Jeffrey LewisMinding Assad’s Red Line

Now that I’ve had my say on the Obama’s administration’s opportunity to defuse the Syria crisis, let’s consider the other side of the coin. What if doesn’t work? What if the United States, France, and whoever else comes along in the process end up resorting to force?

What follows is an essay by Aaron Steina research associate at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and a doctoral candidate at King’s College London. Aaron lays out a case for the carefully constrained use of force, reminiscent of certain parts of the second half of Schelling’s Arms and Influence — combined with an even more ambitious diplomatic agenda than I personally think is in the cards

Minding Assad’s Red Line: Escalatory Warfare and the Incentive for Limited Strikes

Aaron Stein

In late 1973, shortly before the start of the Yom Kippur War, Egypt is alleged to have provided Syria with chemical artillery shells. The Arab combatants were already aware of Israel’s nuclear capability, and reportedly saw chemical weapons as a tool to deter Israel’s nuclear capabilities, as well as a weapon of last resort should the better-equipped and -trained Israeli army threaten Cairo or Damascus.

As the Syrian civil war continues, weapons initially slated to deter Israel are now being deployed on the battlefield against the Syrian opposition. However, Syria’s tactics, thus far, suggest that the regime will only resort to large-scale chemical weapons use when Damascus is directly threatened. Thus, while the nature of the threat to Syrian regime has changed, some elements of Syrian WMD doctrine persist.

In the 1980s, Damascus began to import precursor chemicals and develop the technical know-how to produce, deploy, and deliver chemical weapons. Yet, as part of its larger effort to deter Israel, Syrian officials opted for a policy of opacity, and only hinted at the weapons’ existence. Syria’s official policy suggests that Damascus was intent on using the weapon solely as a method of deterrence, rather than as an overt coercive tool to advance other aims.

From “Strategic Parity” to Low-Level Use

Syria’s posture indicates that Damascus, like other WMD-possessing states, viewed its chemical arsenal as its weapons of last resort, rather than weapons to be used on the battlefield. Thus, for state-to-state deterrence, Syria’s possession of chemical weapons allowed the regime to achieve a semblance of “strategic parity” with Jerusalem and, most importantly, to prevent the escalation of smaller-scale conflicts, such as clashes between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah.

During the Syrian civil war, President Bashar al-Assad has employed his chemical weapons in ways reminiscent of Egypt in Yemen and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. However, unlike these previous cases, Assad initially took steps to conceal his use of chemical weapons and is reported to have made an effort to decrease casualties. For example, during a 23 December 2012 attack in Homs, the regime is alleged to have diluted Sarin with isopropanol, in order to decrease the body count and to hide symptoms.

The regime’s very deliberate use of chemical weapons suggests that the Syrian dictator was intent on skirting President Barack Obama’s stated “red line” against the use or movement of chemical weapons. The President indicated that there would be “enormous consequences” if the United States “start[ed] seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”  Obama’s ambiguous policy suggests that the United States was primarily interested in deterring another Halabja-style attack and intent on preventing the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah.

Thus, while the regime did use chemical weapons against rebel-controlled territory, it nevertheless took steps to conceal its actions, which suggests that the American red line did have some influence on Syria’s behavior.

Moreover, in keeping with the president’s somewhat ambiguous declaratory policy, the United States signaled through inaction that, in the words of an unnamed intelligence official, “as long as they keep [the] body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything.” This approach, while brutal, was consistent with the Obama administration’s unstated policy of minimizing its involvement in the Syrian conflict while coercing the regime to keep its use of chemical weapons to an absolute minimum.

Little Left to Lose?

But after the 21 August attack, which the United States estimates killed 1,429 people, the American calculus finally changed. In one respect, the 21 August attack represents a continuation of the regime’s previous chemical tactics. French intelligence asserts that the attack was intended to force rebel forces from strategic areas in and around Damascus. Yet in other areas of geo-strategic significance in the past- like Homs and the Damascus suburbs – the regime appears to have kept with its previous policy of minimizing casualties when it used chemical weapons.

