Deterrence Isn't Enough to Keep Syria from Using Chemical Weapons

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A policy based primarily on counterproliferation is challenged by its limited use of diplomacy.

In the lead-up to his meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, Tillerson pointed fingers at Russia for failing in its responsibility to uphold numerous UN Security Council resolutions on Syria’s chemical-weapons program. He stated that it was “unclear whether Russia failed to take its obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent.” Meanwhile, Russia is digging in with its support for Assad, claiming opponents and rebels were responsible for “false flag” chemical-weapon attacks as a means to draw in the United States into the Syrian conflict. Putin recently stated that Russia has information that more of these attacks are planned to blame the Assad regime as a pretext for further military action.

As the first bilateral meetings between American and Russian ministers of foreign affairs proceeded against the Syrian backdrop, the Trump administration became more consistent in its messaging that it is willing to use force to counter the proliferation and use of chemical weapons. The decision to pull the USS Carl Vinson from planned naval military exercises in Australia and send it towards the Korean Peninsula suggested that the administration’s messaging may include using force to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Using counterproliferation to guide foreign policy is a familiar one. As noted by Aaron Blake, the Trump Doctrine is sounding suspiciously like the Bush Doctrine.

A policy based primarily on counterproliferation is challenged by its limited use of diplomacy. There may be a consensus that counterproliferation is a tool to provide teeth to nonproliferation, but without a true desire for diplomatic solutions, both sides will fail to uphold the UN resolutions negotiated and passed to hold those accountable.

Cindy Vestergaard is a Senior Associate with the Nuclear Safeguards program at the Stimson Center.

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