What Happened in Syria? Global Governance Between “Epistemic Authority” and “Fake News”


In April 2018, practitioners of global governance had to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian city of Douma. In order to do so, however, it was necessary to acquire information on what happened there on April 7. Since establishing facts in a warzone is a notoriously difficult task, one may expect that neutral experts – such as those from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which aims at eliminating chemical weapons – would play an important role.

In the terminology of global governance researchers, one may expect the OPCW to exercise epistemic authority – a concept that Michael Zürn develops in his recently published book “A Theory of Global Governance. Authority, Legitimacy & Contestation”. The concept of epistemic authority suggests that their expert knowledge and moral integrity puts inter- and transnational institutions in a position to provide interpretations that structure the behavior of states. Thus, the latter are expected to defer to the superior or impartial knowledge of the former.

In what follows, I look at recent developments in world politics related to the Syrian conflict through the analytical lens of cutting-edge theoretical research on global governance. More precisely, I ask what, if any, role did the OPCW play in the developments that unfolded in the Syrian conflict since April 7. My point is that the states involved in the conflict clearly did not defer to the OPCW. If (the possibility of) epistemic authority played a role in how states responded to the alleged use of chemical weapons, it did so in a different way than the logic of deference suggests. Thus, the Syrian crisis raises new questions for those researching the epistemic authority of inter- and transnational institutions.

What happened in Syria?

 Let us briefly look at how major actors responded to the event that took place on April 7. In a first reaction, Russia questioned that chemical weapons were used and called respective media reports “fake news”. The Russian ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Wassili Nebensja, stated in the UN Security Council that Russian investigators did not find evidence which supports the claim that chemical weapons were used. The United States (US), on the other hand, who had no doubt that chemical weapons were used, accused the regime of Bashar al-Assad of being responsible, and announced that it was going to take action in order to prevent the “normalization” of the use of chemical weapons. The Technical Secretariat of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) decided to send a Fact-Finding Mission to investigate the events that took place in Douma. The team was requested to conduct an investigation on what happened, but not on who is responsible, as the latter mandate was vetoed by Russia in the UN Security Council. The investigation, scheduled to start on April 14, was delayed until April 21, due to the fact that Russian and Syrian representatives allegedly could not guarantee the safety of inspectors and thus denied them access to Douma. The group was asked to deliver its final report to the Executive Council of the OPCW within 30 days.

Only a few days after the OPCW announced that it would send a group of experts to Syria, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that France was able to prove that chemical weapons (at least chlorine) were used and that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for it. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, however, cautioned that the final proof for the usage of chemical weapons was still being looked for. Russia, on the other hand, announced that it was able to prove that the attack was staged by the secret service of the United Kingdom. The latter responded by calling the Russian accusation “fake news”.

In the end, the US, the United Kingdom (UK), and France perceived their information base as sufficient to justify launching air strikes against several targets in Syria that were related to the production of chemical weapons. These air strikes were carried out only a few hours before the inspectors from the OPCW were scheduled to start their investigation in Douma on April 14.

What role for epistemic authority in theory? 

 In his Theory of Global Governance, Michael Zürn develops the concept of reflexive authority, which grasps in particular the relationship between inter- and transnational institutions (such as the OPCW), on the one hand, and states (such as the US, the UK, France, and Russia), on the other.

Zürn argues that, in global governance, authority is derived from epistemic foundations and takes two forms: political authority (decisions) and epistemic authority (interpretations). States act pursuant to a logic of deference: they recognize inter- and transnational institutions as authorities because they are well-aware that their own rationality and information base is limited. In essence, the “superior knowledge” or “impartial perspective” of inter- and transnational institutions guide the behavior of states, which are seen as “enlightened and critical subordinates” who monitor their authorities closely and may even disregard particular “requests”.

The institutionalization of epistemic authority within particular organizational bodies is of particular importance for the reflexive authority relationships that characterize global governance in theory. Such organizational bodies are called politically assigned epistemic authorities (PAEAs). They receive the “mandate to authoritatively interpret facts and norms” and do not make binding decisions, but rather “often very consequential interpretations” which, in theory, guide the behavior of states because they are perceived as knowledgeable and nonpartisan. Since the central task of the OPCW is to verify the adherence of states to the Chemical Weapons Conventions, it qualifies as a politically assigned epistemic authority.

What role for epistemic authority in the Syrian crisis?

 The Western allies decided to use military means before the experts sent by the OPCW had a chance to even start their independent investigation. Thus, the US, the UK, and France acted well before they had the opportunity to recognize (or ignore) the interpretation of a PAEA and, possibly, requests attached to it. By claiming that there was sufficient evidence to be able to conclude, first, that chemical weapons were used and, second, that it was the regime of Bashar al-Assad which was responsible for their use, it is evident that Western States viewed their own information base and rationality as sufficient to justify a response. In this context, the Western allies did not see the production of superior or nonpartisan knowledge by the OPCW as necessary for taking, or – more importantly – for legitimizing, a response to the events that took place.

The work of the OPCW inspectors was, however, delayed until April 21, following attacks on UN-Staff tasked with preparing the work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission. Moreover, the mission initially covered merely one location related to the events on April 7. It is possible that Russian and Syrian forces, which had access to these locations and even drove journalists there, intentionally prevented the experts from starting their work earlier and destroyed evidence about what happened on April 7 in order to undermine the ability of the OPCW to produce superior knowledge and, thus, to exercise epistemic authority.  All in all, it appears that all major conflict parties did not act pursuant to a logic of deference in the Syrian crisis.

What implications for research?  

If their actions were guided by the logic of deference, all states involved in the Syrian crisis would have waited until the OPCW had established facts on what had happened, without obstructing its work and before taking action. Decision-makers have obviously acted differently. But does this mean that the role of the OPCW and the concept of epistemic authority are completely irrelevant for understanding what happened in Syria? Not necessarily! On the one hand, it cannot be completely ruled out that the Western allies used military means shortly before the OPCW investigation was supposed to start because they feared that the unbiased knowledge this investigation promised to create could potentially constrain their freedom of action. In other words, the work of the OPCW experts could have made it more difficult for the US, the UK, and France to justify the use of military means. This is, however, purely speculative. On the other hand, it can equally not be ruled out that Russia and/or the Syrian regime obstructed the work of the OPCW experts in order to make it impossible for them to acquire impartial knowledge which could potentially guide state behavior and (de-)legitimize certain actions.

These two speculations imply that states may act in ways that prevent inter- or transnational institutions from producing impartial or superior knowledge because such knowledge could constrain their freedom of (legitimate) action. Thus, the Syrian crisis suggests that the ability of inter-and transnational institutions to exercise epistemic authority may influence the behavior of states in various ways. It therefore raises in particular two analytical questions: In how far is epistemic authority consequential when vital interests of powerful states are at stake? Under which conditions do states defer to epistemic authority, when do they contest it, and when do they prevent it from becoming influential? The floor is open!

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