Thus, 21 August does represent a serious escalation, departing sharply from how the regime used chemical weapons previously. French intelligence indicates that the attack was a preface to an offensive “to loosen the [rebel’s] grip” and to secure a strategic site because “the regime feared a wider attack from the opposition on Damascus at that moment.” The relatively unrestrained use of chemical weapons appears to reflect an urgent need to protect the capital from rebel advances. If true, this claim suggests that the regime values Damascus more than other cities, is prepared to take extraordinary steps to ensure that the capital does not fall to the rebels, and, most importantly, that the regime’s grip on power is no longer as firm as previously reported.

President Obama has argued that the United States now has an obligation to strike Syrian forces, in order to “deter” Assad from using chemical weapons on such a large scale again, to “degrade” his capabilities to do so, and to coerce the regime to enter into negotiations with the opposition. The United States is proposing a limited three-day strike similar in scope to Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998. And, in a departure from the George W. Bush administration’s policy in Iraq and the West’s undeclared policy in Libya, President Obama has explicitly stated that the goal of the strike is not regime change, but rather to respond to the flagrant use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Small is… Less Ugly, Anyway

But even if the stated goal isn’t regime change, the use of force could inadvertently set in motion a scenario whereby the United States directly contributes to the re-crossing of Bashar al-Assad’s own chemical red line. In an interview with Reuters, a number of unidentified Syrian military commanders indicated that they feared that the cruise missile strikes would pave the way for a large-scale rebel offensive. While the Syrian military has taken steps to prepare for the American attack, its leaders still have reason to worry that the rebels will take advantage of the strikes and advance on key positions. In this event, further use of chemical weapons appears likely.

The United States therefore has a strong incentive to curtail its strikes, in order not to avoid tipping the balance of power and bringing about just what it seeks to prevent. Moreover, the risk of further large-scale chemical weapons use necessitates intense American action to try and prevent further use, without resorting to military action. Thus, if Bashar al-Assad’s response to Russia’s recent proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control is sincere, the United States has an interest in pressing the Syrian dictator to take action. However, the immense difficulties associated with accounting for and then destroying chemical weapons in a war zone suggests that the Russian proposal may actually be infeasible.

The United States should therefore continue with its efforts to plan for military action, as well as continue to take steps to prepare for all possible contingencies should diplomacy fail. In a nightmare scenario for U.S. policymakers and American allies in the region, a large-scale strike that Assad interprets as intended to overthrow his government could lead him to consider using chemical weapons against regional targets to punish American allies before he himself is toppled.

Too Late to Manage the Consequences of Failure

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad indicated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that Damascus would target Israel, Jordan, and Turkey if they are complicit in an American led strike. While the United States and its regional allies have taken steps to address the threat, the defenses put in place thus far are inadequate.

The Turkish government, for example, has increased its military deployments on the border and has sent 400 Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) specialists to assist and train first responders. In addition, NATO has deployed six Patriot batteries in southern Turkey and American and British specials forces are reported to have trained Turkish and Jordanian commandoes to secure suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria.

Nevertheless, Turkey still remains ill-prepared to deal with a large-scale chemical attack. In 2008, a local Turkish manufacturer began production of 162,000 CBRN suits for the Turkish armed forces. But as of now, only 2,000 have been delivered. Moreover, reports indicate that most of Turkey’s American supplied gas masks are expired and the armed forces, as well as civilians, would suffer mass casualties in a large-scale chemical weapons attack.

In Jordan, the United States has also deployed Patriot missile batteries, F-16 fighter jets, and a few hundred military planers and communication experts to help monitor the border and to train Jordanian soldiers to respond to a chemical attack. However, in the event that Syria fires a barrage of missiles at regional targets, the missile defenses deployed in Turkey and Jordan would be overwhelmed. And, absent effective local passive defenses, the number of casualties could be quite high. In turn, this further underscores the need to mind Assad’s chemical red line, before the United States strikes Syrian targets.

Getting Ready for the Next Round

The United States therefore should continue to pair its military preparations with very clear signals to the Assad regime about the limited scope of military action, and the strikes should match those signals. The United States’ initial strikes could only target the units suspected of carrying out the 21 August strike, as well as longer-range delivery vehicles that could be used to target its regional allies. After this action, the United States could keep naval assets within range of Syria and signal its willingness to use force again, should Assad cross the red line again.

