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

- September 10, 2013


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]