16 April 2018

We can’t eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. But we can deter their use

By Shashank Joshi

As the dust settles on Saturday’s air and missile strikes on Syria, President Bashar al-Assad will count himself lucky. Although the barrage was twice as large as last year’s pinprick strike on an airfield, it was nevertheless far from the sweeping, sustained, regime-shaking campaign that seemed possible even a day before the event.

Russia was assiduously kept in the loop, Iranian forces were carefully avoided, and each one of the three acknowledged targets was directly linked to the production, storage, and use of chemical weapons (there is some evidence that two elite units around Damascus were also struck, quietly).

Three questions stand out. First, will the strikes degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities? Second, will they deter the regime from using any capability it retains? And third, what steps should the West take next?

Last year’s strike on the Shayrat Airbase, which had been used for the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack three days earlier, had limited impact both on capability and will. The airfield was back in use within a day and, as we now know, chemical weapons continued to be used. This weekend’s attack is broader in scope.

It destroyed the regime’s primary research centre for chemical weapons, the main storage site for sarin, and another storage site that functioned as an important command post. At least two other chemical weapon sites were spared, out of concern over civilian casualties, and many others must exist. Moreover, the week between atrocity and airstrikes, marked by a very public debate and presidential tweeting, will have given the regime an opportunity to move some equipment and stock. But there is only so much that can be moved beyond the gaze of Western satellites and drones. The American assessment that the strikes have set back Syrian capabilities “by year” seems credible.

However, no strike can eliminate Syrian chemical weapons entirely. As long as some remain, the task is not just to degrade Syria’s programme but, more importantly, to deter its future use. This is a big ask. Deterrence depends on persuading an adversary that the cost of crossing a red line will exceed any benefit they hope to gain.

But Assad is in an existential struggle with rebels, and the benefits of capturing a town – as the Douma atrocity helped him to do – are very high indeed. Outweighing them would require a strike on such a large scale that it would probably destabilise the regime and kill Russians. Most Western countries are wary of running the first risk, and completely reject the latter.

This does not mean the strikes have no deterrent effect at all. In ramping up from a small strike last year to a slightly larger one this year, Western powers are also moving up a ladder of escalation that adds credibility to their subsequent threats. It is easier to issue a large threat when you have just carried out a medium one, than if you were starting from scratch.

Finally, we should carefully identify what we are deterring. According to Human Rights Watch, Syria has used chemical weapons on more than 50 occasions. But most of these attacks involved chlorine gas. Although its use is illegal under the Chemical Weapons Convention and wider international law, and its effects can be devastating, Western governments have been far more concerned about the use of nerve agents, like sarin, which have no legitimate civilian purposes.

In mid-February, for instance, President Emmanuel Macron said his red line was the use of “chemical weapons proscribed in treaties”, implicitly (though mistakenly) suggesting that some types of chemical weapons might lie outside the definition. Saturday’s strikes appear to have focused almost entirely on facilities associated with nerve agents. The upshot is that Assad may be more careful about using nerve agent, as he seems to have done at Douma, but no less free with chlorine.

Finally, what can the West do next?

Pressure at the United Nations is well and good, but – with Russia having vetoed six resolutions on Syria and chemical weapons – it is largely symbolic. There is value in forcing Moscow to show its hand on the world stage, but it will not bring an investigation into Douma or a wider peace process.

New sanctions on Russia, announced by the United States, would be useful, but allies need to think outside of the UN box about how to enact these. At last year’s G7 summit, for instance, the UK proposed sanctions on Russian officers working in Syria. London, Paris, and Washington should now work to convince their partners, Canada, Germany, Italy, and Japan, to follow through. The extraordinary European Union response to the Skripal poisoning also shows the depth of frustration with Russian behaviour.

Finally, there is every chance that Assad will test our resolve again. According to some reports, the US, UK, and France have prepared a further set of targets and established a system of coordination that would allow them to act more quickly, avoiding the delay that occurred over the last week. This is welcome news, but such automaticity can only function if the public have a high degree of confidence in policy. Parliament’s debate should be forward-looking, not just retrospective.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI.