Strategies of chemical warfare : understanding the purposes of norm transgression in war

  • Anneleen Van Der Meer

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


The purpose of this study is to understand why states use chemical weapons as a strategic choice. The prevailing understanding of chemical weapons has been that there is limited military utility to these weapons, which makes it more puzzling to understand why states would risk the negative attention generated by the norm against these weapons. However, it is necessary to consider that the use of chemical weapons could be a strategic choice, not despite the strong norm, but because of the strong norm. This requires insights from the operational, the strategic, and the political levels of warfare. This research assesses these levels with reference to the Soviet-Afghan War, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Syrian Civil War, and it presents a typology to understand the effects of norm transgression. The case studies in this research confirm that various operational demands can be well-met with chemical weapons, but this requires ample time and scope for practice. At the strategic level, chemical weapons affect morale and communicate resolve, and can be instrumental in achieving significant effects by amplifying momentum. At the political level, breaking the norm affects political identities, the formation of allegiances, and the integrity of the international society, which impact the shape and direction of a war. In each of the cases, the strategic effects of the use of chemical weapons have been different. In order to ground these effects in a single conceptual framework, I applied the concept of liminality to understand the process by which the introduction of chemical weapons on a battlefield creates space for disorder. This disorder can be resolved through power reversal or towards normative stability, or it can be left unresolved to be exploited. Crucially, while such disorder can be used by defensive parties to prevent loss, it is not a war-winning strategy.
Date of Award28 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorSibylle Scheipers (Supervisor) & Phillips Payson O'Brien (Supervisor)


  • Chemical weapons
  • Norm transgression
  • Strategy
  • Liminality
  • Chemical warfare
  • English school

Access Status

  • Full text open

Cite this