Monday, April 29, 2013

One Toe over the Red Line? Why Assad is (probably) using chemical weapons in Syria

Posted by Assistant Professor Alyssa Prorok

Two weeks ago, Britain and France sent letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, claiming to have credible evidence that the Syrian regime, led by President Bashir al-Assad, has used small amounts of chemical weapons multiple times since December in its fight against rebel groups in the country.  The British and French governments say soil samples smuggled out of the country, as well as witness accounts and opposition sources, indicate that the Assad regime has used a nerve agent – possibly sarin gas – in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus.  

The U.S. response to these charges has been measured.  Last Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said “suspicions are one thing; evidence is another”, while director of national intelligence James Clapper indicated that allegations of chemical weapons use were still being evaluated.  By Thursday, however, a White House letter to Congressional leaders indicated that US intelligence agencies believe, with varying degrees of certainty, that the Assad government has used chemical weapons on a limited scale.

This latest development in the two-year-old Syrian civil war, which has claimed at least 70,000 lives and threatens to destabilize the region, is significant because of its potential international consequences.  Last August, President Obama called the potential use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime a ‘game changer’, indicating that the deployment of these substances, banned by international law, could prompt more active U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict.  This warning to the Assad regime not to cross the chemical weapons ‘red line’ was repeated by the U.S. and several allies in early December, when the Syrian military began moving weapons stockpiles, possibly in preparation for their use. 

Given these repeated warnings by the U.S. and her allies, recent evidence suggesting that Assad has, in fact, deployed chemical weapons against civilian populations in Syria is surprising.  Why would Assad use chemical weapons, knowing that such tactics may galvanize international opponents of his regime and, in particular, spur American intervention?

While much has been made in the media of American and international pressures on the Assad regime, the domestic situation in Syria is likely the embattled leader’s most immediate concern.  The government’s position is tenuous.  Rebel forces have slowly gained control over large swaths of Syrian territory, particularly in and around Aleppo, and are challenging government forces near Damascus.  In addition, greater flows of arms, equipment, and training to rebel fighters from some Arab governments and Turkey ensure that rebel forces will not be easily defeated.  Finally, only a minority of the Syrian population supports the regime, ensuring that Assad will need to maintain a strong, authoritarian hold on power and cannot risk political liberalization.

These factors, taken together, may explain Assad’s use of chemical attacks.  In my own research, I find that leaders’ fear of punishment (i.e. loss of political power, exile, imprisonment, or even death) influences their wartime decisions.  Assad, facing a largely hostile domestic populace, needs a decisive victory not only to maintain political power, but, more importantly, to ensure his own and his family’s physical security.  And Assad may have determined that resorting to extreme measures, such as the use of chemical weapons, is his best shot at quelling the rebellion and bringing contested territory back under his control.  Research by Stathis Kalyvas suggests that indiscriminate violence is most likely to be used by combatant groups in contested areas, where government forces have little means of gathering high quality intelligence about where opposition forces are located.  Evidence of potential chemical weapons use in Homs, Aleppo, and the outskirts of Damascus may represent an escalation of tactics in an already brutal regime’s attempt to push back against rebel forces and regain control over Syrian territory.

Finally, Assad may have calculated, rightfully, that Obama’s deterrent threat is non-credible.  Scholars have long noted the difficulties in achieving effective deterrence, and this situation is particularly rife with pitfalls and complications.  Obama provided no technical definition of his red line, stating simply that movement or use of a ‘whole bunch’ of chemical weapons would be a game changer.  Assad, therefore, may be testing the waters, deploying a small amount of his arsenal as a way to gauge international reactions.  Additionally, Assad may have calculated that Obama wants to stay out of Syria as much as Assad wants him to stay out.  The administration has been hesitant to arm rebels, out of fear that weapons will end up in the hands of extremist elements linked to al-Qaida within the factionalized opposition movement.  The strengthening of these elements over recent months compounds this fear for the Obama administration.  Obama is also highly sensitive to the idea of another Iraq.  The administration is treading carefully at this point, making clear that while there is evidence suggestive of chemical weapons use, there must be clear evidence of where and when they were used, and most importantly, by who.  As analysts note, these determinations may be nearly impossible to make, a fact which is likely not lost on Assad.   

Given the Assad regime’s tenuous hold on power and the very real, very severe threat he faces should he lose power, Assad may have simply determined that sticking a toe over Obama’s ‘red line’ is his best option.  If it helps him push back rebel forces, regain territory, or reconsolidate control, its benefits may outweigh the relatively ambiguous threats issued by a U.S. administration facing a variety of incentives of its own to avoid direction involvement in the Syrian quagmire.
We’ll discuss the Syrian civil war in my Fall 2013 class 30:178 The Causes, Consequences, and Management of Civil War, and will examine this interplay between domestic and international influences on state behavior in my Fall 2013 course on 30:169:001 Domestic Politics and International Relations

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