The Syrian Crisis: Deterrence or Coercive Diplomacy?

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 1649

The Obama administration has generally been reluctant to involve itself in the brutal Syrian civil war, at least overtly. However, following allegations that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad employed chemical weapons in Ghouta, killing anywhere between 300 and 1700 people, President Obama has come under pressure to act on his red line. Limited surgical strikes by the United States, which are being characterised as acts of deterrence, are very likely. However, as this paper will argue, the upcoming airstrikes, by definition, would be acts of coercive diplomacy.

  1. Deterring Assad

Last August, President Obama warned President Assad of ‘enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons’.[1] Following the Ghouta attack last week, Western intelligence agencies were convinced that Assad had crossed this red line. President Obama, under pressure to uphold international norms regarding the non-use of chemical weapons, recently briefed the world’s press that the United States would take military action against Assad, congressional vote pending.

The proposed military action would likely involve limited surgical airstrikes or tomahawk missiles launched from sea. The military option would be described as an act of deterrence necessary to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons. As Obama made clear, ‘I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out’.[2] Indeed, deterring the use of chemical weapons in Syria (and beyond) is the principal justification discussed in the draft legislation authorising the use of force.[3]

  1. Deterrence and Coercive Diplomacy

The problem with characterising limited airstrikes as an act of deterrence, however, is that this action is inconsistent with the literature on deterrence theory. Schelling’s classical work on deterrence theory juxtaposes acts of deterrence−those which prevent an adversary from taking action not yet begun−with acts of compellence−those designed to compel an opponent to cease what is already being done.[4]

If the Syrian military has already deployed chemical weapons, then deterrence has failed. The Western powers have repeatedly warned Assad that he would face serious consequences should he use chemical weapons against his own population. However, Assad, if the intelligence is correct, has proven to be undeterred by these warnings. In this respect, the proposed surgical strikes cannot be characterised as acts of deterrence.

They must instead be defined as acts of compellence or what George defines as coercive diplomacy. Like Schelling, George distinguishes between deterrence–‘a strategy that employs threats to dissuade an adversary from undertaking a damaging action in the future’−and coercion–‘a response to an encroachment already undertaken’. Coercive diplomacy, unlike deterrence, can also rely on the threat and, indeed, the use of limited forms of aggression. As George notes, ‘If force is used in coercive diplomacy, it consists of an “exemplary” use of quite limited force to persuade the opponent to back down’. That is, using ‘just enough force of an appropriate kind to demonstrate resolution to protect one’s interests and to establish the credibility of one’s determination to use more force if necessary’.[5]

  1. The Problem with Coercive Diplomacy

The issue of definition is not just academic. If, as argued, the proposed airstrikes in Syria were coercive, then the potential problems with coercive diplomacy must be considered. Jakobsen shows that of the twenty-one cases of coercive diplomacy in the post-Cold War era, only six have been successful. The low success rate rests in coercive diplomacy’s competing aims: the need to sufficiently alarm the target so that it changes its behaviour whilst also reassuring it that any aggression would be proportionate.[6]

Art concludes that to ensure a successful coercive diplomatic effort, three conditions have to be met: the behaviour when the target is offered positive inducements to change; when the coercer’s demands can realistically be met by the target; and when the coercive act is principally one of denial rather than punishment.[7]

In the case of Syria these conditions are not applicable. The establishment of a true multilateral denial policy has been hampered because of Russian and Chinese vetoes.[8] Furthermore, there is little positive inducement being offered to Assad to comply, chiefly because the Obama administration’s preferred end result is one without Assad. Although the administration was rather slow to react to the violence in Syria, its stated policy since August 2011 has been that, ‘For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside’. Although recognising that the ‘United States cannot and will not impose [a democratic transition] upon Syria’, the administration has stated that it ‘will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition’.[9]

However, it is not just the potential failure of coercive diplomacy which is problematic; the shift from containment and deterrence towards coercive diplomacy can decrease future strategic manoeuvrability. Assad, for instance, may calculate that there is little international support for America’s airstrikes. Accordingly he may opt to temporarily absorb the blow before proceeding to crush the rebellion, perhaps even with the future use of chemical weapons. In this scenario, the Obama administration–or a future executive–may have to decide whether to repeat and intensify military operations or to undertake a retreat. Wider and more important interests in the region, namely those of deterring Iranian enrichment and ensuring forward movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, would likely be badly affected by either result.

