Home > Applying Political Science, Syria > Should we care about Syria’s chemical weapons?

Should we care about Syria’s chemical weapons?

WMD world map

WMD world map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Syrian civil war is a situation rich in possibilities for systematic political analysis. A traditional international politics view suggests that the implications for international security of escalation of conflict with Turkey is the obvious priority here. The question of the role of the international community is fascinating: after all, this is a fantastic case for dissecting the relationship between the United Nations, as the symbol of international law, on the one hand, and major powers with their own interests, on the other. The question of why Assad does not just get on a plane to some lovely island somewhere is also a good one, and one that theorists of authoritarian and regime transition might well have something to say about (see Barbara Geddes work on this). What role does the UN arms ban play in the conflict–given that it is mostly recognized in its breach—and what happens if Syria‘s chemical weapons fall into the rebels’ hands? And finally, there’s the question of all of those people who have been killed, or had to flee the conflict. Politics is about power, and power shapes the extent to which people live secure lives in a range of ways.

With all the possibilities, the one I’m thinking most about is the issue of chemical weapons, which in some ways, seems like a quiet little corner of this conflict, but in other ways, not so much. The evidence around the existence of chemical weapons, and their use and abuse, suggests that their “symbolic” value has at least as much impact on real politics as their material effects.

While the Syria government has gone back and forth over the last several months between threatening to use chemical weapons against “external aggression” and playing coy about having such weapons at all, there is little doubt that they do. The question is: what does this mean for security?

The history of chemical weapons and their use is intriguing and illustrative, and here’s the short version: they were deployed in the trenches in World War I, to great effect and increasing horror. They were not used as part of the international war in World War II, a war in which states fought for their very survival to an extent seldom seen in modern history—a war one would think would give a country incentive to use anything in its arsenal to survive.

The Syrian government in July announced that it had control of its chemical weapons and that it would not deploy them against its own citizens, but might use them if the victim of external aggression (international or US invasion). Evidence from the political science literature, however, would suggest that the probability of chemical weapons being used in international conflict is incredibly small. First, there’s the deterrence argument—using chemical weapons against international troops would likely get Damascus eliminated as a liveable city (weapons of mass destruction are not actually required for this if you are willing to use enough other bombs, and the US likely would be), and Syria understands this. Deterrence theorists assume that states (and their leaders typically) act in a rational fashion, and given that the cost of using chemical weapons would be so inordinately high, it would be irrational to do so—there is no reason to think that the Syrian leadership is anything but rational in this regard.

Constructivists in political science, on the other hand, argue that rational calculations about deterrence are not the key to understanding the role of chemical weapons here, but rather the norm against their use in international conflict is. After World War I, Europeans widely believed that if chemical weapons were used again, it could lead to the downfall of civilization itself (think “nuclear winter” but warmer and without the nukes—total destruction of all civilization still). Everyone had them in World War II, but no one used them on the battlefield no matter how bad it got. Constructivists argue that a norm against using these heinous weapons exists that is sufficiently strong to keep them from use in international conflict, essentially no matter what the stakes (explaining in part George HW Bush‘s elimination of nearly the entire American stockpile of chemical weapons in 1990 because, he said, they would not be used under any circumstances, so there was no point in keeping them).

So, there would seem to be a small chance of chemical weapons being used in international war. Unfortunately, that only simplifies matters slightly. There are limits to all of those arguments. One is that while there is a widespread norm against their use that norm is at least partially Eurocentric—the principal combatants in World War I certainly exhibit it, but it’s not clear it is universal given the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war. So that makes me wonder just how strong the norm against use actually is, and the extent to which it is context dependent. Between deterrence and the norm, I think use in international war is unlikely. However, a potential cause for concern is that chemical weapons have certainly been used against civilian non-combatants even when they weren’t used in international war. The Holocaust is a case in point. As is Saddam Hussein‘s use against his own Kurdish population (a theme here is that most post-World War II uses of chemical weapons have involved Saddam Hussein, so we may have to seriously consider the importance of the individual level of analysis, not just the structures in which they work).

For all that, I think chemical weapons may yet affect this conflict. For one thing, the rebels are trying to seize control of the chemical weapons stores. The rebels, until they hold Damascus, are just trying to win that conflict: deterrence doesn’t really apply, nor does the norm against their use. Those theories really assume state actors, who are engaged in a game of international politics that does, as odd as it may seem, have a lot of rules. Whoever loses the civil war in these circumstances is likely to lose everything if they have to fight it out (if the two parties don’t suddenly decide to compromise, which is unlikely given Geddes’ analysis of authoritarian transitions), so the stakes are as high as they can be, and non-state actors are typically less compliant with norms than states are. The Syrian government certainly wants to keep control of their chemical weapons—and wants everyone to know they have control over them—for a range of reasons. And they have suggested that they will give them to Hezbollah (which has helped them suppress rebel areas) to keep them safe.

And while states are unlikely to actually deploy chemical weapons in war, they do have a way of changing international politics. In this case, Israel has threatened involvement if Hezbollah gets control of Syrian chemical weapons, and Netanyahu is not in a conciliatory mood; the United States has threatened response if they are used on Syrian civilians. The Syrian government has pointed out that in fact the US has used chemical weapons as an excuse for war relatively recently (Iraq) and is embroiled in another diplomatic battle over another WMD with Iran. Given all that, it is not impossible to imagine a scenario where the possession and control of chemical weapons in Syria cause escalation—because evidence suggests that the symbolic meaning and politics around weapons of mass destruction does not have to be closely related to the material consequences of their existence.

For more on what Syria has see here and here.

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  1. john yonke
    October 9, 2012 at 10:34 am

    I really hope that no leader of a country would use chemical weapons against their civilians. Is keeping yourself in power worth doing that? Obviously not.
    I found it ironic that Israel is threatening involvement, even though they used white phosphorus bombs in civilian areas just a few years back. Hypocritical. However, as soon as Assad (or the rebels, either way) start using mass chemical weapons, there must be a serious step made, from anywhere, to suppress those attacks. Chemical weapon use against civilians should never be tolerated.

  2. L
    October 10, 2012 at 1:01 am

    I feel that a country using chemical weapons against the civilians of their own country is just a way of saying that the leader really could care less about the people of the country. It shows that the leader is merely power hungry and wants to be in control rather than do what is best for the country as a whole that is what a real leader would do. I think that the United States made an extremely bold move saying that they will take measures into their own hands if any attacks are made against the Syrian civilians and although it may be a bittersweet gesture I still think it shows that the American government at least care for the people. Chemical weapons are untimely, cruel and shouldn’t even exist for the usage of killing people.

  3. L
    October 10, 2012 at 1:01 am

    I feel that a country using chemical weapons against the civilians of their own country is just a way of saying that the leader really could care less about the people of the country. It shows that the leader is merely power hungry and wants to be in control rather than do what is best for the country as a whole that is what a real leader would do. I think that the United States made an extremely bold move saying that they will take measures into their own hands if any attacks are made against the Syrian civilians and although it may be a bittersweet gesture I still think it shows that the American government at least care for the people. Chemical weapons are untimely, cruel and shouldn’t even exist for the usage of killing people.

  4. Lexa Buerer
    October 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I agree with Lisha in that chemical weapons should not exist at all because all they are good for is murdering innocent people. If a country’s ruler is contemplatIng using these weapons against his own people I feel that he is heartless and it just goes to show that he shouldn’t even be in power in the first place. I don’t blame the people for wanting to revolt against that type of leadership; I would.

  5. October 11, 2012 at 7:57 am

    I agree that a country’s ruler using chemical weapons against their own population is heinous. It’s also been done (though see my Saddam Hussein comment above). Another thing we know about conflict and violence and insecurity studies is that most of the people who die in wars now are civilians, and on the whole, people are endangered by their own governments far more often than they are threatened by other states.

  6. Jordyn Doyle
    October 11, 2012 at 8:15 am

    When power corrupts a leader to the point of willing to use such weapons that will hurt their country or people, that’s when you know that government has no sense.

    The weapons competition the world has had a good effect on certain things like war. Having these weapons reduces anyone wanting to go to war. And in my opinion is that war is bad. So I approve having them, but when the leader wants to use the weapons for their gain is when something needs to be changed.

  7. Sam Stodolski
    October 11, 2012 at 9:16 am

    “Evidence suggests that the symbolic meaning and politics around weapons of mass destruction does not have to be closely related to the material consequences of their existence.”
    I agree with this statement because the situation seems indicative of what happened with Iraq. It is not about the actual use of the weapons as much as it is about the consequences of having WMD. The US invaded Iraq simply on the grounds of their existence. The existence alone is enough to shape the politics and attitudes of all actors involved. While deterrence seems like a simple aspect, I think the invasion of Iraq showed that deterrence isn’t always possible and the mere existence alone can generate a response from interested actors. As long as the chemical weapons exist, the rebels will try to gain control.

