Red lines for who? The countries we threaten when we threaten #Syria

Add the War for Deterrence to the War on Drugs and the War on Terror to our ever-growing list of abstract noun inspired wars. But deterrence for who?

We outlawed Chemical weapons at the 1899 Hague Convention, but that didn’t work, they were used by all sides during World War I. We tried again 1925 with the Geneva Protocol and that was more successful, probably because of the horrors of the trenches. We reinforced the Geneva convention with the Chemical Weapons Convention in the mid-1990s. A lot of institutional effort has gone into banning chemical weapons and it appears to have (mostly) worked. This is particularly impressive given the traditional uselessness of international law.

Something seems to be working to deter people from using chemical weapons. Until now it hasn’t been occasional cruise missile strikes enforcing it. So what has? Why have we not seen more chemical warfare?

During the second world war both Churchill and Hitler restrained from using chemical weapons in the battlefield. This is despite Churchill being a fan of chemical weapons and Hitler possessing stockpiles. During the war there were few opportunities when either side could make use of the weapon decisively so this red line was never crossed. This has echoes of cold war mutually assured destruction. Only in the most brutal and atrocious wars have we seen chemical weapons deployed, like Iran-Iraq.

So even when states do engage in war, there is usually enough restraint available to not use chemical weapons. They don’t confer a large battlefield advantage and they make war more awful so they are mutually avoided.

But, there has been a secular decline in interstate conflict to the point where we don’t really see states going to war with one another anymore. Using chemical weapons takes a more developed institutional capacity than using conventional weapons. A key question in Syria is whether the rebels have the capacity to use chemical weapons, it’s not clear they do, whereas the Alawite state does. The decline of interstate conflict explains part of the decline of chemical warfare post-war as many combatants just can’t deploy them.

In conflicts between states with the capacity to develop and distribute chemical weapons, chemical weapons use is mutually deterred. However, in civil wars the odds of reprisal are less and the mutual deterrent effect is weaker. This may be where the US’s cruise missiles have a role to play.

So far, so abstract. But assume I’m right and that we are entering an age of civil, not interstate, war and that we need to redouble our efforts to discourage chemical weapons use by non state actors.

Obama hasn’t been pushed enough on these concrete example. I’m not saying there is no case for enforcing with cruise missiles an international norm against chemical weapons. The world is changing and all sorts of terrible policies might become good policies. But when you look at the specifics it doesn’t add up: the intermittent and mild punishment of (some) states for their use of (some classes) of chemical weapons to deter (some) other states and nonstate actors from using chemical weapons. Hmm…

So who are we actually deterring?

Only seven states aren’t full signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention: Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan, Syria, Israel, Myanmar. There are other states we should add to this list too. The cases of the US, China, Russia, Taiwan and Libya are all instructive too.

Firstly, the US, China and Russia will do as they can and the weak suffer what they must as a consequence.

North Korea isn’t going to be deterred from anything. They have real weapons of mass destruction and have been quietly genociding their own people for some time.

Myanmar has just graduated from international pariah to exciting emerging market investment opportunity. They don’t need additional incentive to not gas people.

Israel used white phosphorous in Gaza and faced some time on the international naughty step, but I don’t believe Obama is directing his cruise missile suasion towards Israel.

South Sudan has only existed a two years. So I think their absence is more prioritisation than worrying.

In Angola, chemical weapons were used in the 1970s by the Portuguese. Following decolonisation Angola slipped into civil war which lasted until 2002 and during which it is likely chemical weapons were used (I remember no cruise missiles then, incidentally). So Angola’s absence from the treaty isn’t an incipient sign of chemical weapons atrocities, but there is concern that chemical weapons could be used in the future.

Libya was an international pariah, but had been welcomed back in the late naughties and had been making significant inroads in putting their chemical weapons beyond use.

Taiwan probably has some chemical weapons just in case China ever attacks. Their probably not going to get attacked because 1) trade codependency 2) their ally the US would kick up a stink. Bombing Syria is probably a good way to signal that using chemical weapons is a good way for Taiwan to lose a powerful ally. Having an ambassador us the words “using chemical weapons is a good way for Taiwan to lose a powerful ally” is equally effective, cheaper and (my favourite part of this plan) involved no piles of corpses.

Egypt has massacred lots of its people and continues to receive military aid from the US. I presume a missile strike on Syria will convince the Egyptian junta to stick to conventional mass murder. Success!

Terrorist nonstate actors are a more mixed bag. It seems likely that Islamist terrorists would use chemical weapons regardless of what the west wants because we already want to annihilate them. Once you’ve made someone a persona non gratis it becomes difficult to incentivise them with sticks and carrots.  Effect ambiguous, at best.

Other states with chemical weapons capabilities and future civil wars are interesting. Obviously, despite the security state’s vast surveillance and intelligence gathering we don’t know where all the chemical weapons are and because of the laws of physics we don’t know who’ll have them in the future. The taboo against chemical weapons usage is already very strong, as John Holbo says, just discussing cruise missile strikes will have an affect. Bombing Syria will probably makes their use slightly less likely, but their use is already very, very unlikely. A partial success.

Given the tiny marginal effect blowing stuff up in Syria will have I’m more convinced than ever that military intervention in Syria is a terrible idea. Obama set up a stupid red line. If he plans on killing people to cover for his own stupid mistake then he’s a monster.


CLARIFICATION: Yes, I know it’s “supposed” to be whom in the title. I think whom needs to die as it adds nothing useful to understanding and is therefore solely used to enable well educated people to look down at less well educated people. Welcome to my war on pronouns. Altogether safer than wars on abstract nouns.