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Threat of Failure

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
October 3, 2013


In less than one month -- the blink of an eye in international diplomacy -- Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has apparently agreed to verifiably disarm his country of some 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons. This strategic capability was developed and improved upon over more than four decades and has been employed perhaps two-dozen times against the armed opposition and civilians during the current civil war. The remarkable and rapid transformation of the Assad regime's stance -- from refusing to acknowledge that it had chemical weapons, to allowing international inspectors to secure and remove them -- occurred after President Barack Obama's Aug. 31 pledge to "take military action against Syrian regime targets." Consequently, it has become a near unanimous matter of faith among U.S. officials and foreign-policy watchers that Assad gave up his chemical weapons arsenal only because of the credible threat of military force.

This is misleading, primarily because it is unknown what role contemporaneous negative and positive inducements from Russia or Iran might have played on Assad's decision-making. It also fails to consider that Assad may have cannily concluded that, given the overwhelming international opposition to his use of poison gases, disarming himself of one military capability (of limited battlefield utility) made his survival as the leader of Syria more likely, if not assured.

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