Should Syria Give Up Its Chemical Weapons?

by Benjamin Studebaker

A journalist, whose name I cannot find, asked US Secretary of State a brilliant question–was there anything that Syria could do to avert a US intervention? Kerry responded off the cuff, telling the journalist that the Syrians could give up their chemical weapons, but that this wasn’t going to happen and couldn’t be done. The Russians and Syrians immediately jumped on the shadow of a proposal, and the president seems open to considering it. Many people, however, are very skeptical that the Syrian government would, in all actuality, follow through and give up its weapons, even if it agreed to do so. This raises an interesting question–from the perspective of Bashar al-Assad, is it in Syria’s interest to give up its chemical weapons? What is, logically, the right move for the Syrian government?

So let’s start from a premise I think we can all uniformly agree too–from Assad’s point of view, US intervention is disastrous. Why is US intervention a disaster for Assad? Several reasons:

  1. Intervention almost certainly would ultimately result in the dissolution of Assad’s government.
  2. The dissolution of Assad’s government entails a takeover by rebels who have religious and political beliefs that are anathema to Assad.
  3. The dissolution of Assad’s government puts Assad’s life and the life of Assad’s family and friends in grave danger.

So from Assad’s perspective, intervention is a disaster both political and personal. This means that Assad’s primary objective is preventing the dissolution of his government, and that primary objective entails preventing a US intervention.

So where do chemical weapons play into all of this? The first question we need to answer is why Assad has chemical weapons in the first place. What advantage does he think lies in possessing them? I see two primary reasons that Syria maintains its chemical weapons program:

  1. Deterrence–chemical weapons make an attack on Syria by other states (particularly Israel) less likely. It helps even the playing field between the Syrian military and the military forces of other states.
  2. Emergency Repression–chemical weapons could be used by the government as a last-ditched effort to prevent overthrow from rebellious elements within Syria.

At the moment, Syria’s chemical weapons serve neither of these purposes. Rather than deterring aggression from countries like the United States, Syria’s chemical weapons are, at present, attracting military intervention.  The Syrian government currently has the advantage in its civil war and is not likely to need chemical weapons to save its own skin, and, furthermore, it has become increasingly obvious that if it were to use chemical weapons in that way, it would attract a US intervention that would nullify the gains it would make by using them. So not only do Syria’s chemical weapons presently fail to serve Syria’s original intended purposes, but they are undermining the government’s primary goal–survival. Rather than protect against intervention, they attract it.

At the present moment, the Syrian government is better off without its chemical weapons than with them. That said, giving up one’s chemical weapons is a difficult decision to reverse later. If the Assad regime could somehow keep its chemical weapons and prevent US intervention, it would be best off, because then it could once again use its chemical weapons to deter Israel.

This makes the United States naturally mistrustful that Syria will follow through with any agreement. While Syria is better off giving up its weapons than facing intervention, it is even better off not giving up its weapons and not facing intervention. In order for both the Syrians and the United States to decide whether or not to pursue this agreement, each state needs to make some judgement calls about how the other will behave. The bizarre irony is that both calls are dependent on what the states imagine the other will make.

For Syria and Assad, the question is whether or not the United States can be bamboozled into neither attacking it nor taking away all of Syria’s chemical weapons. Can the Syrian government use a series of stall tactics to delay the collection, or only give up a token quantity of weapons while hiding the balance and get away with it? Even if the Syrians think they can do this, how much risk is involved? If the Syrians fail to trick the United States, the swift dissolution of the regime is certain to follow. Perhaps the Syrians are better off not taking that chance, perhaps they’re better off playing it safe and giving up the weapons. If I’m Assad, I play it safe, but can I be certain Assad sees it this way? I cannot. I think the survival objective is of such paramount concern that the government should look for alternative ways to deter Israel if and when it succeeds in surviving, rather than designing its survival plan based on the assumption that it will succeed in so doing.

What about the United States? I have argued in the past that intervention in places like Syria does not serve American interests. If the administration is aware of this on some level, it may be looking for a way to avoid intervening that does not diminish the impact or influence of American threats. In that case, the United States may be willing to accept a deal of this kind irrespective of whether or not the Syrians follow through with it. Still, I think the more likely case is that the United States genuinely does, for some reason, want to intervene in Syria. I have big doubts about the notion that the use of chemical weapons itself comprises the entirety of that reason. It might be the case that even if the United States does think Syria is genuinely willing to give up its weapons, it still persists in claiming that it does not trust the regime as a pretext for intervening in it for other, non-humanitarian reasons (install a favorable government, contain Iran, economic stimulus, etc.) In that case, the United States will claim to disbelieve Syria regardless of what Syria does. However, an awareness on the part of the US voting populace, media, and congress that the Syrians are willing to consider this proposal may create certain pressures that force the US to play ball even if it was in actuality intent on intervening in Syria for non-humanitarian reasons and was using chemical weapons as a pretext.

If I’m Syria, I would conclude that the US government has already made up its mind about what it wants to do. Either it is trapped by its own rhetoric, looking for a reason to avoid intervening in Syria or it is desperate to find some humanitarian excuse for a mission that is decidedly not humanitarian. In the former case, the Syrian government is best off giving up its weapons so as to provide it that reason to avoid intervention. In the latter case, Syria is best off giving up its weapons so as to eliminate that humanitarian excuse and hope that public pressure comes through.

So what conclusion can we draw from this analysis? The prudent move for Assad is to agree to this deal and give up his weapons, and the prudent move for the United States is to avoid this intervention and take Assad up on such an offer. Even if the United States is under an Iraq-style delusion, and this is really all about something else, Syria is still best off playing this out and trying to put pressure on the US government from both foreign and domestic sides to butt out of its civil war.