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Assessing Syria’s Chemical Weapons Ambiguity


For the reason that Seventies, the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria) had a chemical weapons programme: With an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical gases, Syria was thought to own the third largest chemical weapons stockpile worldwide (CRS, 2013, 5) which it made use of incessantly all through the primary years of its civil conflict (Ibid, 12). Nonetheless, on 14/9/2013, Syria, acceded to the Conference on the Prohibition of the Improvement, Manufacturing, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (CWC) regardless of having repeatedly demonstrated a scarcity of concern for worldwide weapons treaties up till then. So what modified? The chemical weapons assault performed by the Syrian authorities on 21/8/2013 towards its personal residents, which was met with a risk of navy motion, is broadly accepted because the turning level. Norm theorists would argue that the unprecedented backlash to this assault from  overseas governments, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Worldwide Organisations (IOs) explains Syria’s accession to  the CWC. Nonetheless, can the upcoming navy risk of the US be ignored as a consider Syria’s accession? Realists argue that, with state survival being a state’s highest precedence, dedication to the CWC was based mostly on fast state curiosity, defending Syria towards an imminent US navy strike. This disagreement touches on the roots of a wider IR debate between Realists and Institutionalists relating to compliance and coercion.

After giving a quick historic introduction starting from the institution of the Syrian chemical weapons program to their accession to the CWC in 2013, this essay will contribute to this debate in outlining each the norm-based and realist method and apply them to this case. After reviewing and evaluating proof, this essay will finally argue {that a} neoclassical realist method can finest clarify Syria’s case.

Regardless of loads of proof for the existence of Syria’s longstanding chemical weapons programme, its existence was constantly denied by the Syrian authorities. Defying long-standing calls to surrender its chemical weapons stockpile, Syria didn’t decide to eliminating its chemical weapons till 2013. Probably the most notable warning towards utilizing chemical weapons got here in 2012 with Obama’s well-known “pink line” speech, during which he dedicated to navy motion in case of chemical weapon utilization (CNN, 2012). However, on the 21/8/2013, the Syrian authorities performed a chemical weapons assault on the district of Ghouta, killing 1,400 civilians (HRW, 2013). This assault was met with common condemnation by actors akin to overseas governments, transnational actors and the Syrian inhabitants and represented a breach of the “pink line” Obama had imposed a yr earlier. Reactions to the assault included Obama asking for congressional approval to invade Syria and the drafting of the “Authorization for the Use of Navy Pressure In opposition to the Authorities of Syria to Reply to Use of Chemical Weapons” invoice (Congress, 2013), Human Rights Watch (HRW) releasing a denouncing report and the United Nations (UN) passing a decision asking for an investigation into the assault.

Syria was thus each at risk of being attacked by the US and confronted rising normative stress from the worldwide group. Nonetheless, an American invasion by no means passed off: Syria and the Russian Federation (Russia) collectively proposed to position Syria’s stockpile below worldwide management, stopping additional navy escalation. Syria formally acceded to the CWC on the 14th September 2013, whereas the US and Russia signed the “Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons”, agreeing upon eliminating the whole lot of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. Lastly, on the sixteenth October 2013, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission was formally established, with the mandate to supervise the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme.

In response to the speculation of norm cascades proposed by Finnemore and Sikkink, worldwide norms are important for understanding the motives behind treaty dedication. Of their 1998 essay ‘Norm Dynamics and Political Change’, Finnemore and Sikkink suggest that norms are established by going by a “life cycle” (892) and may be understood as a three-stage course of made up of norm emergence, norm cascade and internalization: As soon as a “important mass” of states adopts a norm, a norm cascade emerges, main different states to emulate this conduct and to additionally undertake this norm. Throughout this stage, states could also be motivated to undertake norms as a consequence of considerations over legitimacy, esteem and repute (898). In the direction of the top of a cascade, a norm turns into a “customary of applicable behaviour” (891) and norm-breaking behaviour “generates disapproval or stigma” (892). Subsequently, not each state should be satisfied of a norm with the intention to undertake it: The legitimacy a longtime norm brings is an incentive for states to decide to it. That is supported by Simmons, who argues that governments are primarily involved with their repute and be part of worldwide commitments for signalling functions, publicly demonstrating their will to adjust to the requirements of the worldwide group (Simmons, 2000, 821). Signalling considerations are of specific significance to states struggling credibility points, to mark themselves “true reformers” (Ibid., 821) and acquire useful help within the worldwide group. On this framework, the UN acts as a political legitimizer, as Safety Council Resolutions and UN membership affect a rustic’s repute (Claude, in Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, 889). This idea exhibits the worldwide energy of norms and the facilitating position of worldwide organizations in influencing states to affix intergovernmental commitments.

