Coercing Syria on Chemical Weapons: Deterrence, Compellence, and the Limits of the “Resolve Plus Bombs” Formula



Jeffrey Knopf, Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS)

Date and Time

June 6, 2019 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


William J. Perry Conference Room
Encina Hall, Second Floor, Central, C231
616 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: In efforts to halt the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons (CW) in that country’s civil war the United States and other outside powers applied coercive strategies, in both a deterrent and compellent mode. Outcomes varied: compellence achieved a partial success in getting Syria to give up much of its chemical stockpile, but there were multiple deterrence failures. This paper examines this record to draw lessons about factors associated with the effectiveness of coercion. Its analysis points to the interplay of three factors: credibility, motivation, and assurance. Regarding credibility, the case demonstrates that threats fulfilling many of the traditional criteria for establishing credibility can still fail. In Syria, this is partly because there were ambiguities in the scope of what was covered by deterrent warnings and partly because other factors also affect coercive outcomes. In the Syria case two additional factors were especially important. First, the domestic political motivations of the target affect whether external threats provide coercive leverage. In this case Syrian President Assad’s concern with regime survival led him to perceive the value of CW use as outweighing the likely costs even if outside powers followed through on retaliatory threats. Second, where regime survival is a concern, it is vital to pair coercive threats with appropriate assurances. Here, the case suggests that it is possible not only to provide too little assurance, but also too much. Whereas the Obama administration found it hard to offer credible assurances to Assad, the Trump administration initially conveyed assurances that were too robust, creating a sense that Syria could use CW with impunity. This analysis suggests there may have been a potentially viable path to effective coercion of the Assad regime, but the path would have involved intense tradeoffs that largely prevented decision makers from embracing it. Decision makers and outside commentators alike turned instead to a familiar schema that implies credibility is established by demonstrating a willingness to impose costs using airpower – a script that can be labeled the “resolve plus bombs” formula. Despite the frequent tendency to equate coercion with the threat or limited use of air strikes, this approach was not sufficient to change Syria’s calculations regarding chemical arms.


Speaker's Biography: Jeff Knopf is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in Monterey, California, where he serves as chair of the M.A. program in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies and a senior research associate with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). He is on sabbatical for the 2018-19 academic year and is spending the year as a visiting scholar at CISAC. This is his second stint at CISAC. Dr. Knopf received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford and was previously a pre-doctoral fellow at CISAC in the days when it was still located in the old Galvez House. His most recently completed project is a forthcoming book volume he co-edited on Behavioral Economics and Nuclear Weapons. While at CISAC, Dr. Knopf will primarily be working on a project titled “Coercing Syria on Chemical Weapons.” This project examines efforts by the United States and other countries to apply deterrent and compellent strategies in attempts to stop the Syrian government from using chemical weapons and to dismantle its chemical arsenal. Dr. Knopf will also be working on a paper that explores cognitive aspects of the nuclear taboo.