Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

Syria and the Syntax of Deterrence

Much has been said and written about Barack Obama’s decision to suspend his threat of a military attack on Syria—an attack intended as punishment for Syria’s apparent use of nerve gas against its own civilians. Critics of Obama’s “climb-down” include, among others, U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who issued a statement including the following assessment: “What concerns us most is that our friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this agreement – they see it as an act of provocative weakness on America's part. We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon.” (

As a general rule, military “punishment” attacks of the sort threatened by President Obama are not intended primarily as acts of abstract justice, particularly as those who are presumed to have made the decision being “punished” are rarely, if ever, the ones who suffer severe consequences from the “punishment”. Instead, such attacks are designed primarily to influence the future behavior of their targets and other potential miscreants—in short, to create and reinforce deterrence. Thus such an attack on Syria would indeed be seen as a “signal” to Iran regarding its nuclear program; but is refraining from the threatened attack really “an act of provocative weakness”?

Deterrence is created when threats are issued, either implicitly or explicitly, that a punishment will ensue if undesirable (to the issuer of the threat) behavior occurs. The most desirable situation is when such undesirable behavior never occurs; this represents maximal success for deterrence, and in such a situation the threats need never be carried out since there is no bad behavior to punish. In essence, deterrence represents the substitution of an exchange of information in place of an exchange of blows:

Enforcer: “If you do X, you will receive punishment Y.”

Recipient: “I understand and will modify my behavior accordingly.”

Of course, these statements are often implicit rather than explicit; and the “I hear and obey” reply is important primarily when the “misbehavior” in question presents such a serious threat to the Enforcer that s/he would be tempted to punish preemptively were there a serious question about the effectiveness of the deterrence created. (The classic example is nuclear deterrence, where each side presents a very serious threat to the other. For “mutually assured destruction” to work as a stabilizing deterrent, it is necessary that each side believe both that the other side will punish it for a nuclear attack, and that the other side understands the threat and is actually deterred by it such that preemption is unnecessary.

Accordingly, it is important to understand that the entire constellation of events surrounding threats of punishment made to influence behavior—the threats themselves, responses to threats, and actual punishments enacted—should be understood as a conversation: a conversation of deterrence. Like any other conversation, a conversation of deterrence is successful if it clearly and effectively conveys the desired messages to all concerned.

The primary message that must be conveyed by a conversation of deterrence is one of conditional punishment. It is very easy—particularly when we feel moral outrage, justified or not—to focus on punishment and forget the significance of conditionality; but this is a mistake if we are actually trying to make the world a safer place and not just cater to our own righteous indignation. Deterrence implies that the party at the receiving end has some say in whether the threat is carried out; if the punishment will be carried out regardless of behavior, there is no reason to modify behavior to avoid punishment. Therefore, deterrence is created only when threats of punishment are understood to be both realistic and contingent.

This, in turn, implies that deterrence can be created not only by violence carried out, but also by violence avoided; a threat that cannot be averted is no more useful as a tool to influence behavior than an empty threat. Particularly among mutually-hostile individuals or states, acts of restraint can be quite eloquent in this regard: rather than conveying “provocative weakness”, a decision to avoid or defer punishment can convey a message of good faith and thus strengthen the effectiveness of current and future threats of punishment.

In the case of Syria, the potential results of President Obama’s decision to defer a limited military attack pending the results (and implementation) of diplomatic discussions intended to rid Syria of chemical weapons are far more valuable to the United States and Syria’s neighbors than the likely results of the threatened attack would have been. Admittedly, the Syrian leadership will have gotten away with murder—but that would almost certainly have been the case had the U.S. carried out its threat, which had nothing to do with capturing Syrian leaders and putting them on trial. Getting Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and ensuring that the Syrian government actually conforms to its terms would be no small accomplishment: not only would the Syrian threat to its neighbors and its own citizens be reduced, but other nations would receive the message that signing and adhering to such agreements is a viable strategy to avoid punishments and preemptive attacks by nervous neighbors.

Of course, the devil is always in the details: for Obama’s decision to be considered successful, Syria’s repudiation of chemical-weapons possession and use must be a verified and enforced reality, not merely a signature on a piece of paper. But if this diplomatic process is successfully concluded and enforced, Obama’s act of so-called “provocative weakness” could in fact significantly strengthen international deterrence against the possession and use of unconventional weapons.