Illogical Syria Hystericism

by Benjamin Studebaker

So, once again, someone has used chemical weapons in Syria and killed some number of people with them. Immediately, interventionists in the west have jumped to two conclusions about this that are indefensible:

  1. That the use of chemical weapons necessarily implies that the Assad regime is the user.
  2. That the use of chemical weapons ought to change the calculus as to whether or not western states should intervene in the Syrian Civil War.

I intend to illustrate why I take each of these conclusions to be unjustifiable in today’s piece.

The second point is by far the more important–the use of chemical weapons rightly considered ought not to be a factor for reasons I shall explain further down–but let us take for a moment the point as given that chemical weapons do matter, that they do provide a good reason for intervention in the event that the Assad regime has used them.

If it is the case that the use of chemical weapons is the very thing that makes intervention in the Syrian conflict justifiable, and we make a point to inform all parties in Syria of this fact, logically, we ought to generate two very powerful incentives for the parties involved:

  1. The Syrian government has the incentive to avoid the use of chemical weapons, or the appearance of use of said weapons, at all costs, because it knows that if it uses weapons or appears to use them, it will be destroyed.
  2. The Syrian rebels have the incentive to use chemical weapons, or to give the appearance of the use of said weapons, because they know that if they use chemical weapons or chemical weapons otherwise appear to be used, the Syrian government will be blamed and an intervention presumably will follow that will favor them.

Put yourself in Bashar al-Assad’s shoes. The “red line” as Barack Obama has put it, is the use of chemical weapons. You can do pretty much whatever else you deem necessary to win the war, as long as you don’t use chemical weapons, you will not face intervention. The logic of this position is very air-tight. The only reason to use chemical weapons in this position is if they are the only available means by which one would win the war, or if the costs of not using them were extremely high.

That’s not Assad’s situation–Assad has been on the offensive in recent months, retaking lost territory. The chemical attack he is being accused of having made on the rebels has not killed a very large number of people. It’s certainly not large enough in scale to make a significant tactical difference in the war. If the Assad regime wanted to massacre these people in order to spread fear and reduce morale, it could have done so very nearly as easily with conventional weapons because of its large technological advantage. There is no reason for the Assad regime to use chemical weapons in this instance that makes any sense. Their use by the Assad regime is fundamentally illogical.

In order to explain how it would come to pass that the Assad regime would choose to use chemical weapons in this instance, one would have to genuinely believe that Assad (as well as many other people in his government) are systematically irrational. In other words, the interventionists are pleading insanity. But this is not consistent with the evil, malicious portrait of Assad the interventionists generally paint, in which he is portrayed as a cold, calculating, sociopath with no regard for the value of human life. Sociopaths and psychopaths do not care about other people, but they do care about themselves, and they do operate rationally. It is blatantly against Assad’s own self-interest to use chemical weapons here. “Evil” would not cut it, it genuinely requires insanity, and of course, we do not blame the insane for their deeds. So either Assad is a psychopath/sociopath and is logically incapable of having used chemical weapons, or Assad is insane and blameless for his actions. In either case, the combo narrative is a contradictory mess.

I don’t think there’s good evidence that Assad is insane. Insane people don’t wage successful military campaigns (and you can say what you like about Assad’s politics or his tendency to kill people, his military campaign has, in recent months, been quite successful). Insane people can’t hold governments together for 13 years, the length of time Assad has been in power. Given the way the incentives are structured, the overwhelming likelihood is that chemical weapons were used, but that they were used by the rebels or by unaffiliated rogue elements wishing to provoke a western intervention. Those in the west now calling for said intervention are patsies of these people.

What about my second point, that chemical weapons ought not to matter at all in the first place? I have written extensively on the subject. Last June, I wrote a post which I believe is still so applicable as to not need amendment. I selectively quote the following most essential bits from it:

The argument against intervention in Syria never really depended upon the conduct of the Assad regime. Originally, the argument was more or less an appeal to something like the prime directive from Star Trek, which forbids the intervention of technologically advanced civilizations in the domestic political affairs of less-advanced civilizations. In Star Trek, this principle is the core moral principle to which characters are expected to adhere. The argument in the Syrian case differed somewhat from this.

In the Syrian case, it is argued that while it would be permissible to intervene in Syria for the benefit of the United States and its people, the United States does not have any core interests at stake in the conflict and that intervention could lead to blowback, to negative unintended consequences or negative externalities for the United States. The basis for this fear of negative results rests on the history of US intervention in the Middle East, the outcomes of which can be viewed as invariably disastrous…

Chemical weapons have been classified as “weapons of mass destruction”, and the public seems to believe that the use of chemical weapons is in itself, by its very nature, more wrong than ordinary war. Yet while chemical weapons are certainly not the same as conventional weapons in the way they kill people, the result is the same–people are dead who were previously alive, and the weapon is to blame. One might argue that the same claim could be made of nuclear weapons, but nukes release radioactive material that sticks around for ages, that increase the incidence of cancer worldwide. Every detonation of a nuclear weapon harms not only the people being nuked, but all people everywhere. Chemical weapons aren’t like that. A release of nerve gas in Syria cannot harm a person 50 miles away, let alone someone on the other side of the world. There are also antidotes for many nerve agents, and one can protect oneself from many of them with a gas mask. Radiation is unstoppable. There’s a fundamental distinction here.

Now, one might argue that because nerve gas floats around rather than targets specific individuals, it’s more likely to harm non-combatants, but bombs kill non-combatants all the time. Plus, how much of a non-combatant are most “non-combatants”? Even if a citizen is not holding a gun, he may be feeding the soldiers, or manufacturing their weapons, or improving their morale. There are many ways to contribute to a war effort without directly participating in the fighting, and an enemy seeking to win a war quickly with minimal losses could be thought reasonable if it seeks to undermine the army from its foundation rather than engage it in battle directly. Whether you think non-combatants deserve special status or not, it’s not as if the Syrian government wasn’t killing non-combatants before it used chemical weapons, and there’s no guarantee that the chemical weapons were used with non-combatants specifically in mind. In any case, only a couple hundred people have been killed with sarin–there have been at least 93,000 deaths in the conflict. Chemical weapons play a trivial role in all this. It’s a peripheral issue blown out of proportion by the administration.

The updated figure for deaths in the Syrian Civil War from the UN is about 100,000 these days. I have been arguing that we ought to stay out of Syria since as far back as my third post on this blog. All of the principle arguments I have appealed to remain fully applicable:

  1. Intervention does not serve the interest of the potentially intervening countries insofar as it will likely lead to blowback, quagmire, excessive cost, et al.
  2. Intervention does not serve the interest of the Syrian people, whose political development will have been prevented and whose order will once again have been imposed from afar by foreigners rather than self-generated.
  3. The intervention argument relies on an unrealistic psychological portrait of the Assad regime.
  4. The intervention argument relies on a fetishism of the importance of chemical weapons.

There are likely further arguments I have made over the past year that escape my notice for now. So far, we have managed to avoid making any major commitments, which is probably better than I anticipated when I first wrote about this subject a year ago. Nonetheless, I perpetually fear that reasonable foreign policy will once again fail to prevail. The emotional appeal of pictures of dead babies is a difficult thing for nuanced international relations theory to overcome.