In doing so, it is critical for the U.S. to maintain a posture of not seeking regime change in both word and deed. Even in the event of follow-up strikes, the United States should continue to exercise restraint. Too great an increase in the scope or intensity of the strikes risks leaving Assad with too little to lose and thereby forcing him to use his weapons to stave off regime collapse. The American mission therefore should continue to be aimed at punishing the regime for violating international norms, rather than changing the dynamics on the battlefield.

At the same time, the United States should signal to Assad that his targeting of regional allies would escalate the level of American involvement and lead to a military campaign intended to force him from power. Turkey, by virtue of its membership in NATO, has already received a strong and overt American commitment to aid in its defense. Thus, Washington and Ankara should signal that any action taken against Turkey would lead to invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and thereby result in an overwhelming Western led military operation against the Assad regime. The same such guarantee could be given to Jordan, albeit outside the NATO context.

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has downplayed the need for a direct American security commitment, saying, “We can defend ourselves.” However, history suggests that in the event of an attack, the United States would come to Israel’s aid, albeit in ways short of direct military intervention on behalf of the Jewish state. The clear communication of this policy would be intended to coerce Assad to take de-escalatory steps, in the event he feel threatened, and clearly communicate the threshold for escalatory American action.

Bringing the War to a Close

Precisely because this policy necessitates an open-ended commitment to the punitive use of force, it is critical that the United States pairs military action with political efforts designed to foster a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Military strikes cannot eliminate Assad’s chemical-weapons threat, and could even lead to their further use. The only way to neutralize the threat is to remove the incentive to use the weapons. The only way to do that is to negotiate an end to the war.

This strategy has its less attractive features. One drawback is that Assad will continue to use conventional weapons against civilians without an effective response from the United States or its allies. But from the outset of the current debate, the Obama administration has made clear that its decision to use force came about as a result of the violation of the norm against the use of WMD, rather than a commitment to alter the dynamics on the ground. Sticking to that policy offers a way to minimize the likelihood that Assad uses chemical weapons on a large scale again, while also keeping the tools to respond at the ready should he test American resolve again.


Aaron Stein is a research associate at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and a doctoral candidate at King’s College London. He blogs at Turkey Wonk. Follow him on Twitter: @aaronstein1.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    —What if the end result was a cease-fire, a peacekeeping force, and a “neutral zone” seperating “Assadistan” from “The Republic of we are never, never ever getting back together?”

    —If Assad won’t go, and his supporters cannot abandon him, what is left but saying: “Nerve gases protect you from invasion. They do not protect you from yourself.”

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    Maybe the Varosha City Council could administer the beural zone I imagined above?

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      “Maybe the Varosha City Council Could administer the neutral zone I imagined, above.”

  3. Cthippo (History)

    You know who has thought a lot about protection of civilian populations from gas attacks?


    This seems like an excellent opportunity for the Israelis to reach out to the Turks and Jordanians and offer their technical expertise, and possibly access to their strategic stockpile of CBRN supplies. It wouldn’t cost Israel much in terms of real costs and the benefits in terms of good relations with it’s neighbors could be enormous. Even Iran and Hezbollah would have a hard time turning such an action into propaganda, though I’m sure they would try.

  4. John Schilling (History)

    Presuming Assad didn’t resort to the use of chemical weapons until he thought they were essential to the preservation of his regime, and that he knows more about the situation on the ground in Syria than we do:

    I don’t think there is any margin here. To effectively deter future use of chemical weapons, any punitive strike has to cause the regime more percieved harm than would the non-use of chemical weapons. If the non-use of chemical weapons results in the downfall of the regime, then an effective punitive strike will also result in the downfall of the regime.

    We can truthfully say that it is not our intent to cause Assad’s downfall, and we can perhaps hope that his regime turns out to be more resilient than even he expects, but if we were to do this, we would I think have to plan on the regime collapsing and on trying to contain the effects that collapse from the outside.

    But, it’s almost certainly moot becauser Russian and Syrian diplomacy is now more effective than American diplomacy and there isn’t going to be a punitive strike.

  5. SQ (History)

    Jeffrey is right to invoke Schelling here. The missing element is risk. The reprisal strikes don’t need to cause as much harm as the Aug 21 sarin incident presumably spared the regime. They need to create a certain degree of risk that everything will unravel.

