Small Wars Journal

Should the U.S. Carry Out Punitive Strikes in Reaction to Chemical Weapons Attacks in Syria?

Should the U.S. Carry Out Punitive Strikes in Reaction to Chemical Weapons Attacks in Syria?

Patrick Burke

Since late April of this year the Syrian regime and its allies have fought to retake control of Idlib, the last major rebel-held province in Syria. So far, thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

After a brief ceasefire, the offensive has restarted. The worst of the fighting is still ahead.

Despite the carnage, only one event has even raised murmurs from the international community of acting to quell the bloodshed.

This past May, just a few weeks into the campaign, pro-Syrian regime forces unleashed a chemical weapons attack against rebel forces. This marked approximately the 105th such attack since 2013, according to data from the Armed Conflict and Location Data Project (ACLED) database and Human Rights Watch.

The international community, with the U.S. at the helm, has made it clear chemical weapons attacks are a uniquely abhorrent violation of international norms and laws. One that justifies punitive military strikes against the Syrian regime.

So far, chemical weapons attacks resulted in two U.S.-led military strikes against regime targets, first in April 2017 and again in April 2018. The Obama administration also led a somewhat successful effort to disarm the Syrian regime of most of its chemical weapons following a particularly horrendous chemical weapons attack in 2013.

However, the recent chemical attack in Idlib did not result in any punitive military action.

Was this the right choice?

  • Clearly, the international community will at least consider military action if chemical weapons are used again in Idlib.
  • Now that the campaign is ramping up once more, it’s vital that the voting public and policymakers understand whether such punitive military action is a good idea.
  • My analysis of the pattern of chemical weapons attacks in Syria provides a rather pessimistic conclusion for those hoping to deter the horrific practice.
  • My findings indicate that a limited strike—like those in April 2017 and 2018—would likely be ignored.
  • More importantly, my findings also suggest that an attack causing a significant reduction in the Syrian regime’s military power would likely increase the number of chemical weapons attacks.

The remainder of the article answers why.

The Failure of Limited Strikes

First, it’s important to identify the cause of the chemical weapons attacks.

My analysis of monthly chemical attacks found that the regime mainly uses the weapon when rebels successfully takeover territory.

Using a statistical test, my analysis considers several competing explanations of chemical weapons use. These factors are: the monthly numbers of battles, government seizures of territory, occurrences of low-level violence (e.g., a suicide bombing), riots, protests, and strategic developments (e.g., ceasefire agreements).

The statistics reveal that none of the competing explanations significantly correlate with the pattern of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The data comes from the ACLED database for the years 2017-2019—the time period for which this data is available.

This result indicates that the regime uses the weapon when it feels its losing power on the battlefield.

In other words, it’s an act of desperation.

Thus, it should not be surprising that chemical weapons attacks continued even after the two U.S. strikes in 2017 and 2018. Both attacks were extremely limited. The regime seems to have simply calculated that the reward for reducing the rising power of rebels was worth the limited cost of the strikes.

The Danger of Increased Deterrence

Some might wonder if the Syrian regime could be deterred by more significant military action.

Probably not.

Let’s look at the most extreme end of military intervention: regime change. Effectuating quick and decisive regime change would likely end chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

However, 8-years of inaction by international actors makes it clear that no country has the stomach for regime change.

A less extreme approach is using military force to make the cost of using chemical weapons outweigh the perceived benefit.

This means carrying out strikes resulting in significant damage to the regime’s military power.

This is also a bad idea.

Decreasing the regime’s power would likely increase the rebel’s ability to take territory, and thereby increase the use of chemical weapons.

Political science research into patterns of civilian atrocities in war provide the best support for this conclusion.

One of the most consistent findings among these scholars is that battlefield factors have a significant impact on a government’s decision to attack civilians.

Many civilian targeting scholars point to the type of strategies used on the battlefield as the main driver of atrocities. Guerilla warfare, wars of attrition, and wars of annexation are all correlated with civilian killing, according to these scholars.

Some scholars also find that high battlefield deaths or wars featuring a long duration increase the probability of civilian targeting. One scholar even argues that the loss of territory drives militaries to kill civilians—in direct agreement with my finding on Syria.

All of these battlefield-related factors have one thing in common. They essentially back militaries into a corner by creating “desperate” battlefield conditions.

Much like a cornered animal, the military lashes out at every form of power held by its enemy. Most scholarship agrees that civilians’ “power” comes through their ability to provide food, shelter, intelligence and recruits to occupying armies.

Civilian targeting and chemical weapons attacks are, of course, not the same thing. However, the driving logic behind both types of targeting practices are the same: desperate militaries use whatever means available to zap the enemy of its power.

What These Lessons Mean for Deterring War Crimes in the Future

My findings offer rather pessimistic lessons concerning military intervention in Syria.

The idea of doing nothing in the face of atrocities may bring up painful memories of international inaction during the Armenian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and other horrors throughout history.

However, it’s worth emphasizing that losing the civil war in Syria would likely mean the death of the current regime. Most civil wars feature these same stakes.

Thus, it should not be surprising that limited military intervention might fail to deter the use of a weapon or tactic perceived to ensure regime survival.

Future policymakers weighing the idea of military action to deter atrocities need to fully understand why the horrors occur. Simply chalking up such behavior as a product of a “barbaric” regime will likely lead to ineffective policy solutions. If the reasons for atrocities relate to regime survival, it’s likely that limited intervention will be ignored, and that more significant military action will make the situation even worse.

About the Author(s)

Patrick Burke is a freelance journalist and a former researcher at the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. Contact him at patrick.j.burke6112@gmail.com.