Norm cascades can account for the Syrian accession to the CWC, as in 2013, with 98% of all states having signed and ratified the conference (OPCW), the “important mass” of help had lengthy been fulfilled and the norm was already ultimately of the second stage of its  life cycle: the norm cascade. With worldwide stress following the Ghouta assault, Syria confronted an unprecedented risk towards legitimacy as one of many solely international locations to haven’t but signed the CWC. Norm theorists would level to the beforehand mentioned backlash towards this choice as proof of worldwide stress that Syria finally succumbed to. Proof to help this could present that Syria was certainly involved with problems with legitimacy/repute and that the Ghouta assault resulted in unprecedented, heightened worldwide stress. It ought to additional present that they the truth is succumbed to this worldwide stress.

Syria’s choice to decide to the Chemical Weapons Conference is also defined by its urge to safe state survival in any respect prices, a proof that rests on a realist evaluation slightly than a normative method. Realists place state survival and nationwide safety on the coronary heart of overseas coverage considerations, arguing that states exist in an anarchical, self-help based mostly system – the place each state ensures their very own survival initially. Krasner argues that states thus function from a base perspective of  “egoist self-interest” (1982, 195), participating in cooperation solely when it advantages their rational self-interested overseas coverage targets. He claims that the motivating issue for states in becoming a member of worldwide commitments is an try to extend their participatory benefit, not a need to accede to a normative worldwide customary. Nonetheless, a neorealist understanding alone doesn’t clarify Syria’s choice to affix the CWC so late – with the intention to acquire a realist understanding of Syria’s coverage change, a complete understanding of each exterior pressures and inside receptiveness is important. As neorealist issues lack a wider understanding for the transmission of energy into coverage, this essay will thus relaxation on the tenets of neoclassical realism.

Taking a very powerful points of neorealism under consideration, neoclassical realism argues that energy and self-interest set up the fundamental parameters of a rustic’s overseas coverage, however that there isn’t any fast transmission from risk to motion. As such, they take two unit-level intervening variables under consideration: First, policymakers’ notion of a risk, and second, home state construction (Rose, 1998, 152) . Underneath the neoclassical realist explanatory framework, Syria thus acceded to the conference as a self-help measure, defending itself towards the specter of a US air strike which policymakers took significantly . Supporting proof ought to present {that a} attainable US airstrike was an objectively severe navy risk to Syria and that the unit-level intervening variables made the Syrian authorities take this risk significantly. It ought to moreover exhibit that the timing of Assad’s choice to decide to the Conference may be conclusively tied again to imminent navy motion and statements by US officers that the assault wouldn’t occur if Syria gave up its chemical weapons.

For norm idea to be convincing, it should be proven that Syria is the truth is involved with its worldwide repute and that this repute was  broken by the Ghouta assault, leading to its adoption of the norm of eliminating chemical weapons. Whether or not Syria is anxious with worldwide legitimacy may be finest analysed by analyzing its earlier concern/lack of concern for worldwide legitimacy: Syria had beforehand demonstrated concern for its repute, as indicated by earlier makes an attempt to avoid wasting face after chemical weapons assaults: In March 2013, the Syrian authorities had requested that an investigation be performed by the UN Secretary-Generalto examine allegations of chemical weapons use, alleging that it had not been the federal government who had performed the assault (Makdisi & Hindawi, 2017, 1696). This try at producing legitimacy was mirrored post-Ghouta: Described by the New York Occasions as an “obvious burst of transparency” (2013), Syria admitted to having chemical weapons overtly for the primary time, all of a sudden seemingly totally cooperating with the OPCW and UN.

Regardless of these indications of Syrian concern for legitimacy, the query arises of whether or not the Syrian regime’s repute was certainly extra severely threatened by the chemical weapons assault than it had already been beforehand. Proof of this newly heightened concern, and thus of an incentive for the Syrian authorities to behave is obvious from the criticism of  the Syrian authorities by human rights organisations, Western states and the UN after the assault. This resulted in an “unprecedented” (Naqvi, 2017, 961) reality discovering mission, one in all many alerts of the worldwide group’s unprecedented condemnation of Syria’s violation of worldwide norms and of the immense stress the state confronted in consequence. That Syria, a state with credibility points, joined the CWC as a “sign” to realize legitimacy, can be supported by its particularly robust need to exhibit accession to this worldwide norm: Within the letter during which Syria introduced its accession, Assad indicated that Syria would skip the stipulated 30-day leniency interval and instantly comply with CWC stipulation (Armscontrol, 2020).This showcases Assad’s robust need to ship a sign that Syria was dedicated to eliminating its improvement, manufacturing, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, appearing in a means that mirrors Simmons’ prediction as to how states with credibility points act.

