war on the rocks

The Military Logic Behind Assad’s Use of Chemical Weapons

June 15, 2018

When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime uses chemical weapons, as it has done on at least four different occasions in the past five years (August 2013, March 2017, April 2017, and April 2018), conspiracy theorists and Russian propaganda outlets immediately kick into gear to begin denying it. They posit that the Syrian regime would never use chemical weapons because, after all, it is already winning the civil war. Instead, these outlets suggest, the anti-Assad opposition (working with external powers) stages “false flag” events to provide excuses for an American military strike aimed at toppling the regime.

These denials are absurd for a number of reasons, one of which is that there is an obvious – but often overlooked – rationale for the regime’s use of chemical weapons. The Syrian conflict has demonstrated the value of these weapons for Assad’s enemy-centric approach to counter-insurgent warfare, which is premised on the idea of using overwhelming force to punish local populations where insurgents are active. Rather than working to deliver services and stability to contested spaces to compel popular support, the intent is to re-establish central government control through naked aggression.

Conspiracy theorists who suggest that chemical weapons attacks are fabricated to invite U.S. intervention also ignore the fact that the United States faces a number of political constraints on the use of force in Syria. The regime concludes that, in certain instances, the value of using chemical weapons exceed the potential costs of external military intervention. The result is a decision to use these weapons as they were intended: to win wars and to terrorize a population into submission.

Assad’s enemy-centric approach has boosted the regime’s near-term security by helping to offset its military weakness and drive down the cost of killing as many people as possible. While chemical weapons tend to be seen as largely an occasional horror, or a rogue threat from terrorist groups, the Assad regime has, once again, demonstrated their value for warfighting – and is likely to use them again. This poses a challenge for the United States, which has emphasized nonproliferation as the most effective tool to prevent the spread and to eliminate stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. As the war in Syria continues, it remains as critical as ever to accept that chemical weapons have value for the aggressor, and to devise political means to compel states to trade away these dangerous weapons.

The Syrian Arab Army: Doctrine and Logistics

American counter-insurgency doctrine emphasizes the need to isolate and defeat the insurgent actor, empower the population to support such operations, and gain legitimacy with the population. The Syrian Arab Army and its backers, by contrast, favor mass punishment and ethnic cleansing, part of an approach referred to as “draining the swamp.” Chemical weapons have proved to be more psychologically damaging to populations than conventional munitions, and are thus well-suited to the regime’s strategy of mass punishment.

For Assad, chemical weapons also compensate for the limitations of his army’s older, less sophisticated weapons. While the use of precision-guided munitions has grown in militaries around the world, they are still a comparatively small part of most countries’ arsenals, limited to anti-tank roles or against naval targets. As a result, most states are forced to use unguided munitions instead. Many targets, if sufficiently protected, can weather most unguided attacks by sheltering in structures, tunnels, or fighting positions. For example, it can take upwards of 147 unguided 155mm artillery shells to destroy a moderately-sized structure. Most of the shells fired won’t even hit the building. Those that land near the building will be unable to strike any of those sheltering inside unless many fragments have chipped away at the concrete wall. Though manifestly unpleasant, the majority of people seeking shelter are likely to survive.

Chemical weapons, however, can seep into these buildings with relative ease, as long as the shells land even reasonably close to the target. In Syria as well as in other conflicts, the anti-Assad opposition has dug fairly sophisticated tunnel systems that are, in theory, impervious to the regime’s heavy artillery and unguided bombs. To effectively target these buried facilities, Assad has turned to chemical weapons, which often descend and concentrate in low-lying areas. The advantage is clear: The regime can ensure heavy casualties with a small amount of effort, either by incapacitating or killing combatants, or by terrorizing these groups and the civilians who live alongside them.

These tactics are not unusual. In 1988, the Iraqi government used chemical weapons to kill civilians hiding in basements in Halabja. Indeed, the Iraqi army was quite transparent that this was their intent. To quote Ali Hassan al-Majid, known more widely as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons during the Anfal campaign, “I told the mustashars [village heads]… I said I cannot let your village stay because I will attack it with chemical weapons. Then you and your family will die. You must leave right now.” In Yemen in the 1960s, Egyptian forces used nerve agent to target civilians and insurgent sheltering in caves near Royalist strongholds.

Chemical munitions are also relatively cheap to produce. Unlike expensive precision-guided munitions (and the advanced command, control, communications, and intelligence systems needed to use them), even smaller and less advanced states can field chemical weapons programs relatively cheaply. As the CIA observed when assessing Iraq’s chemical weapons program in the 1980s:

The chemical warfare program has been a relatively cheap investment for Iraq. We estimate the program has cost slightly above $200 million in capital expenditures during the past decade, less than 2 percent of Iraq’s military expenditures over the same period.

