Syria Hasn’t Degraded Deterrence and Nonproliferation Regimes


The Syrian military’s employment of chemical weapons in 2012 and 2013 against insurgents within its borders led to a significant international intervention that ultimately resulted in the destruction of 1,380 metric tons of chemicals and Syria’s declared chemical production and storage facilities.  Because this is the most significant event involving the use of chemical weapons since Halabjah in 1988, it has caused a substantial amount of discussion as to what it means for national security. Rebecca Hersman, writing for War on the Rocks, suggests the international community needs to step up its efforts to ensure the arms control and nonproliferation regime remains strong. However, we should not over-exaggerate the Syrian military’s use of chemical weapons at the risk of identifying the wrong issues for future defense policy development.

The truth is that the nonproliferation regime is not in danger of failing due to this contemporary case. Moreover, deterrence still works, even in the face of Syria’s alleged continued use of chlorine barrel bombs.

In 2001, the Department of Defense cited 25 nations as developing or acquiring chemical weapons. Today, we can count less than five. The international taboo remains in effect, and the quick reaction to Syria’s chemical weapons use is evidence of that. Are any of the 192 signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) going to suddenly initiate a chemical weapons program based on Syria’s limited and unsuccessful use? I don’t think so. Syria was not a signatory of the CWC in 2013. Today, it is a signatory. Pointing to the Islamic State’s recent use of mustard agent munitions against the Kurdish fighters as a bellwether of proliferation is not justified. Arms control treaties were never designed to deter or prevent sub-state groups from developing field-expedient chemical weapons. We cannot compare the few injuries caused by ISIL’s mustard agent use with what the Syrian military did in August 2013.

The nonproliferation regime would like to address the potential threat of a sub-state group’s acquisition and use of chemical or biological weapons, but at best, all it can do is call for continued enforcement of export controls and criminalization of chemical-biological weapons use by nation-states. The answer to preventing WMD terrorism is not increased measures by the nonproliferation regime, but rather continued pressure by counter-terrorism programs. We’re seeing that happen today.

Last, strategic deterrence remains a valid concept for nation-states addressing the potential use of violence as a political tool. Let’s not lose sight of the lesson here. President Barack Obama made the public statement that he was seeking an authorization to use military force to stop the Syrian military from using chemical weapons against insurgents within its borders. As a result, President Bashar al-Assad accepted the Russian foreign minister’s suggestion that Syria give up its chemical weapons. The definition of deterrence is when one party uses the threat of violence against another party to convince it to refrain from a particular act. Syria stopped its chemical weapons program and gave up its weapons for the promise of no U.S. military airstrikes. Deterrence worked, not because of any application of justice or law, but because the U.S. military had a credible threat of violence and communicated that threat to Assad. He understood the message.

Now, we can all postulate as to why Syrian military forces are using chlorine barrel bombs against the civilian populace after it signed the CWC. Yes, these are — in theory — “chemical weapons,” but hardly of the scale of militarily-designed chemical munitions filled with sarin or mustard agents. These weapons have not been effective as casualty-producers. Perhaps this is Assad’s way of thumbing his nose at the international community. Perhaps he is betting the international community will not call for military airstrikes in response to these limited excursions due to the disproportionality of that response. Maybe these are individual acts of improvisation by local military units. Regardless, what matters is the ground truth of how the international community successfully used the nonproliferation regime and diplomacy to shut down a nation-state weapons program.

Countering WMD in the future relies on more than the wishes of the international community and the direction of the nonproliferation regime. The U.S. military, in particular, has allowed its defensive capabilities to atrophy because of the perceived lack of threats by nation-state WMD programs and the belief that addressing global health security is more important than WMD countermeasures. There is much at stake, and that’s why it’s important to take the right lessons from the recent Syrian chemical weapons event.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.

Image: Dept of Defense