of force that changes Syria’s utility calculations regarding CW use (especially given that the Russians, and perhaps the Iranians, are pressuring him to not use them too).

    The US may also use the opportunity to take a free whack at the Syrians, but I doubt they expect this will have much impact on the war.

  2. Thanks Rex. I don’t disagree with most of that. I should have titled the piece “An Attack Shouldn’t Be About Chemical Weapons,” though even that isn’t specific enough. I agree the decision to (probably) attack rests to a large degree on the use of CW. What I wanted to argue was that the general norm itself could always be boosted, but it won’t fail without a US strike, nor would countries that might otherwise have considered their use avoid them without a US strike.

    I’m sure a US strike would help the regime think a little harder about using CW again (though maybe it depends on the situation). But we also can’t say that the US wouldn’t have struck had the levels of conventional violence continued to go up. Plenty of cases where the US has intervened because conventional violence levels were to high plus dangers of spillover, failed state, and all that (Iraq after Desert Storm, Serbia, Kosovo, Libya). CW in this case might just have made things starker for Obama. In which case, I argued that Obama should say its about the violence and maiming, not the CW per se.

  3. I disagree in the sense that I think the strikes really are about, to a degree, chemical weapons. Had I been asked a few weeks ago I would have said that the odds of American air strikes on Syria were incredibly low. What changed my opinion was the reported use of chemical weapons. After that I personally thought that odds were pretty good of the U.S. doing something unless the Syrian government provided incontrovertible evidence that it had been done by the rebels.

    Now I will not deny that two factors underlying why chemical weapons have provoked this response are that Syria is not a major power and it is not friendly to the U.S., but in the absence of the use of chemical weapons I don’t think the U.S. would have openly done anything.

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