Since the beginning of Syria’s roughly 20-month-long civil war, the question of whether or when the regime would turn to chemical warfare to ensure its survival has loomed large for Syrians and the wider world alike. Damascus maintains, by most estimates, prodigious stocks of blister agents and even advanced nerve agents that could inflict horrific results on civilians and soldiers alike. The recent military gains by rebels in the neighborhoods of Damascus and their increasingly potent air defense capabilities all speak to plausible motive. U.S. officials report preliminary steps towards readying, and exhortations to begin employing, chemical weapons as well.
We know relatively little about the regime’s mindset, or its military’s logistical or ethical readiness to follow out such horrific orders. Nevertheless, it is wrong to suggest Syria is the first regime to face an endgame with chemical weapons in its arsenal. If Assad’s regime’s death spiral involves poison gas, it would in fact be the first incident of its kind.
One of the first – if not the first – regimes to collapse with chemical weapons was Tsarist Russia. Even in its death throes, it did not deploy them, although Tukachevsky inflicted chemical warfare against the Tambov Rebellion before the end of the Russian Civil War. The Russian Revolution and Civil War demonstrated a recurrent pattern, although one with a very small sample size.
Embattled regimes, on their last legs, do not deploy their chemical arms. Germany, despite highly advanced CW capabilities, used them during the Holocaust but not on the battlefield, even as vastly superior Soviet forces were crushing the Third Reich. Nor did Japan, a country which used gas and biological weapons frequently against the Chinese early in the war, and whose soldiers frequently displayed suicidal levels of loyalty and commitment, employ gas against the Americans.
Rather than a last resort, CW is most frequently used when the side employing it appears to control the escalation ladder (though with such a small sample size, the exact causality here is murky). Iraq used CW from the very beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, and it could do so with relative confidence. It had the Soviet Union as its patron and there was no chance the U.S. would decisively crush the bulwark against Iranian power. Saddam also used CW to massacre weaker opponents and civilians, as the Anfal campaign horrifically demonstrated.
So why do dictators appear to forgo chemical warfare in their most desperate hours, particularly when they are willing to use them in less immediately dangerous circumstances? A major explanation is the increased danger of escalation or reciprocity. The Allies, too, had major chemical weapons stocks in WWII, and were prepared to use them if the Axis deployed them. Japan was well aware of this:
In 1944 Ultra revealed that the Japanese doubted their ability to retaliate against United States use of gas. 'Every precaution must be taken not to give the enemy cause for a pretext to use gas,' the commanders were warned. So fearful were the Japanese leaders that they planned to ignore isolated tactical use of gas in the home islands by the US forces because they feared escalation.
Unsurprisingly, the Japanese used chemical weapons against Chinese forces with limited capability to retaliate in kind, but forwent their use even as the U.S. was crushing them. Although the U.S. also forwent an invasion that would likely employ them, it unleashed a much more deadly and efficacious weapon on two of Japan’s major cities instead – the atomic bomb. Similar considerations likely guided German reluctance to employ CW against the allies – for a losing side the prospect of increased escalation is generally a poor idea.
Of course, even if the FSA captured chemical weapons depots, it would have limited ability to escalate. Assuming Assad was inclined to use chemical weapons, that possibility is strongly balanced by the U.S. “red lines” against chemical warfare use. While they are vague, explicitly committing to any specific series of punishments could be politically complicating enough with regard to domestic concerns and international commitments as to undermine the credibility of the threat. Given that basically all U.S. military options for dealing with CW are immensely problematic, locking the U.S. into any specific course of action would be highly problematic.
Deterrent threats from third party actors do sometimes work in these cases. When Iraq appeared to be employing CW against Shia in the south of Iraq, James Baker used a similar script. While military options were considered, they were never officially stated. Of course, despite the ultimatum, the lack of chemical weapons use, and the imposition of a No-Fly Zone, Saddam still ably suppressed the Shia and held onto power for more than a decade.
Another limiting factor on chemical weapons, separate from the issue of escalation and 3rd party intervention, is that they simply are not very effective outside of certain battlefield circumstances. Effective Iraqi CW against Iran involved massed fires and combined arms against identifiable hostile formations, command, and logistical elements. Fighting a guerrilla opponent grants few of these advantages. Chemical weapons in and of themselves did not cause anything but a small minority of deaths or casualties, but they did pose effective in constraining Iranian options for massing their forces. Against Halabja, gas killed thousands, but it was in the context of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi forces in a combined arms operation against insurgents almost a magnitude smaller in size – and it still failed to destroy insurgent activity in that corner of Kurdistan. Iraq was never able to fully destroy the Peshmerga, and indeed relied on leveraging Kurdish infighting as part of its counterinsurgency in the north.
