Why a Strategy of Deterring Weak Leaders from Using Chemical Weapons Means the US Should Attack Syria Even if it Strengthens Assad


The following is a guest post from my NYU colleague political scientist Peter Rosendorff.


The Senate is struggling to draft a resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria, and has announced a delay in the vote originally scheduled for Wednesday in order to permit the revived diplomatic process to potentially succeed. Presidents Putin and Obama are suddenly on the same page with respect to the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons, and Syria may be going along with the initiative for now, probably to delay and dissemble.

The US Congress, following President Obama’s lead, is likely to eventually authorize the use of force, most likely in a contingent fashion whereby force will be authorized in the instance that the Russian initiative fails.

The US has to do something it doesn’t want to do: to deter future abusers of chemical weapons in other weak and fragile states, the US will probably authorize an attack on Syria. But an attack, paradoxically, will have the unintended and unavoidable consequence of strengthening Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power. However, it turns out to be the case that in order for deterrence to work, the US must sometimes strengthen strong dictators to deter the weak.

The authorization for the attack will require it be calibrated so as to damage the capacity for future chemical weapons deployment by the Assad regime, but not to alter the balance of power in the Syrian civil war. US policy has been to draw Iran and Hezbollah into a long, resource dissipating civil war, reducing their capacity to target the US and its assets abroad.  Any punitive action must also avoid strengthening the rebel opposition for fear of generating a “failed-state” scenario and engineering a safe haven for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Some have called this the “goldilocks” strategy – hit Assad not too hard and not too soft. Just right. (By the way, this is Russia’s primary concern as well – to ensure that a failed-state Syria does not end up emboldening Russia’s opponents in Central Asia, especially if Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was to fall into rebel hands).

But any attack on Assad that leaves him in power actually strengthens his grip. He has thumbed his nose at the international community by violating a strong norm against the use of chemical weapons, especially against unarmed civilians.  By crossing Obama’s red line, he shows his opposition that he can withstand the wrath of the West, and the US in particular. And hence he can withstand the puny (by comparison) attacks by the rebel forces.  He signals his intent not to leave, not to negotiate and not to concede.

This would lead a calculating US to consider no attack at all.  No attack leads to the continued stalemate that is the Syrian civil war, and a continuation of current foreign policy. No attack upholds the current status quo with respect to the crisis, which arguably is the US’s preferred (all realities considered) approach (at an incredible toll in lives lost).

But the US will authorize an attack. And they must do so because they are engaged in another game of geopolitics with all the potential chemical weapons users and rogue states with domestic political crises readying to boil over – Iran and North Korea, among others.  The US commitment to enforce the international norm against chemical weapons must be followed through to deter these rogue states.

The temptation is to view the US threat as already non-credible. After all, if it were truly credible Assad would never have crossed it.  But potential chemical weapons users come in different types and stripes.  Strong, tough types will violate the norm anyway, thumb their nose at the West, and use any potential punitive attack (which they withstand) by the West as evidence of their strength. Others however are weaker and might fall if pushed.  If there were no (or low) potential costs to using these weapons, both strong and weak would employ them in order to survive in office.  In order to deter the weak, the US must follow through when the strong use them.

This is not to say that the US must or will attack solely to preserve its credibility, as Noonan and others are suggesting. James Fearon is correct when he says “Never fight a war or carry out a military action just for the sake of credibility.  Use force only if it is in your national interest, all things considered, at the time of decision.” Deterring future rogue states from using chemical weapons remains squarely within the US’s national interest, even if as Stacie Goddard suggests, the opportunity for deterring Assad is now passed.

It is in Assad’s interest to violate the norm and be seen to do so (the possibility that he did not directly order the chemical weapons attack, but that elements of his military did doesn’t make much difference here), and the US is compelled to respond to deter future violations by other rogue states remains in the US’s clear national interest.

We end up observing that it is only the strong, “badass” dictators that use these abominable weapons, the strong regimes get attacked in punitive response, and the strong leaders survive in office.  The weak are deterred from using and are never attacked.

Hence in this game of geopolitics in which multiple countries are engaged, the US will find itself strengthening strong dictators by attacking them ineffectually in order to deter weaker leaders from using the most grotesque of weapons.

[Photo Credit: Washington Post]

9 Responses to Why a Strategy of Deterring Weak Leaders from Using Chemical Weapons Means the US Should Attack Syria Even if it Strengthens Assad

  1. Scott Monje September 10, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    “US policy has been to draw Iran and Hezbollah into a long, resource dissipating civil war, reducing their capacity to target the US and its assets abroad.”

    I’d be interested in hearing evidence for that. And just what is it that Iran could do to us before that it can’t do now?