Chemical weapons, it has been estimated, cost approximately $600 to generate one civilian casualty per square kilometer, as opposed to $2,000 to achieve comparable effects using conventional weapons. If you’re an army forced to fight a war on the cheap, chemical weapons make a great deal of sense.

International Retaliation: Weathering the American Cruise Missile Storm

Conspiracy theorists are fond of asserting that Assad would never use chemical weapons because this would be provoking Western military reprisals. This argument underestimates both the value of chemical weapons to the Assad regime and the serious constraints on Western action in Syria.

The regime presumably weighs the expected cost of retaliatory strikes against the clear military benefit of chemical weapons use. The United States, for its part, has to balance the desire to punish the regime for violating its commitment not to use chemical weapons with other factors, like protecting American troops in northeast Syria and limiting the risk of unintended escalation with Russia. The United States and its allies have signaled that they do not want to risk such escalation over the war in Syria. Thus, Assad can count on the presence of Russian forces in Syria to act as a deterrent against strikes that could threaten regime stability. He can reasonably assume that American military action has to be refined to try and prevent unintended escalation, and will therefore be relatively small in scale. In addition, Assad has almost certainly dispersed chemical weapons storage facilities and production centers to ensure that they cannot be destroyed from the air. The likely outcome, therefore, is that American airstrikes will set the program back but won’t completely destroy the program. Assad can assume that Russian diplomatic and military support – combined with American hesitance to topple his regime – will protect him from regime-threatening external intervention.

Weapons of War

In many ways, our popular imagination views chemical weapons as magical McGuffins to be pursued by Bond villains, two-dimensional terrorists, and commandos, not as actual battlefield weapons that help state actors defeat insurgents. They are less military history and more Michael Bay. To those unfamiliar with chemical weapons, reports of their use can take on a feeling of unreality, like a mustachioed villain tying someone to a railroad track. The truth, however, is that chemical weapons remain of military value. Understanding this allows us to see past transparent propaganda campaigns and instead grapple with the long-term psychological and humanitarian impact civilians are subject to after chemical weapons use.

Understanding how chemical weapons are of value to state actors also allows us to focus our resources in the right place. The idea of terrorists using chemical weapons may capture the popular imagination, but it is the far lesser threat when compared to state use, where professional militaries trained to maximize lethality use the weapons to achieve military effects. Russia has proposed a new treaty focused on non-state actor chemical weapons use. Clearly, this effort is misdirected, and a naked attempt to distract from the fact that its ally is using chemical weapons in a war Moscow is directly supporting.

The clear logic underpinning Assad’s use of chemical weapons should challenge widely held assumptions about the prohibitive norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction. The Syrian regime is pursuing a straightforward strategy of mass punishment to defeat an internal threat to its survival, and has demonstrated chemical weapons’ value for warfighting.

Chemical weapons are not distinct from Assad’s war machine. They’re as much a part of it as his artillery, his aircraft, and his tanks. By treating chemical weapons as a unique and discrete threat instead of an integrated part of the regime’s military means, it becomes difficult to devise policies to deter and prevent future use. If the United States and the international community chooses to respond to future chemical weapons use with military strikes, they will have to consider imposing costs on conventional warfighting capabilities as well, because Assad’s conventional and unconventional systems work in concert to achieve strategic effects — the destruction of the insurgency. However, any such effort would be beholden to political considerations about American strategy and appetite for risk.

Assad has, thus far, absorbed the costs of chemical weapons use and correctly anticipated his relative safety from Western airstrikes. But it is important to look beyond the current conflict in Syria and consider the implications for future conflicts. To prevent chemical weapons attacks, paradoxically, the policy community has to accept that chemical weapons are not unique weapons. Regimes have integrated them into conventional battle plans, making chemical weapons part of a broad spectrum of munitions options for fighting and winning wars. The ideal policy response is to incentivize regimes to voluntarily disarm, making a political choice to trade away a valuable tool, in return for some form of inducement. Indeed, the United States and Russia pursued this policy in September 2013, only for the Assad regime to hold some weapons back and eventually use them again to support combat operations. The policy failed, but its premise — general state disarmament — remains an important policy goal for the United States.

In the absence of disarmament, it is important to accept chemical weapons as part of a state’s war fighting capabilities, not a niche or exotic capability. Policymakers should think less John le Carré and more John Keegan – using historical analysis to craft effective policy options to deter and prevent future use, with an eye toward creating the conditions for the eventual total elimination of chemical weapons.


Luke J. O’Brien is an analyst and military historian and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. He is also an Army reserve officer, and as such his views are his own and not those of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. He can be found on Twitter as @luke_j_obrien.

Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Wikimedia Commons