How A Deal With Russia Could Save America’s Syria Policy

CREDIT: AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca

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Vatican Syria

CREDIT: AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca

It seems like the conductors have slammed the brakes on the war train. The deal with Russia to handover all of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks to international inspectors, which President Obama agreed to take to the U.N. Tuesday morning, appears to have emerged almost accidentally as an alternative all sides preferred to punitive American strikes.

The deal won’t end Syria’s civil war. The proposed airstrikes probably wouldn’t have either. Both potential options were narrowly targeted at preventing the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again and restoring the international norm against the use of the poisons in combat. And on that front, the new deal may work as well or better than airstrikes alone ever would have.

Critics of the deal argue that it’s a sham, that the only way to deter Assad from future obscenities is force. This argument flatly misunderstands both the military alternative, which wouldn’t have deterred Assad from non-chemical atrocities, and the norm against chemical weapons.

Historically, the threat of retaliation has never been the key deterrent against the use of chemical weapons. In wars throughout the 20th century ranging from the Spanish Civil War to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, chemical powers have refrained from gassing the opposition in situations where they faced no serious threat of retaliation, even when it could have been militarily effective. The threat of military-inflicted pain clearly hasn’t been the reason chemical weapons have been on such tight lockdown since World War I.

That’s why the Obama administration’s case for hitting Assad has always been about the chemical weapons “norm,” not the “law that says if you use chemical weapons we will mess you up.” Norms are informal beliefs that states share: they bind state action, making some policies mandatory and others unthinkable, without necessarily being codified into international law. That’s why, despite Syria not being a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Ghouta atrocity threatened to expand chemical weapons use: it broke the informal taboo, the norm, against their deployment.

The idea that norms can disrupt the cold logic of power politics may strike as you as strange, but since the late 1980s, a loose group of international relations scholars, called constructivists, have persuasively documented both that norms exist and can end up playing a pretty important role in determining what governments decide to do to each other and their peoples. Here’s an influential paper that clearly lays out some of the ways ways norms matter.

The taboo against chemical weapons, Assad notwithstanding, has long been one of the strongest arrows in the constructivist quiver. In a 1998 article, Richard Price and Nina Tannenwald traced how chemical weapons came to be so ostracized, finding that moral disgust at the “uncivilized” character of chemical weapons gradually morphed into a nearly universal belief that such weapons were simply unusable. American Senator David Reed argued in 1925 that chemical weapons were as humane a method of killing “savage race[s]” as bullets or bayonets; now, as Richard Price and Tannenwald point out, “the humanitarian core of the cw taboo has over time become increasingly unacceptable to question.”

This history led Price to conclude in a recent essay that “pressing for Syrian ascension to the Chemical Weapons Convention might best” reinforce the norm against chemical weapons. Norms live or die by international acceptance; if the U.S.-Russia deal, as seems likely, involves immediate Syrian accession to the Convention and intrusive U.N. inspections as enforcement, it sends a strong signal that the entire world still believes chemical weapons are beyond the pale. Since the key barrier between our world and one where chemical attacks were common has been the deep and widespread belief that gassing is unacceptable, then reinforcing that the world really can come together over chemical weapons sends a critically important signal.

It also dodges some of the bullets inherent to a strike. U.S. strikes never could have destroyed Assad’s chemical deposits; what would have happened to the chemical weapons norm if he decided to use the weapons again after the first round of punishment ended? Having the U.N. secure Assad’s weapons ensures this won’t happen; if he flouts the U.N. and then proceeds to use the weapons anyway, there will be much stronger international support for harsh punitive action.

The draft U.N. Security Council resolution that France is proposing with American and British support makes this point plain. It would condemn the Ghouta attack, require Assad to turn over all chemical weapons to the U.N., bring Syria into the Chemical Weapons Convention, threaten “serious consequences” for non-compliance, and potentially refer chemical weapons violators to the International Criminal Court. Russia may not end up approving every portion of this deal but, even absent (say) the ICC provision, this represents an overwhelmingly harsh international judgment against the use of chemical weapons. Norm reinforced.

With the issue of the chemical weapons taboo off the table, the Obama administration could then return to developing a strategy for the other half of its Syria policy, orderly regime change, without being trapped into launching strikes for another purpose that, by the administration’s own design, wouldn’t change the balance of power on the ground. Whether or not Kerry created this diplomatic opening through a gaffe, Obama was right to drive a truck through it.