The literature on the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons emphasizes the role of external security threats as the primary motive for states to acquire and use these weapons. The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against its own people is a stark reminder that governments lacking political legitimacy may also use these weapons to repress domestic challenges to their rule. The concept of regime security provides a theoretical framework for understanding how the threat of military coups, insurgencies, and domestic rivals influences the acquisition and use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) by authoritarian regimes. The cases of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, apartheid-era South Africa, and Bashar Assad’s Syria illustrate how concerns about internal security threats can impact a government’s decisions to acquire and use CBW. The concept of regime security helps solve two puzzling nonproliferation cases: why Saddam failed to fully cooperate with UNSCOM in the late 1990s after he had given up the last vestiges of his WMD program and why Assad ignored President Obama’s red line and used chemical weapons on a large-scale in August 2013. In addition, the concept of regime security provides useful insights in the field of nuclear proliferation. The failure to consider regime security in assessing the WMD proliferation activities of authoritarian regimes will lead to failures in intelligence, nonproliferation, verification, sanctions, and deterrence.
Gregory D. Koblentz is an Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University. He is also an Associate Faculty at the Center for Global Studies at George Mason and a member of the Scientist Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC. During 2012-2013, he was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations where he conducted research on nuclear proliferation. In August 2016, he briefed the United Nations Security Council on the impact of emerging technologies on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors.