The Road to Hell: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and US Foreign Policy

The Road to Hell: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and US Foreign Policy

23 March 2017 |University of Bath


Speaker: Dr Michelle Bentley, University of London

In 2013, President Barack Obama (together with Russia) made diplomatic history by overseeing Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad’s, accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This agreement would halt Assad’s horrific use of chemical arms and destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles – all without the need for military intervention. The move was hailed as a major success, with a Nobel Peace Prize for the inspectors responsible for eliminating the controversial arsenals. Despite this optimism, however, the outcome has been far from a success. In particular, Assad is still using chemical weapons, with no sanction from the US. Yet, this paper takes this situation further to argue that the US focus on chemical weapons actually intensified and expanded the civil war. This is not merely the case that Assad has ‘cheated,’ but that US policy on chemical warfare exacerbated the wider conflict. It has: inadvertently increased Assad’s legitimacy, both domestically and internationally; prolonged the conflict by giving a false perception of US foreign policy success in the region; undermined rebel forces on the ground in favour of the government army; limited diplomatic options in resolving the conflict; and opened up opportunities for the rise of Islamic State, who are also now using chemical weapons against US forces in the region. Far from helping, US policy has made things worse.