The Syrian Arab Republic (Syria) had had a chemical weapons program since the 1970s: With an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical gases, Syria is said to have the third largest inventory of chemical weapons in the world (CRS, 2013, 5), which it used frequently in the first Years of his civil war (ibid., 12). On September 14, 2013, however, Syria acceded to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Storage and Use of Chemical Weapons and their Destruction (CWC), although it had repeatedly shown a lack of concern about international weapons treaties until then. So what has changed? The chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian government on August 21, 2013 against its own citizens, which was faced with threats of military action, is widely accepted as a turning point. Norm theorists would argue that the unprecedented backlash from foreign governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations (IOs) to this attack explains Syria’s accession to the CWC. However, can the imminent US military threat be ignored as a factor in Syria’s accession? Realists argue that engagement for the CWC was based on the immediate state interest and protected Syria from an impending US military strike, as the survival of the state was a state’s top priority. This disagreement touches the roots of a broader IR debate between realists and institutionalists regarding compliance and coercion.
After a brief historical introduction, ranging from the establishment of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Program to its accession to the CWC in 2013, this paper will contribute to this debate by outlining both the norm-based and the realistic approach, and on this case applies. After examining and comparing the evidence, this paper ultimately argues that a neoclassical-realistic approach can best explain the case of Syria.
Despite abundant evidence of the existence of Syria’s longstanding chemical weapons program, its existence has been continuously denied by the Syrian government. Syria defied longstanding demands to abandon its chemical weapons stocks and did not commit to the disposal of its chemical weapons until 2013. The most notable warning of the use of chemical weapons came in 2012 with Obama’s famous “red line” speech, which he committed to military action in the use of chemical weapons (CNN, 2012). Nevertheless, on August 21, 2013, the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapon attack on the Ghouta district, in which 1,400 civilians were killed (HRW, 2013). This attack was condemned by actors such as foreign governments, transnational actors and the Syrian people in general and was a violation of the “red line” imposed by Obama a year earlier. Responses to the attack included Obama seeking Congressional approval of the invasion of Syria and the drafting of the Bill “Authorizing the Use of Military Force Against the Syrian Government to Respond to the Use of Chemical Weapons” (Congress, 2013), Human Rights Watch (HRW) publishes a denunciation report and the United Nations (UN) passes a resolution calling for an investigation into the attack.
Syria was thus both in danger of being attacked by the US and exposed to growing normative pressure from the international community. However, an American invasion never took place: Syria and the Russian Federation (Russia) jointly proposed that Syria’s inventories be placed under international control to prevent further military escalation. Syria officially joined the CWC on September 14, 2013, while the US and Russia signed the “Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” and agreed to eliminate all Syrian chemical weapons stocks. Finally, on October 16, 2013, the joint OPCW and UN mission was formally established to oversee the abolition of the Syrian chemical weapons program.
According to the theory of norm cascades proposed by Finnemore and Sikkink, international norms are critical to understanding the motives behind contractual engagement. In their 1998 essay “Normdynamik und Politischer Wandel” (Normdynamics and Political Change), Finnemore and Sikkink suggest that norms are defined by a “life cycle” (892) and can be understood as a three-stage process consisting of norm creation, norm cascade and norm cascade Internalization: critical mass ”of states adopts a norm, a norm cascade arises which causes other states to emulate this behavior and also to adopt this norm. In this phase, states may be motivated to issue norms due to concerns about legitimacy, esteem, and reputation (898). Towards the end of a cascade, a norm becomes the “standard of appropriate behavior” (891), and norm-violating behavior “creates disapproval or stigmatization” (892). Therefore, not every state has to be convinced of a norm in order to adopt it: the legitimacy that an established norm brings with it is an incentive for states to commit to it. This is supported by Simmons, who argues that governments are primarily concerned about their reputation and join international commitments for signaling purposes and publicly demonstrate their will to uphold the standards of the international community (Simmons, 2000, 821). Signaling concerns are of particular importance for states that suffer from credibility problems in order to identify themselves as “true reformers” (ibid., 821) and to receive valuable support from the international community. In this framework, the UN acts as a political legitimator, since resolutions of the Security Council and membership of the UN influence a country’s reputation (Claude, in Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, 889). This theory shows the international power of norms and the facilitating role of international organizations in influencing states to join intergovernmental obligations.
Cascades of norms can be responsible for Syria’s accession to the CWC, as 98% of all states signed and ratified the agreement (OPCW) in 2013, the “critical mass” of support had long been met and the norm was already in the end of the second phase of its life cycle: the norm cascade. With international pressure following the Ghouta attack, Syria faced an unprecedented threat to legitimacy as one of the few countries that had not yet signed the CWC. Norm theorists would point to the previously discussed backlash against this decision as evidence of the international pressure Syria eventually succumbed to. Evidence should show that Syria was indeed concerned with legitimacy / reputation issues and that the Ghouta attack resulted in unprecedented increased international pressure. It should also show that they have indeed succumbed to this international pressure.
Syria’s decision to commit to the Chemical Weapons Convention could also be explained by its urge to ensure the state’s survival at all costs. This explanation is based on a realistic analysis rather than a normative approach. Realists put the survival of the state and national security at the center of foreign policy concerns, arguing that states exist in an anarchic, self-help-based system – in which each state primarily ensures its own survival. Krasner argues that states therefore operate from a basic perspective of “selfish self-interest” (1982, 195) and only work together if this benefits their rational, self-serving foreign policy goals. He claims that the motivating factor for states in joining international commitments is an attempt to increase their participatory advantage, rather than a desire to join a normative international standard. However, a neorealist understanding alone does not explain Syria’s decision to join the CWC so late in order to gain a realistic understanding of Syrian politics Change, A thorough understanding of both external pressures and internal receptivity is required. Since neorealist considerations do not have a fuller understanding of the transfer of power to politics, this essay will be based on the principles of neoclassical realism.
Taking into account the most important aspects of neorealism, neoclassical realism argues that power and self-interest determine the basic parameters of a country’s foreign policy, but that there is no direct transfer from threat to action. As such, they take into account two intervening variables at the unit level: first, the perception of a threat by policymakers, and second, the domestic state structure (Rose, 1998, 152). Under the neoclassical-realistic explanatory framework, Syria acceded to the convention as a self-help measure and protected itself from the danger of a US air strike, which the political decision-makers took seriously. Supporting evidence should show that a possible US air strike poses an objectively grave military threat to Syria and that the Syrian government takes this threat seriously because of the unit-level intervention variables. It should also be shown that the timing of Assad’s decision to commit to the Convention can be definitively tied to impending military action and statements by US officials that the attack would not take place if Syria gave up chemical weapons.
In order for norm theory to be convincing, it must be shown that Syria is indeed concerned with its international reputation and that this reputation was damaged by the Ghouta attack, which led to the adoption of the chemical weapons elimination norm. Whether Syria is concerned with international legitimacy can best be analyzed by looking at its previous concerns / lack of concern about international legitimacy: Syria had previously shown concerns about its reputation, as shown by previous attempts to save faces after chemical weapons attacks: Im March 2013 The Syrian government requested that the UN Secretary-General conduct an investigation to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons, claiming that it was not the government that carried out the attack (Makdisi & Hindawi, 2017, 1696). This attempt to generate legitimacy was reflected, according to Ghouta: Described by the New York Times as an “obvious boost to transparency” (2013), Syria admitted to having open chemical weapons for the first time, and suddenly seemed unreservedly with the OPCW and to cooperate with the United Nations.
Despite these signs of Syrian legitimacy concerns, the question arises whether the reputation of the Syrian regime was actually more threatened by the chemical weapons attack than before. The criticism of the Syrian government by human rights organizations, Western states and the United Nations after the attack shows that there is this newly heightened concern and thus an incentive for the Syrian government to act. This led to an “unprecedented” fact-finding tour (Naqvi, 2017, 961), one of many signals for the international community’s unprecedented condemnation of Syria’s violation of Syrian norms and the immense pressure the state was exposed to as a result. The fact that Syria, a country with credibility problems, has joined the CWC as a “signal” of legitimacy is also supported by its particularly strong desire to demonstrate its accession to this international norm: In the letter in which Syria announced its accession, Assad rejected then Syria would skip the established 30-day leniency period and immediately follow the CWC agreement (Armscontrol, 2020). This shows Assad’s strong desire to send a signal that Syria is determined to curb its development, production, storage and use of chemical weapons, a way that mirrors Simmons’ prediction of how states with credibility problems will behave.