Nonetheless, not all proof factors in the direction of a normative framework with the ability to account for the Syrian change of coronary heart. Whereas the Syrian authorities appears to be pushed by some sort of need for worldwide recognition, it is usually true that Syria has been deemed illegitimate and confronted worldwide stress for fairly some  time. Known as names akin to “Pariah state” by main Western media shops (e.g. Open Democracy, 2008), the Syrian authorities is topic to closely adverse Western dialogue and a variety of sanctions, most notably these of the US, demonstrating that legitimacy stress plagued the Syrian state earlier than the Ghouta assault as effectively. Instantly after the assault, Syria’s most necessary ally, Russia, supported Syria, with Putin stating that he was satisfied the assault was “nothing greater than a provocation by those that need to drag different international locations into the Syrian battle” (Ray, 2013). Regardless of the mounting pressures on the Syrian regime, the construction of normative legitimacy pressures didn’t change: These international locations condemning Syria’s violation had been making use of normative stress for longer, and Syria was nonetheless capable of depend on the allies offering counterbalance to this condemnation.

If the neoclassical realist method was right, it must be proven that Syria was at risk of a navy assault by america and that it additionally perceived this risk significantly. In accordance Rose’s “intervening variables”, it’s not simply related that the US threatened an assault, but in addition that the US has considerably better relative energy than Syria, making the notion of the US coming into the conflict catastrophic, and that Assad perceived the US as prepared to intervene: Syria’s distinctive location as a battleground for bigger states with hegemonies positioned it on the nexus of the stability of energy between states involved with sustaining these hegemonies within the Center East. With the US, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia every supporting factions within the conflict to advance their very own geopolitical targets, Assad’s management grew to become structurally depending on the help of main allies. American navy capabilities within the Center East, when coupled with the strategic significance of the area for its geopolitical pursuits – partly because of the nation’s necessary alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, partly because of the rising Russian exercise within the area – gave America a precedent and believable motive to comply with by on its threats if the “pink line” have been breached. Assad, understanding that the US’ power-maximizing method to Center Japanese overseas coverage meant that it couldn’t threat damaging their credibility and energy within the area by failing to comply with up on threats, have been compelled to take America’s threats of an invasion significantly. In response to a neoclassical realist framework Syria would have thus acceded to the CWC as a consequence of each the target risk of the US and its personal perceptions of the risk’s legitimacy.

Whereas the normative method offers nice worth in clearly demonstrating that Syria’s actions post-Ghouta have been partly performative and signal-sending, it finally fails in taking Syria’s distinctive place totally under consideration. Worldwide legitimacy does play a job in informing a state’s choice to affix broadly accepted treaties and authorized obligations, nevertheless, having robust allies Syria, has (aside from few, remoted cases) demonstrated it doesn’t want Western legitimacy to function efficiently. Syria’s case is outlined by the intervening variables solely neoclassical realism takes under consideration: With out the US’s immense navy energy, Syria’s geopolitical location in addition to the US’s historic readiness to intervene within the Center East al-Bashar Assad wouldn’t have perceived the navy threats as he did, finally resulting in the by state survival pushed choice to decide to the CWC. The neoclassical method is thus probably the most applicable framework in explaining why Syria joined the CWC.

In conclusion, it may be reiterated that the neoclassical realist framework is the superior framework in accounting for why Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Conference following the 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons assault. So how does this contribute to the broader debate between realists and norm theorists? Although institutionalists not directly tackle a key side in management perceptions – particularly, the significance of worldwide credibility – their method to the query of why states be part of worldwide establishments is flawed, failing to offer the identical explanatory worth that neoclassical realism does. Syria’s case evidences the truth that norm cascades alone don’t assure the adoption of worldwide frameworks. Relatively, norm cascades may be reconciled with the strategic priorities that neoclassical realists emphasize – an adoption of a norm that has “cascaded” is, in lots of instances, a key a part of a state’s strategic makes an attempt to take care of worldwide safety by avoiding a confrontation with extra highly effective states which may be driving the cascading of this norm ahead. Neoclassical realists’ emphasis of the significance of hegemony in driving ahead norm cascades – a perspective that’s validated by the significance of US threats in driving Syria’s accession to the CWC – finally offers a stronger account for a way norms disseminate. Finally, this essay showcases that these days realism should take into account extra elements than simply balancing. Given the unchallenged hegemony of the US, balancing is finally futile for weaker states – actions akin to Syria’s could thus fall into an account of strategic realism even when they don’t make use of conventional power-balancing initiatives. Realist approaches can solely stand the take a look at of time if they permit for an evaluation of how states search safety by leveraging establishment slightly than uncooked power-balancing.


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Written at: London College of Economics
Written for: Anna Getmansky
Date written: 05/2020

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