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Evaluating the “Wrong Hands” Rationale for Striking Assad

- September 3, 2013

We are delighted to welcome a guest post from Omar Bashir (@omarbsr), a PhD candidate in Politics at Princeton University who specializes in international relations.  His research interests include accountability in defense and intelligence organizations, crisis negotiation, and the relationship between foreign aid and power. Omar studied previously at MIT and Oxford, and has been published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution and on the Foreign Affairs website. See here his previous guest post on drones.


Though its statements have rightly been dominated by the rhetoric of moral opprobrium, the Obama administration has at several points relied on a secondary rationale for strikes against the Syrian regime.  This rationale has little to do, directly, with the commonly assumed ends of saving Syrian civilians, upholding a norm, or redeeming American credibility.  It is the traditional interest-based rationale that foreign policy realists have been asking for, and it deserves scrutiny.

When the president is pushed to explain what good a strike would do, his answer has been, at least superficially, about defending international norms: “we cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks.”  Later in the same interview, Obama says that “we want the Assad regime to understand  that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people… you are not only breaking international norms…but you’re also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop.”

What does the president mean?  He could be asserting a national interest in the general defense of norms against the proliferation of or use of chemical weapons; in an age of heightened threat from non-state groups, states have a new reason to uphold these norms that did not exist in the aftermath of the First World War when international agreements on this issue were strengthened.  As Erik Voeten notes, chemical weapons are weapons of the weak, weapons that could grant modern terrorist groups a worrying increase in destructive and even coercive power.

But since the president keeps bringing the discussion back to the “folks” operating in and around Syria specifically, the threat in his mind seems to be not so much about the collapse of anti-weapon norms that may someday have consequences for states, but rather about the immediate danger of Syria’s chemical weapons finding their way into hostile hands in 2013.  After all, the president’s draft authorization is phrased in terms of preventing proliferation of, specifically, Syrian weapons. Proliferation in the draft is defined as including “transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors.”

The national interest as he likely sees it, then, is to prevent non-state groups from gaining possession of the regime’s chemical weapons.  This is an understandable worry.  It would be a real problem, for governments but also for civilians, if such weapons fell into the hands of any of several hostile groups known to be involved in Syria, some with clear connections to groups in other regions who target the U.S. and its allies.

Political scientists seem to think that governments are loath to transfer special weapons to non-state groups intentionally; if transfer happens, in this view, it’s going to be through careless action or neglect on the part of proliferating governments.   Consider that the suspected chemical attack on August 21 may have been the work of a Syrian officer “overstepping his bounds.”   If individual soldiers can play fast and loose with chemical agents, it is reasonable to worry about regime personnel selling the assets or storing them carelessly.  The recent attack was thus doubly worrying: first, any large-scale chemical attack requires risky transport and preparation of materials; second, this particular attack may have laid bare some serious command and control problems that may present an opportunity to non-state groups.

Now, given this “wrong hands” threat, would missile strikes be an appropriate response?  The reasoning behind an attack, from a national-interest point of view, would be to punish the regime’s careless deployment of chemical assets.  Success would be reflected in the lessened extent of the regime’s transport, unsecured concentration, and, by extension, use of chemical agents.

The key difference in evaluating this rationale in comparison to a logic based on protecting Syrian civilians is that the likelihood of success is higher.  The reason that most are rightly skeptical that Assad would stop targeting populated areas if “punished” by the U.S. is that Assad seems to think that his survival depends on targeting those populated areas.  He is likely willing to endure the pain of American missile strikes—all involved know that the pain would not be overwhelming because the U.S. fears sudden regime collapse—and continue with his indiscriminate killing.

But under the “wrong hands” rationale, the U.S. need only incentivize Assad to pay more attention to command and control of chemical weapons and to stop transporting and mobilizing en masse.  Since his survival doesn’t depend on lax control of the arsenal or even on large-scale chemical attacks (he can resort to conventional alternatives for his slaughter), there is a greater chance that a punishment approach would change his behavior in the manner desired.

At least this rationale has a more plausible upside. But there is no way around many of the same moral and strategic downsides to a strike that commentators have been pointing out for some time now. Plus, the new rationale makes clear that there is yet another potential downside, though it may be ameliorated by careful target selection: even as they incentivize Assad to improve command and control of chemical assets, U.S. strikes might worsen Syrian command and control over those materials through the damage they inflict directly.

This analysis also raises three tricky issues.  Under the “wrong hands” rationale, the crucial intelligence is not about whether or not the regime used chemical weapons.  Rather, it is knowing to what extent the regime’s mobilization and transport of chemicals, as well as its command failures, put chemical weapons at risk of capture by non-state groups.  For example, French intelligence reports note that the regime keeps chemical ingredients separate until just before use.  Does the separation of materials during transport mean that there is less risk of theft than at first apparent? We may be having the wrong debate about intelligence and evidence.

Second, incentivizing better control can’t work without a depressing assurance from the U.S. that future American strikes are conditional on Syrian efforts to keep a tighter hold on its chemical materials (not on the regime’s efforts to spare civilians). If Assad thinks that strikes herald the beginning of more expansive intervention, he won’t see any incentive to halt his careless management –from his perspective, he’ll be punished anyway. The rumored efforts in the Senate to put restrictive limits on Obama’s authorization may be beneficial in this regard.

Third, the ethical and legal justifications for acting under this rationale would need to be different than what we have seen.  The administration can make the case that Assad is endangering the U.S. and its allies, but it will have to make clear why its proposed action is not tantamount to preventive war.  It will need to argue that an attack on U.S. interests is effectively imminent once chemical weapons find their way into the hands of non-state groups known to be operating in the region, and thus the irresponsible management of the Syrian arsenal constitutes a clear danger.  This kind of self-defense argument could provide a legal justification for action in a way that other rationales have not, so it is worth examining carefully.

Sadly, all else equal, the U.S. prefers a Syrian conflict in which Assad kills indiscriminately while keeping close tabs on his chemical arsenal to a Syrian conflict in which Assad kills his people while also taking chances with deadly materials. But all else is not equal: strikes to punish lax control will cause at least some harm.   Members of Congress who support a strike will have to explain why they think that the imperfect rationale described here, perhaps in combination with other weak arguments, is enough to tip the scales in favor of launching missiles.