  2. Wellwedfred September 10, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    There is no international norm against using chemical weapons. There IS an international norm against anyone but the major powers using chemical weapons. That is why the President can say he is “shocked, shocked” that Assad used chemical weapons after the US used 300000 tons of napalm in Vietnam and used chemical weapons again in the April 2004 siege of Falluja (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2005/nov/15/usa.iraq). And why Russia could use chemical weapons against the Chechens. And why both Russia and the US can both desire Syria to put their chemical weapons under international control but not their own chemical weapons after both countries failed to destroy all their chemical weapons by 2012 as required under the Chemical Weapons Convention that both countries signed and ratified. The rule seems to be that lesser countries can use chemical weapons as long as they are under the control of a major power – the US never made an issue of Sadam’s use of chemical weapons as long as he was a US puppet.
    [after writing the above, I found a similar and better-written argument was made in The Telegraph yesterday: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/seanthomas/100235050/spare-us-the-hypocrisy-over-chemical-weapons-america-what-about-agent-orange/
    But wouldn’t it be in the rational national interest of Syria to keep its chemical weapons as its only deterrence against the overwhelming military advantage of the US? Since there is no way to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision, the suggestion that Syria do so is probably a face-saving favor by Putin to Obama, and a suggestion soon to be forgotten by all. If it was a favor, how long until we find out what the quid pro quo is?

  3. James Hollyer September 10, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    Hey Peter,
    I wonder if a slightly alternative (though observationally equivalent) variant of the badass story might be more appropriate here. While cutting off options for a negotiated settlement may well signal a dictator’s willingness to cling to power; Bashar has probably already revealed his type in the 2+ years of civil war. There’s little doubt that the only way he’s willing to leave office is in a body-bag. (Indeed, I seem to recall the rebels scored several near-misses in bombing/assassination attempts.)

    Perhaps the real uncertainty here is over the willingness of the US/international community to intervene on the rebels’ behalf. Many of the moderate rebels seem to have, at least initially, operated under the hopes of foreign intervention (see, for instance, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/10/opinion/a-syrians-cry-for-help.html?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130910). (The jihadist factions are another question entirely.)

    It seems plausible that the Assad regime was better informed of the reluctance of foreign powers to take this step than were the rebels. Obama’s “red-line” was thus a god-send for Assad: He could deliberately cross the red-line and, when any response was minimal or entirely absent, the rebels could only infer that the cavalry was decidedly not on its way.

    So, Assad is still signaling that he is a bad-ass (in the sense that his position is relatively strong), but the source of uncertainty is somewhat different (the attitudes of the international community). If this is true, Assad’s signal has already had its desired effect. And we should be watching for a weakening of the resolve of the rebels — or at least of the moderate factions.

    • Peter September 10, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

      Hey James
      A great point, and probably correct especially if the enthusiasm for an attack starts to wane, and/or Congress fails to authorize punitive action. If the diplomatic route does falter, however, and the US does attack – deliberately ineffectively -the question remains: why would the US bother? Either the US issued a non-credible threat (the “red-line” was a gaffe), or the threat credibly deters some and not others.

    • Anna Getmansky September 11, 2013 at 6:50 am #

      Hi James,
      I think your explanation also accounts for the timing of the chemical attack. It happened when Assad was winning the war, and according to your logic wanted to demonstrate to the rebels that they have no external support to rely on.

  4. Kevin September 10, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

    “The US Congress, following President Obama’s lead, is likely to eventually authorize the use of force, most likely in a contingent fashion whereby force will be authorized in the instance that the Russian initiative fails.”

    That’s a leap of faith right there.

  5. Dani K. Nedal September 10, 2013 at 11:54 pm #

    I don’t think it’s quite accurate to compare the domestic political situation in Iran with Syria or North Korea. Nor do I think it’s fair to compare building nuclear weapons with using chemical weapons on civilians on a moral level (and the fact that most policy-makers in the US think it’s a fair comparison only makes it more hypocritical). On a strategic level, it’s been clear for a long time that the US thinks non-proliferation is more important than protecting civilians from chemical weapons (and way more important than protecting civilians in general). So the parties involved know the stakes are different.

    The other problem with the argument is that strong and weak actors probably understand that they are different as well. US failure to attack Russia in defense of Georgia probably didn’t lead, say, Venezuela to think they could annex parts of Colombia. In turn, if the US attacked Syria now, it would irritate Russia, but wouldn’t make them fearful that the US will attack them if (when) Spetznaz decides to gas a theatre full of people again. To say that leaders will see the failure to act in one case as a white flag – while the US is involved in at least 4 (5 if you disaggregate Af-Pak) ongoing conflicts at the moment and has extensive force deployments all around the world and a history of trigger happy presidents – just doesn’t seem realistic. One of the problems of thinking of the US as the benign hegemon that only uses force reluctantly and when necessary (regardless of whether that’s true, which I don’t think it is) is that one can overlook the fact that that’s not how others see it, and that perception is extremely consequential.