Why do states use cluster bombs and nerve gas on their own people?

What is it that leads governments to massacre large numbers of their own citizens, and even resort to indiscriminate and inhumane weapons like cluster bombs and chemical weapons? A recent fact-finding mission  by Human Rights Watch indicates that the Syrian government has continued to use large-scale, indiscriminate violence in populated areas, including two documented instances of cluster munitions attacks on March 29th and April 3rd in the city of Aleppo. These attacks, according to HRW, “killed scores of civilians and destroyed dozens of civilian homes without damaging any apparent opposition military targets.” This evidence comes at the same time that multiple Western intelligence officials have confirmed with “varying degrees of confidence” that Syrian security forces have used sarin nerve gas against opposition forces, sparking a tense debate in the West about whether Assad has crossed the Obama Administration’s “red line”, and what kind of response that should precipitate (for interesting and opposing views from credible scholars see here, then here).

Now, Syria is not a party to either the Convention on Cluster Munitions (a comprehensive treaty banning their use) or the Chemical Weapons Convention (which prohibits the production or stockpiling of sarin), so in a narrow sense its actions are not technically a violation of treaty obligations. They are, however, a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and go against the widespread international norms against these weapons. As a result, any remaining legitimacy the Syrian government may have in the eyes of other countries (and its own citizens) is likely to be further eroded. The use of sarin in particular, which has been classified as a weapon of mass destruction by UN Resolution 687, could very well force Obama’s hand and precipitate stronger U.S. action against Assad’s regime, if not through direct military intervention then through increased support to the opposition. Indeed, it now appears likely that the U.S. will soon start supplying lethal weaponry to the Free Syrian Army.

All this begs the question – if the use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons on civilian targets invites condemnation, creates diplomatic isolation, and heightens the likelihood of foreign intervention – then why do states (or rebel groups for that matter) continue to use them? Abusing one’s own citizenry in this manner appears highly counter-productive, undercutting popular appeal domestically and making it harder to sustain legitimacy, allies, and sovereignty internationally. Both cluster bombs and chemical weapons like sarin were designed in the middle of the twentieth century to wage “conventional” wars, the kind with large and densely concentrated armies. Applied to internal conflicts with irregular combatants, urban environments, and lots of civilians in the line of fire, they are not only a humanitarian catastrophe – they are very poor strategy.

Despite this, governments and rebel groups engaged in violent conflict around the world continue to brutalize both armed opponents and un-armed civilians alike with these types of weapons (not to mention your run-of-the-mill torture, hostage-taking, and shootings). What explains this behaviour?

This problem relates to the larger puzzle about the causes of massacres and one-sided violence during armed conflict. Some analysts, for example, point to the tactical advantages of indiscriminate and heavy-handed methods during civil wars. By terrorizing and displacing civilian populations, governments or rebel groups can reduce the fighting efficiency of their opponents by shrinking their pool of potential recruits and financers, and coerce non-aligned groups into providing support to their side. This is the strategy known as “draining the sea,” a phrase originally used to describe British counterinsurgency tactics in the early 20th century, which often relied on heavy doses of indiscriminate violence against non-combatants.

Alternatively, the use of indiscriminate, one-sided violence designed to cause maximum humanitarian harm may be used as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from internal and external opponents, and to signal that fighting to the end will be costly. Essentially this is an exercise in extortion, a way of saying, “Look at all the horrible damage we can cause. If you want us to stop, you had better negotiate on our terms.” Hence, the Assad regime in Syria may believe that if it raises the stakes high enough, the resolve of the domestic opposition and their Western supporters will crumble and they will be forced to shelve their demands for democratic reform. As Thomas Schelling put it, “the power to hurt is bargaining power.”

However, it often seems that such heavy-handed tactics are just as likely to backfire. Indiscriminate regime violence can actually make it easier for rebel insurgencies to mobilize supporters, by creating stronger grievances and by destroying the belief that the government is capable of providing security. Indeed, security scholars argue that rebel groups will try to provoke repressive government counter-insurgency measures for exactly this reason. Moreover, it now appears more likely that Syria’s use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons (if confirmed) will crystallize international resolve to intervene – directly or indirectly – to overthrow the regime, rather than cave to Assad’s demands or allow him a golden parachute. It was much the same story in Libya in 2011; when faced with overwhelming popular dissent and demand for reform, Ghaddafi chose instead to up the ante of violence. It didn’t end well for him.

Part of the answer may lie in the peculiar configuration of political power in minority-dominated dictatorships, such as Syria under Assad’s family or Libya under Ghaddafi’s small cartel of loyalists, which produce such extreme behaviour. As Gary Gambill presciently noted nearly two years ago, Bashar al-Assad is a widely despised hard-liner without enough support beyond the Alawite community to retain power (or personal protection) under a transition to real democracy:

“A freely elected Syrian government would surely be dominated by Sunnis, responsive to their demands, and therefore strongly disposed to mete out harsh justice for the preceding decades of brutal tyranny. Assad could never rationally accept such a transition unless his regime was on the verge of collapse, by which time a peaceful transfer of power would be exceedingly unlikely.”

Simply put, the current Syrian regime may not care much if its brutality risks triggering external intervention, because what it really fears is losing absolute control of political power internally.  In this all-or-nothing environment, the search for some sort of negotiated ‘pact’ to end the violence is almost a non-starter – neither the regime nor the opposition will trust each other to uphold their end of the bargain. Like the Mad King from Game of Thrones – another threatened tyrant with shaky popular support – leaders such as Assad may prefer to “burn them all” (or gas them all) rather than offer even piecemeal concessions.

I have no idea whether greater Western intervention into Syria would make things better or worse (although my instinct goes against it). Either way, there is little sign that the atrocities and indiscriminate violence will abate any time soon, including the use of weapons which have no legitimate place in this or any other conflict.

Philip Andrew Martin is a NPSIA alumnus – class of 2012 – who currently works as a Mine Action Program Support Officer with Norwegian People’s Aid in Dushanbe, Tajikistan through the Young Professionals in Mine Action Program (YPIMAP) of Mines Action Canada.

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