Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Would the Syria Deal Be a Coercive Diplomacy Success?

by Micah Zenko
September 12, 2013

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad Syrian president Bashar al-Assad during an interview with French daily Le Figaro in Damascus on September 2, 2013 (SANA news agency/Courtesy Reuters).


In the past three days, the Syrian government made an unprecedented acknowledgment that it possesses a chemical weapons program, and that it will place them under the supervision of United Nations (UN) inspectors. As Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem stated on Monday: “We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations.” This remarkable shift occurred after President Obama declared on August 31 that he would conduct limited strikes against Syrian regime targets, after receiving congressional authorization. Subsequently, the Obama administration has repeatedly claimed that it was only the credible threat of force that compelled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reportedly agree to the initiative that had been discussed between American and Russian diplomats for months.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed:

But for the threat of the use of force, they have never even admitted they have [sic].  Now, they’re not only admitting they have them, but they say they’re prepared to try to live up to some international standards. That is only happening because we have shown them that we are prepared to do what is necessary to hold them accountable.

Yesterday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney was more definitive:

It was the credible threat of U.S. military action that led to the opening of this diplomatic avenue. There is no other explanation behind this rather remarkable change of position by the Syrians and no other explanation behind the decision of the Russians to seek a diplomatic resolution to the problem of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile…I think there’s no question based on what the Russians have said, and the Syrians said, and what we know that the credible threat of U.S. military action precipitated this. And I’m not sure what other source you ascribe it to or it could possibly be.  I don’t think there any doubt that this credible threat of force has produced this change in dynamic.

Also yesterday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was repeatedly questioned by Matt Lee of the Associated Press:

QUESTION: — The crux of this whole argument – both the White House and you have made this – that it was the credible threat of U.S. force that created this diplomatic opportunity…How do you know that? Is that just your assumption, or have the Russians and the Syrians somehow communicated to you that this is in fact the case? And the reason I ask this is because it is rare…for someone from any podium, this one or the White House or – to ascribe motivation to foreign governments. The answer is always, “Well, I can’t read their minds. I have no idea what they’re doing – they’re doing what they’re doing.” How do you know that force, the threat of force, was the main factor here, or the only factor?

MS. PSAKI: What I can say is that there’s no question that the interest and willingness to engage on this particular issue that the Secretary had spoken about Foreign – with Foreign Minister Lavrov about on several occasions in the past increased as the threat of force, as discussion of that, as the decision by the President was made public and became more likely.

QUESTION: Okay. But it’s an assumption. It’s not like Lavrov said, “Ooh, the threat of force is what got us to – got me to move.”

MS. PSAKI: Well, those two lines are certainly factual, so I would of course allow you to make your own decision.

It is too early to know if a negotiated deal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control will succeed, and there will not be a clear answer for some time given the need to pass a UN Security Council resolution, as well as ensuring operational and technical hurdles. However, for foreign policy watchers and international relations scholars, it matters whether Syria can be considered a successful case of coercive diplomacy. If the lesson that one concludes from the past week is that threatening force works, then presumably officials and policymakers in Washington will call upon this strategy in the future, perhaps with Iran over its nuclear program. The question that Matt Lee asked— “How do you know that?”—is one that scholars have difficulty answering with any certainty.  How do you prove causation in coercive diplomacy, especially when the coercer wants to claim credit to demonstrate resolve to future target states, and the coercee wants to deny it was compelled to do something that it would not have otherwise done?

Claiming with total certainty—as the Obama administration has done—that it was only the threat of force that led Assad to change his position is dangerous since any judgment is subjective and would be made with incomplete information. Moreover, it diminishes any role that positive inducements could have played in conjunction with the military threats. Russia could have warned Syria that it had to acknowledge its chemical weapons program and place it under international inspection, or Russia would withdraw its essential economic and military support. Alternatively, Russian officials could have told Assad that if he complied with this demand Russia would increase its support, thus helping to assure that he remained in power.

Furthermore, Assad could have believed that the reported three-day cruise missile barrages would have been vastly more expansive and lethal than was assumed in Washington policy circles, and would have been just the first steps of a military campaign to ensure regime change. When a greater-than-threatened use of force is used to achieve the desired political objective, coercive diplomacy has not worked. As international relations scholar Robert Art wrote: “Wherever one draws the line between limited and full-scale use, if the coercer has to cross that line to achieve its objectives, then, by definition, coercive diplomacy has failed.”

As two major studies of how the U.S. threatens force demonstrated, coercive diplomacy only works roughly 30 percent of the time. They also show that coercion (making an adversary change their behavior) is much more difficult to achieve—especially over extended periods of time—than deterrence (attempting to maintain the status quo by discouraging an adversary from initiating a specific action). Finally, Art also provided an important caveat that policymakers should bear in mind if they think coercive diplomacy should be applied to future adversaries, say Iran:

Next to outright war, however, coercive diplomacy represents the most dangerous way to use a state’s military power because, if coercive diplomacy fails, the state that tried it then faces two stark choices: back down or wage war. The first risks loss of face and future bargaining power; the second, loss of life and military defeat.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for the angle on diplomacy,

    I would generally argue against coercive diplomacy in any form. In the case of Syria it’s application violates what are, imo, some cardinal rules:

    1.) The full geopolitical character of the situation must be studied well before acting (or speaking) and it is clear that no strategic issues will be likely to arise if war becomes the only option. But both Syria and Iran are in fact not isolated. Their ties to both RF and PRC make them hard cases.

    2.) The comment regarding a “red line” was made too far in the past. In order to be effective, time is of the essence because of the kind of propaganda games that at least one President played in the NYT recently. Having said that, wherever possible, and imo, the facts in support of USG’s position should be enunciated where possible.

    3.) Thus, leadership and credibility, both here and abroad, are paramount because you have very little time to convince the other party of the binary situation into which they’ve fallen. USG, imo, must state fact and consequence fully and clearly and then act quickly. But most importantly, and even if USG must actively look for these conditions, you must walk through these steps periodically in low conflict scenarios so the world has a predictability barometer to apply.

    The greatest power exercised is the power foregone, but it is also true that the opportunity to exercise “the greatest power” is rare. If there is some compelling reason for coercive diplomacy, I think it should be done as above and only when the alternative is clearly and convincingly worse than the act.

    – kk

  • Posted by Luciano Clemente Cavalcante da Silva

    A real Muslim, for Islamists, is the one who practices Islam to the letter.

  • Posted by Lennon Stravato

    The question seems premature, given that the sincerity of Assad’s recent actions in this regard, is uncertain.

  • Posted by Lennon Stravato

    The question seems premature, given that the sincerity of Assad’s recent actions in this regard, remains uncertain.

  • Posted by elias

    The chemical attack was planned al along by Assad and putin to draw in international attention and intervention. Assad can now bargain with his chemical weapons stock, giving them up piece by piece for international favors from the west and the UN. He can now call for a truce in Geneva and invite UN observers into syria, strenghtened by putin and china!
    The West and saudi-arabia and qatar will force the opposition to agree by closing the weapons delivery channels and Assad will get his alawite state, free of any destruction, handed to him on a platter and weapons from putin to defend it.
    The rebels will get the destroyed part of syria and will have to beg for recovery funds which they will only get if they let the childkiller Assad and his alawite shabiha go free!

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