Doveryai no proveryai: Deterrence and Verification in Syria

Doveryai no proveryai – “Trust but verify.” Arms Control is all about verifying a state’s declarations, so as to ensure that both sides honor their agreement – whether it be about missiles, nuclear warhead numbers, or chemical weapons – to dismantle or limit a category of weapons.

Ankara has tepidly embraced the recent U.S. – Russian agreement that foresees the “elimination of all Syrian chemical weapons material and equipment” by “the first half of 2014.”  The agreement – while not impossible – is very ambitious and efforts to secure, consolidate, and then destroy chemical weapons have never taken place in such poor security conditions.

Like many critics, Ankara has indirectly stated its belief that Assad is using the agreement to stall for time, to prevent an American strike, and that he will likely engage in Iraqi style “cat and mouse” tactics to confuse inspectors. Ankara’s position is understandable, but it is short sighted.

Even if Assad cheats, the agreement will raise the threshold for future Syrian chemical weapons use, which, in turn, will benefit Turkish security and aid in Ankara’s efforts to “tilt the balance of power on the ground.”

Differences in Perception

As Walter Slocombe wrote, “In terms of the danger of cheating, the standard for verification is not perfect information, but high confidence that any . . . violation would be detected in time for us to react before any militarily significant advantages could be gained.” (Emphasis added).

In a McNamaraesque understanding of deference theory, policymakers accepted that even if the Soviet Union were to have hidden some warheads in an undeclared bunker, the military advantage of a “few extra nukes” was negligible, when compared to a confidence building arrangement that placed reciprocal limits on strategic forces. Syria is no different. However, unlike during the Cold War, the United States’ military superiority guarantees that Washington can respond with overwhelming conventional force whenever it chooses.

Yet, if you accept that arms control is an extension of a state’s national security policy, then it stands to reason that the definition of “militarily significant advantage” will differ depending on a state’s vulnerability to attack. Thus, bordering states – like Israel, Jordan, and Turkey – are likely to have a far narrower definition than the United States. In turn, each state’s threshold for verification will differ.

In the case of Israel and Turkey, the interpretation of “militarily significant advantage” is likely to stem from their exposure to Syrian chemical weapons attack. Thus, for Israel, which possesses missile defenses, the interpretation of “militarily significant advantage” is likely to be higher than Turkey’s. However, both have superior military capabilities and therefore do not have to worry as much as Jordan about the threat posed by Syria’s conventional forces. Nevertheless, all three are in range of Syrian ballistic missiles and will therefore be far more concerned about Syrian cheating than the United States.

Despite these differences, all three bordering states have a lot to gain from the proposed arrangement, even if Assad cheats and retains a small number of chemical warheads and delivery vehicles. The Assad regime demonstrated on 21 August that it was prepared to use chemical weapons on a large scale to eradicate rebel forces from strategically important areas. As of now, the Syrian regime has not indicated that it is prepared to escalate the conflict to a level that would lead to American military involvement.

In fact, Syria’s move to disarm – whether forced via American military pressure or not – is indicative of the regime’s determination to prevent overt U.S. military involvement in the civil war. As a byproduct of the agreement, the threshold for American military action has dramatically decreased.

As I wrote in a piece for Arms Control Wonk, the Syrian regime’s very deliberate use of chemical weapons before 21 August suggests that the Syrian dictator was intent on skirting President Barack Obama’s stated “red line” against the use or movement of chemical weapons. The President indicated that there would be “enormous consequences” if the United States “start[ed] seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

Obama’s ambiguous policy suggests that the United States was primarily interested in deterring another Halabja-style attack and intent on preventing the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah. Moreover, in keeping with the president’s somewhat ambiguous declaratory policy, the United States signaled through inaction that, in the words of an unnamed intelligence official, “as long as they keep [the] body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything.”

This approach, while brutal, was consistent with the Obama administration’s unstated policy of minimizing its involvement in the Syrian conflict while coercing the regime to keep its use of chemical weapons to an absolute minimum.

After the conclusion of the U.S. – Russia agreement, the threshold for intervention has decreased from a “whole bunch” to “any use of chemical weapons.” While Russia would likely veto any resolution at the United Nations Security Council that sanctions the use of force, the legal rationale for the military action would be clearer should Assad violate his disarmament commitments. Thus, reluctant allies – like the United Kingdom – would have a far greater incentive to support an American strike than before.

And, more importantly, the American people, which have largely rejected the idea of military action in Syria, would likely be far more supportive of limited and punitive military strikes in the event of Syrian noncompliance. In turn, this necessitates that the United States “keep the military option on the table” and signal its intent to defend its allies, should Assad violate the terms of the agreement.

Assad therefore would risk tripping a far narrower red line, should he choose to use a secret stockpile of undeclared munitions against rebel forces. French intelligence indicates that the 21 August attack was a preface to an offensive “to loosen the [rebel’s] grip” and to secure a strategic site because “the regime feared a wider attack from the opposition on Damascus at that moment.” The relatively unrestrained use of chemical weapons appears to reflect an urgent need to protect the capital from rebel advances. If true, this claim suggests that the regime values Damascus more than other cities, is prepared to take extraordinary steps to ensure that the capital does not fall to the rebels, and, most importantly, that the regime’s grip on power is no longer as firm as previously reported.

In a future scenario, Assad will likely have to forego the use of chemical weapons, or else risk tripping the new and far narrower red line. While Israel has a perverse incentive to see Bashar hang on to power, Turkey is desperate for the situation to change on the ground. The U.S. – Russian agreement – regardless of whether the Syrian regime cheats on a small scale or not – could help Turkey implement its preferred policy.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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