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Should we care about Syria’s chemical weapons?

October 9, 2012 17 comments
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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