Much as the Japanese and Germans lacked much of the equipment and mass to use CW effectively in the closing years of WWII, a massive CW campaign, if it does occur in Syria, would likely be too little, too late to significantly check the FSA, but would almost certainly arouse increased regional attention. While chemical weapons are horrific in effect, their lack of clear military efficacy against an opponent willing to absorb the casualties and capable of adapting their tactics does a significant part of explaining their relatively infrequent use. Against a casualty-averse opponent, such as a potential foreign intervening actor, they may be of great use, particularly if that foreign intervening state lacks the capability to escalate in response to CW use. Against a determined popular insurgency, CW use is not particularly efficacious outside specific tactical situations (such as clearing confined areas). That lack of efficacy has compounding effects. Not only does it make states less likely to employ CW, those ordered to employ CW who still fear losing are more likely to defect (particularly when combined with the issue of escalation), or else suffer at the hands of the victors.
Of course, assuming Assad does decide to break with this small pattern and use CW in his regime’s death spiral, should the U.S. intervene? Dominic Tierney has pointed out that deciding to go to war on the basis of a regime murdering civilians in one way rather than another seems morally insignificant, particularly when the lack of efficacy of chemical weapons relative to conventional ones is apparent (indeed, I dislike the term WMD for skewing attention away from much more historically lethal conventional arms, lumping in CW with nuclear weapons generally). Syrian chemical weapons use, particularly at a stage where its air force is increasingly threatened by MANPADS and AA guns and its ability to maintain large formations is withering thanks to Syrian rebel IED use and raiding, is unlikely to be highly effective, and given the lack of battlefield experience with them, it is questionable if Syria’s troops would even be effectively versed in their operations. As in basically all other major conflicts with CW, conventional arms would remain responsible for the vast majority of the death and misery inflicted on the country.
I do not necessarily agree with Tierney’s argument there are strategic reasons to oppose Syrian WMD use in this case. Firstly, Assad’s use of chemical weapons is not likely to trigger chemical weapons use elsewhere, since the factors I mention constraining, such as fear of escalation and limited efficacy would hold regardless. Indeed, the overplaying of the effect of CW probably adds as much to their symbolic and psychological value to foreign regimes as does their actual record in the field.
Secondly, far more likely than Syrian CW use seriously affecting proliferation or use elsewhere, an intervention to destroy Syrian CW would be a massive military campaign, and one that actually secured the CW on the ground (particularly after guards presumably desert depots after bombing) would be a significant ground campaign. I have argued elsewhere that a WMD-focused mission would be immensely difficult and expensive, and not only that, but even limited airstrikes would pose severe problems due to the intelligence considerations of finding weapons and the collateral damage considerations of actually hitting them.
Especially if our concern is preventing terrorists or other groups from acquiring CW, limited deterrent airstrikes simply will not do. Somebody will need to provide a comprehensive ground presence, and even then the insertion of specialized personnel to destroy or transport out CW would be incredibly vulnerable without protection. If Benghazi was bad, one can only imagine what would happen to Western personnel traipsing about a Syria where Jahbat al-Nusra is active. Not only that, but given the complexity of accounting for CW, the length of time it takes to destroy them (the U.S. still isn’t done), and the difficulty of using CW in an effective terrorist attack*, one would be wise to consider the costs of such an operation.
Hopefully, as in past instances of civil war, revolution, or regime downfall, Assad will forgo using CW against his own population. Given Turkey’s emphasis on missile defense from NATO, the use of CW against 3rd party states with lower casualty tolerance may be Syria’s aim. Generally, CW’s effects, its likelihood of use, and the necessity of going to war to stop it seem frequently overstated. While this may be an exception to that general pattern, we should recognize it is far from a clear one as we consider policy options.
*This is a controversial point, but Aum Shinrikyo’s attack, while awful, was not so horrific as to suggest CW terror is worth a war to prevent a similar attack. The Tokyo Sarin attack killed 13 and injured over 1,000. The London bombings in 2005 killed 52 and injured 700 with vastly less complex resource requirements. Aum Shinrikyo had a large amount of technical expertise to the point they could produce their own factory and atropine antidotes. A group which has CW simply through the fortune of stolen artillery shells is highly unlikely to be able to employ CW to effects so dramatic it warrants a preventive war. Much more dangerous, I suspect, will be the new generations of jihadists trained in small-unit tactics and IED-building. A CW attack would be dangerous but given its similar damage profile to a conventional attack with a similar (or smaller) amount of personnel and lower technical complexity, preventing them from proliferating alone is probably not worthy of a massive conventional land operation to secure CW.