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If Syria is a message, who is reading it and will they understand it?

By Nicholas Hager, Transatlantic Community Analyst


The Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its people is not only reprehensible by virtually any system of ethics; it is also a violation of customary and codified international law. The latter is one of the most important, and public, reasons that President Obama has come to support punitive and preventative strikes against Syria. Proponents offer many other justifications, from a responsibility to protect to an obligation to defend fellow NATO member Turkey. But the most salient, and seemingly persuasive, rationale for acting is the defense of international norms against chemical weapons use and to deter their future use. If Assad goes unpunished, this argument runs, there is nothing to dissuade states from replicating his actions later. Disregarding the fact that virtually nothing was done about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, or the gassing of Iraqi Kurds, and the norm didn’t collapse then, we must ask, even if we charitably admit a cause-and-effect relationship: Will air strikes strengthen future deterrence?

Any action would be intended as an obvious and authoritative assertion that chemical weapons use will not be tolerated under any circumstances, but this message may be lost on those for whom it is intended. What may be intended as an explicitly categorical denunciation by the U.S. may easily be misconstrued by these states as the product of purely situational factors such as the present temperament of the U.S. or the UN. This, unfortunately, may be sufficient to blunt the effect of categorical admonitions because it allows significant room for equivocation. But if action is inadequate to ensure compliance, what alternatives are there? 

There are at least three principle, albeit non-exhaustive, methods of achieving this goal. First, the U.S. and its most influential allies can reach out diplomatically to ensure that their positions are clearly and completely articulated directly to the parties they intend to deter. These diplomats can speak directly to individuals in these governments, and the closed-door nature of this approach would circumvent the political rhetoric which often clouds public discourse, allowing the issue to be addressed in a more pragmatic, candid, manner. Ideally, this could be accomplished without employing threats, but any threats made would be given enhanced “credibility [because they can relate their] reasons for attaching gravity to the issue” and, further, can “clarify terms for refraining from [escalation].” Coordinating any action taken in Syria with private and direct assurances from western plenipotentiaries should inform potential transgressor states of where they stand.

For the U.S. itself, one concern would be cases where no formal diplomatic relationship exists  (e.g. Iran or North Korea). But, this is a minor impediment because there are ample ways to achieve this contact if desired. More intractable concerns are whether potential transgressors heed the warnings. These concerns can be mitigated by seeking regional cooperation. If North Korea, for example, won’t listen to the U.S. or its close allies, then perhaps it would be more influenced by its neighbor China. This regional help may be difficult to obtain, but the ability to present a far-reaching, unified front would be invaluable.

Another option is a direct, explicit, and public address of those countries of concern. Hypothetically, after striking Syria, the U.S. could, in cooperation with its allies, publicly address other states of concern in order to shame them into compliance. The primary difficulty with this is that official rhetoric is sometimes hollow and even earnest declarations are likely to be disregarded, so this tactic could only work in conjunction with others. It should only be employed with great discretion, however, because regardless of its probable ineffectiveness, this strategy has the potential to inflame tensions and deeply entrench opposition.

Finally, the U.S. and its allies can pursue supplementary institutionalization. The goal here would be to persuade or coerce rogue states, and perhaps others, to join efforts to fortify the norm against chemical weapons use by bolstering current institutions and creating new ones to enmesh these rogues into international society. This could be through the periodic, symbolic, reaffirmation of a treaty, or even the establishment of new oversight agencies, but it could be virtually anything that increases states’ obligations to defend these norms. Those who decline to participate would be subject to international censure and fare far worse if they do join and subsequently transgress because this would unequivocally justify retributive action. Moreover, if rogues are actually persuaded to join and lawfully participate, it could lessen the likelihood of future transgressions because they may fear losing their newfound benefits.

The primary difficulty with this approach is obtaining buy-in, on all sides. There is no guarantee that these states, or others, will be inclined to participate, and there is no guarantee that rogues will feel significant pressure from the fallout of their failure to do so, so it would be important to provide enticements for compliance. A unified front would, therefore, be imperative to success so as to ensure that any incentives or disincentives would be imposed ubiquitously and that any subsequent transgression would be handled appropriately.

While all of these strategies have drawbacks, and none is guaranteed to compel compliance from recalcitrant regimes, they can bolster U.S. and allied efforts to defend an important international norm. Since the U.S. is incapable of upholding norms alone, U.S. action against Syria may be insufficient to dissuade future violations. But if this action is underwritten by concerted and unambiguous warnings and efforts to expand institutionalization, the political calculus would be substantially altered. Assuming these states actually respect the society of states’ capacity to enforce the norms it espouses, action and directed discourse should disincentivize future norm-transgression to a greater extent than one-time punitive action alone because it clarifies the message and amplifies the pressure to heed it.


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