    One way to get there is through the effects of the strikes on Assad’s military. But another, maybe better involves the readiness of the coalition to strike again, as the author says. There is a risk of escalation if large-scale CW use recurs.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I’m not sure that risk as deterrence is going to be much help here. We aren’t talking about deterring an aggressor who has the low-risk option of backing down and preserving the status quo. Assad is already waging total war over an existential threat; there is no question of us “creating a certain degree of risk that everything will unravel” because that risk is already dialed up to eleven from his point of view.

      If we plan on deterrence by risk and uncertainty rather than assured destruction, the risk has to include a substantial probability of the regime’s destruction to be relevant, and that again puts us at having to contain a disintegrating regime.

  6. George William Herbert (History)

    Alternate endgame:

    “The United States would like to inform individual members of the Assad regime that, as we read the cards, you are going to needing safe homes abroad in the near future. We can guarantee you that further chemical use will mean that there is literally no location on earth that will be safe for you or your family.”

    • John Schilling (History)

      I think that, per the Pinochet precedent, we are already well past that point. Even if the United States washes its hands of the whole thing, the only place Assad could retire in reasonable safety would be Russia, if they will have him. And if they will, a claim by Obama that we’ll come and pry him out of his dacha in Crimea or somehow lean on Moscow to hand him over to the UN, would have about zero credibility.

      The ability to offer dictators a safe retirement abroad in exchange for a peaceful transfer of power at home, was a useful tool in the diplomat’s kit while it lasted. Now, we just have trials for crimes against humanity, which are certainly more emotionally fulfilling but perhaps not so pragmatically useful.

  7. Shawn Hughes (History)

    Again, my forte isn’t geopolitics, but a few thoughts occur:
    Brad is funny as hell
    2 I am betting those rockets and shells aren’t being filled with 1972 vintage. That stuff came from Iraq.
    3 No, I don’t have an unclassified source for number 2
    4 Masks and filters don’t just expire, they have to be stored well, also….
    5 isopropyl alcohol is a precursor, not a diluent. Diluting a nonpersistent agent makes no sense from the tactical and production sides of the house. I don’t want to help the bad guys here, but substitute farts and it might make more sense.

  8. Anon2 (History)

    “[In the event of a U.S. attack on the chemical weapons…] However, in the event that Syria fires a barrage of missiles at regional targets, the missile defenses deployed in Turkey and Jordan would be overwhelmed. And, absent effective local passive defenses, the number of casualties could be quite high. ”

    This would be regime suicide. The Syrian Army can barely handle the rebels, how are they going to handle a regular army bent on revenge? Why would Assad or some generals left in command invite this response? Assad’s only rational response is to take his punishment and to move on.

  9. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Does anyone have an account of how well maintained stocks of Syrian chemical weapons, including Sarin, are?

    —Reading an account describing the destruction of the United States chemical arsenal, I thought: the money was there to maintain it over the decades. The problems faced in dismantaling the U.S> arsenal were those of dismanteling a maintained arsenal.

    —But was there money, time, expertise, and everything else needed the Syrian government to maintain the chemical weapons arsenal since 1973?

    —Examples of U.S. government wear houses losing valuable things for decades, or agencies ordering too much of something they did not need, are commonplace.

    —But those were happening here, in a country not ruled by the Assad family. In the U.S., it is Murphy’s Law versus public opinion. In Syria, it is Murphy’s Law versus the Assad government.

    —Are my concerns justified?

    • John Schilling (History)

      The major problem in the United States I think was and is NIMBYism; nobody wants a nerve gas incinerator in their community because, well, duh. And nobody wants nerve gas trucked through their community, even on a one-way trip out. And nobody wants nerve gas stored in their community, but it’s a lot harder for lawyers to stop you from doing something new than to force you to do something new, so if the status quo is “Lots of nerve gas in bunkers here, there, and over in that place”, it takes decades to get everyone to sign up for a plan to change that.

      Syria, probably doesn’t have so many active environmental / public health and safety activists, probably doesn’t have as many card-carrying lawyers, and doesn’t seem to have a functioning court system for them to work with. If the Russians fly in with a bunch of portable or prefabricated incinerators to set up on-site, or just with a bunch of cargo planes to pick up the stuff and carry it back to Russia, things could probably be taken care of fairly quickly and with low risk of anyone actually being killed in a mishap.

      There would be a substantial possibility that the Syrian sites would have enough residual contamination to make them a no-go zone for years to come.