However, not all evidence suggests that a normative framework can explain the Syrian change of heart. While the Syrian government seems to be driven by a desire for international recognition, Syria has also been considered illegitimate and under international pressure for some time. The Syrian government, referred to as the “Pariah State” by the major Western media (e.g. Open Democracy, 2008), is subject to a strongly negative Western dialogue and a series of sanctions, particularly those of the US, which show that the legitimacy pressures are being imposed the US also plagued The Syrian state prior to the Ghouta attack. Immediately after the attack, Syria’s most important ally, Russia, supported Syria. Putin said he was convinced the attack was “nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict” (Ray, 2013). Despite increasing pressure on the Syrian regime, the structure The pressure on normative legitimacy did not change: the countries that condemned the violation of Syria had been exerting normative pressure for some time, and Syria could still rely on its allies to counter this condemnation.
If the neoclassical-realistic approach was correct, it must be shown that Syria was threatened by a military attack by the United States and that it took that threat seriously. According to Rose’s “intervening variables”, not only is it relevant that the US is threatened with attack, but also that the US has significantly greater relative power than Syria, which makes the perception of the US entering the war disastrous and that Assad sees the US as such ready to intervene: Syria’s unique location as a battlefield for larger states with hegemony placed it at the center of the balance of power between states that are concerned with maintaining these hegemony in the Middle East. With the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia each supporting factions in the war in order to achieve their own geopolitical goals, Assad’s leadership became structurally dependent on the support of key allies. American military capabilities in the Middle East, coupled with the region’s strategic importance to its geopolitical interests – in part due to the country’s important alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, in part due to growing Russian activity in the region – set America a precedent and plausible reason to enforce his threats when the “red line” is violated. Knowing that the US power-maximizing approach to Middle Eastern foreign policy meant that he could not risk damaging its credibility and power in the region by disregarding threats, Assad was forced to repay America’s threats of invasion to take seriously. According to a neoclassical-realistic framework, Syria would have joined the CWC both because of the objective threat from the USA and because of its own perception of the legitimacy of the threat.
While the normative approach offers great value in clearly demonstrating that Syria’s post-Ghouta actions were in part performative and send signals, it ultimately cannot fully account for Syria’s unique position. International legitimacy plays a role in informing about a state’s decision to join widely accepted treaties and legal obligations. However, because Syria has strong allies, it has shown (apart from a few isolated cases) that it does not need Western legitimacy to function successfully. Syria’s case is defined by the intervening variables that only neoclassical realism takes into account: Without the immense military power of the US, the geopolitical situation of Syria as well as the historical readiness of the US to intervene in the Middle East, al-Bashar Assad would not have considered the military threats perceived such He did so and ultimately led to the survival-driven decision of the state to commit to the CWC. The neoclassical approach is therefore the most appropriate framework to explain why Syria joined the CWC.
In conclusion, it can be reiterated that the neoclassical-realistic framework is the superior framework to explain why Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention after the Ghouta attack on chemical weapons in 2013. How does this contribute to the wider debate between realists and norms theorists? Although institutionalists indirectly address a key aspect of executive perception – namely the importance of international credibility – their approach to the issue is of Why States that join international institutions are flawed and do not provide the same explanatory value as neoclassical realism. The case in Syria shows that norm cascades alone do not guarantee the acceptance of international framework conditions. Rather, norm cascades can be aligned with the strategic priorities highlighted by neoclassical realists – the adoption of a norm that is “cascaded” is, in many cases, an integral part of a state’s strategic attempts to maintain international security by confronting it avoids more powerful states that could promote the cascading of this norm. Neoclassical realists’ emphasis on the importance of hegemony for the advancement of norm cascades – a perspective confirmed by the importance of US threats to Syria’s accession to the CWC – ultimately provides a stronger explanation for norm diffusion. Ultimately, this paper shows that realism today has to consider more factors than just balancing. In view of the undisputed hegemony of the US, balancing is ultimately pointless for weaker states – measures like those of Syria could therefore fall within strategic realism even if they do not employ traditional initiatives to balance power. Realistic approaches can only stand the test of time if they allow an analysis of how states seek security using institutions rather than a crude balance of power.
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Written To: London School of Economics
Written for: Anna Getmansky
Date written: 05/2020
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