  8. Chris Runnels
    October 11, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Chemical and biological weapons should never even be manufactured, let alone put into use. There’s a reason they were banned at Geneva right after WWI, they are simply brutal. It is much more acceptable to blow your enemies away with nuclear bombs instead. Sarcasm aside, if Syria ends up using these outlawed weapons against their own population, I would indeed expect a very large and conclusive response from the US. I guess the only bright side to that outcome would be that our weapons probably wouldn’t kill any civilians, seeing as they would all be dead already. Alright, not so bright after all.

  9. Melissa Blakemore
    October 11, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    I agree with this section “First, there’s the deterrence argument—using chemical weapons against international troops would likely get Damascus eliminated as a liveable city (weapons of mass destruction are not actually required for this if you are willing to use enough other bombs, and the US likely would be), and Syria understands this.” But it worries me that the chemical and biological weapons can get into the wrong hands.

  10. Jesus Hernandez
    October 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Why is it that the US is the regulator of international peace? The UN is composed of multiple countries, we are not the only ones liable for worldwide affairs. What is happening in Syria, however, needs to be ceased.

  11. sherie salomonsson
    October 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    I think that when a country starts using nuclear weapons against there own people, it shows just how much disconnect there is between the government and citizens, as well as how little those in power actually care about its people. I don’t think that chemical and biological weapons should ever be used in any circumstances. It just reminds me of the image captured in the Vietnam war, where a young girls village had just been hit by napalm. If you know anything about the chemical Napalm, it burns anything it comes into contact with. The pain and agony is written all over the young girls face as she runs naked through the streets looking for anything to stop the pain. That image really demonstrates the barbarity of war and why chemical warfare should never be used.

    image -

  12. Andrew Merenda
    October 16, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    The Syrian government is not seriously going to use chemical weapons. What I found interesting is the part in the article that states, “….but might use them if the victim of external aggression”. So based on that, Assad is making a threat to use chemical weapons if any other states should attempt to aid the rebels in taking him out of power (most likely UN coalition or US). That should be taken with a grain of salt, as he is just trying to intimidate the international community. Remember that talk is cheap. I’m sure that he is quite happy with the status quo and wants to stay in power for as long as possible. However, it is yet to be seen whether he will stick it out or leave to go live on a pretty little island for the rest of his days.

  13. sgsample3195
    October 16, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    Yes, Assad is making that threat, and no, he’s not likely to do it (but you have to make that threat if you want to play the deterrence game). Meanwhile, my money is on him sticking it out. In Geddes framework, I think Syria is a combination of a one-party authoritarian system (tend to be long-lived) and a highly personalized one (you can only hoist them out with violence because they know they have everything to lose). At the moment, the regime still have substantial backing among certain segments of society who have benefited by Ba’ath rule, so that removes incentive to flee, and the fact that he’s the center of the system, and stands to lose completely and utterly if he gives in imply he’s likely to stick it out to the bitter and bloody end. But here’s hoping that he finds job satisfaction in Uruguay.

  14. Monique
    November 7, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Although Chemical weapons is a big part of shaping international politics, the likely-hood of them actually being used is slim to none. This being said, I feel that Syria threatening to use them makes them sound very unintelligent and fact that the US has threatened in response does the same and is also very frightening.

  15. Donna
    December 14, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Chemical weapons are dangerous and should not be resorted to under any circumstance. Obviously they feel threatened weak so they feel the need to sound powerful and mighty by threatening with a deadly weapon. This all ties into insecurities and how whoever the leader might be they aren’t sanely all there and something needs to be done to overthrow them.

  16. September 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Once again, as in Iraq, we gave advance notice of inspection of Syria’s chemical weapons By pussy footing around, do we really think we will find evidence at this point? We all knew Iraq had chemicals and bios, but by the time the UN got in there to inspect, they were already shipped to Syria, Jordan, etc. We found proof in Iraq of Frog Missles ( which can only be used for WMD’s ( chems + bios.) Of course they were empty. That’s why Iraq delayed the investigations so long and Iraq refused the UN investigations for so long. Do you really think we’ll find anything in Syria? Get real!

  1. October 15, 2012 at 5:54 am

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