Accordingly, Art warns that the ‘United States should not start down the road of coercive diplomacy unless it is willing to resort to war, or unless it has devised a political strategy that will enable it to back down without too much loss of face, should coercive diplomacy fail’.[10] However, there is little to suggest that the Obama administration has considered this. On the one hand, the administration has already ruled out anything beyond a punitive airstrike.[11] On the other, despite the administration’s insistence that a diplomatic solution is required, in recently cancelling a proposed meeting with Russia representatives, which was chiefly concerned with moving forward on the Geneva protocols, the Obama administration is signalling that it is moving away from diplomacy.[12]

  1. Conclusion

At the time of writing, the United States had not yet launched airstrikes in Syria; however they are very a likely prospect. If they do go ahead, they will be characterised as acts of deterrence. This, however, is inconsistent with the academic literature, according to which they would be defined as acts of coercive diplomacy, and coercive diplomacy can often lead to further strategic problems. Ghosts from the Iraq War have haunted the political debate on Syria, but the analogy is misleading. A more telling analogy would be Desert Fox–the 1998 limited military action in Iraq which sought to ensure Saddam’s compliance with UN resolutions. Saddam, however, didn’t feel like complying, and the US became boxed into an undeclared but limited war which ultimately set the path for the 2003 invasion.[13] Obama’s limited surgical airstrikes could very well end the same way.

[1] Obama, B. (2012) ‘The President’s News Conference’ 20 August in G. Peters and J.T. Wooley (eds.) The American Presidency Project. Online: (last accessed 4 September 2013).

[2] Al Jazeera (2013) ‘Obama Delays Military Action against Syria’, Al Jazeera, 1 September. Online: (last accessed 4 September 2013).

[3] CNN (2013) ‘Text of Draft Legislation Submitted by Obama to Congress’, CNN, 1 September. Online: (last accessed 4 September 2013).

[4] Schelling, T. (1966) Arms and Influence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[5] George, A. (1991) Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, p. 5.

[6] Jakobsen, P.V. (2007) ‘Coercive Diplomacy’ in A. Collins (ed.) Contemporary Security Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 225–48, at p. 235–44.

[7] Art, R.J. (2003) ‘Coercive Diplomacy: What Do We Know?’ in R.J. Art and P.M. Cronin (eds.) The United States and Coercive Diplomacy. Washington, DC: The United States Institute of Peace, pp. 359–420, at p. 387–91.

[8] Gladstone, R. (2012) ‘Friction at the U.N. as Russia and China Veto another Resolution on Syria Sanctions’, New York Times, 19 July.

[9] Obama, B. (2011) ‘Statement on the Situation in Syria’, August 18, in G. Peters and J.T. Wooley (eds.) The American Presidency Project. Online: (last accessed 4 September 2013).

[10] Art, Coercive Diplomacy, p. 408

[11] Federal News Service (2013) ‘The White House Regular Briefing’, 27 August, Federal News Service.

[12]B. Malkin and B. Waterfield (2013) ‘Divisions Deepen as US Postpones Meeting with Russia on Syria Crisis’, Daily Telegraph, 2 September.

[13] See, for instance, Campbell, M. (1999) ‘Could Someone Explain why we are Bombing Iraq’, Independent, March 16 1999. The limited war continued up until the 2001 terrorist attacks. See, for instance, Bush, G. (2010) Decision Points. New York: Random House, p. 228.

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