BOSTON — Forces loyal to beleaguered Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad have reportedly begun firing Scud missiles at rebel groups. A New York Times report Wednesday called this a "significant escalation" in the fighting, but it’s not at all clear why this is the case. In particular, this usage reflects the widespread but often unjustified tendency to view the introduction of any new weapon as a form of "escalation," even if doesn’t involve an increase in lethality, war aims or geographic scope.
In his book, War: Controlling Escalation, the late Richard Smoke pointed out that the term "escalation" has many meanings in strategic discourse. Sometimes it refers to the aims of war, at other times to the means being used, and in some cases to the scope of the conflict.
When we talk about a conflict escalating, therefore, we usually mean it has crossed some strategically significant threshold and entered a qualitatively new phase.
Thus, conflicts escalate when the original combatants adopt decidedly larger war aims, when a new category of targets (cities, civilians, etc.) are deliberately attacked, when other states join in the fighting, or when significantly more lethal means (e.g., weapons of mass destruction) are employed.
What constitutes a significant threshold is somewhat arbitrary, however. In this case, Assad’s aims haven’t changed and there’s no sign as yet that the Scuds are being used to attack a new set of targets. Instead, Assad’s forces appear to be using a different weapon to pursue the same ends (i.e., the defeat of the rebel forces and the retention of power).
But given that the Scuds are armed with conventional high explosive, why assume that the use of different delivery system is itself a case of "escalation?" If Assad began using cavalry, hot air balloons, chariots or pikes, would we call it "escalation?" I doubt it. The Times’ use of this term implicitly assumes that the mere use of any type of ballistic missile is by definition a "higher" level of war, even if they don’t threaten or kill as many people as other weapons do.
The Scud is a tactical-range ballistic missile, originally developed by the Soviet Union. It carries a rather modest payload of roughly 900 to 1,000 kilograms; enough to do lots of damage but not a form of WMD unless equipped with a chemical or nuclear warhead. The most modern version, the Scud-D, reportedly has a circular error probability of 50 meters (in theory); earlier versions are much less accurate.
There’s no question that Assad’s forces can probably use Scuds against various rebel targets with some effectiveness, and using missiles of this sort might help them avoid MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) or other missile defences that are now showing up in rebel hands. But using the term "escalation" implies that the Syrian government has somehow taken the conflict to a new level. This does not appear to be the case — at least not yet — because Scuds aren’t significantly more lethal than the other means — such as artillery fire — that Assad has already been using against the Syrian people.
What worries me, of course, is that careless use of language will convince people that the war is rising rapidly up some sort of "escalation ladder" and strengthen the chorus of voices demanding that the United States get more heavily involved. Reasonable people can disagree about that point, but the mere fact that Assad has now used Scuds is largely irrelevant.
This decision may be a sign of growing desperation on his part; if so, I hope that some creative diplomacy can convince him to blow town before the entire country is destroyed. But unless he puts chemical warheads on top of them or starts attacking a new category of targets, the fact that Scuds are involved is not in fact very significant.
Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University.