CREDIT: Presidential Press and Information Office of Russia

Taming the Gigaton Gorilla

Using Syria Diplomacy to Help Avoid US-Russia Nuclear War

This article was originally published at Huffington Post.

The Syrian civil war has already caused over 100,000 deaths. As tragic as this is, it is miniscule compared to the massive and potentially permanent global destruction that could come from the gigaton gorilla lurking in the background: nuclear war between the United States and Russia. While the US and Russia find themselves on opposite sides in Syria, their diplomacy over Syria’s chemical weapons could help build the trust and confidence needed for their own nuclear disarmament.

We should approach Syria in terms of the US-Russia nuclear situation because that’s by far the bigger issue. Syria’s population is about 22.5 million. This is less than half of one percent of the total human population (about 7.1 billion). And it is a miniscule fraction of the total population of all humans who will ever live. Even if the Syrian civil war killed everyone in that country — an outcome much worse than anyone expects — it would be an imperceptible blip in the trajectory of human civilization.

The same cannot be said for US-Russia nuclear war. The two countries still hold the overwhelming majority of the world’s nuclear weapons: about 4,000 active weapons and 16,000 total, making for probably several gigatons of explosiveness [1]. If launched, they could cause hundreds of millions of immediate deaths and billions more in the ensuing nuclear winter [2]. Human civilization may never recover [3]. Such a global catastrophe overwhelmingly dwarfs the Syrian civil war, making it by far the larger priority.

This focus is not to say we shouldn’t care about the human tragedy in Syria. To the contrary: it’s precisely because we do care about the Syrians, and everyone else around the world, and all future generations of humans who would love the chance to experience life, that we must prioritize reducing the risk of US-Russia nuclear war, or any other civilization-ending global catastrophic risks .

There are at least two other global catastrophic risks that could be affected by the Syrian civil war. One is biological weapons, which are especially worrisome because (unlike chemical and nuclear weapons) they can be released in one location and spread worldwide. The other is global totalitarianism, which would be hard to dislodge. These two global catastrophic risks are worth being mindful of, but I believe nuclear war is the bigger concern with Syria.

So what role could Syria play in reducing the risk of US-Russia nuclear war? Risk is, in simplest terms, probability times magnitude. The probability of US-Russia nuclear war can be reduced by lowering US-Russia tensions. The two countries are fortunately not on the brink of war as they were during the Cold War. But some tensions have always lingered, and they’ve risen recently over Syria and also Edward Snowden, to whom Russia granted temporary asylum. Tensions also contribute to the risk of false alarms causing inadvertent nuclear war [4], such as the Stanislav Petrov incident exactly 30 years ago.

US-Russia cooperation over Syria’s chemical weapons could help lower US-Russia tensions, thereby making nuclear war less probable. Already the situation has increased civil dialog. Following through on the diplomatic agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria could build trust between US and Russia, trust that future relations can build on.

The magnitude of US-Russia nuclear war can be lowered via nuclear disarmament. Fewer weapons means less total damage should the war occur. Despite Washington’s current partisan gridlock, disarmament is likely harder for Moscow. Russia’s nuclear stockpile is one of the last vestiges of its former glory. It has lost Soviet territory, its economy is no longer preeminent, its conventional forces cannot compete with America’s, and even its population has declined, but it still has one of the two great nuclear arsenals.

Syrian diplomacy could help here too. If Russia can emerge as a key actor in resolving the civil war, that could earn it some of the self-confidence it needs to continue its nuclear disarmament. And Russia’s nuclear weapons never played a role in Syrian diplomacy. If it doesn’t need the weapons to achieve its geopolitical goals, it might as well relinquish them, with the US following suit.

Some caution is warranted here. No one can predict with certainty how the Syrian civil war will play out, and how it could affect the US-Russia nuclear weapons situation. But what is certain is that safely resolving this situation is essential for the long-term success of human civilization. For the sake of all of humanity, let us strive to get this one right.


[1] With about 16,000 weapons, the average yield needed to produce one gigaton is about 60,000 kilotons. The average yield is probably significantly higher than this, though I couldn’t readily find the data. Perhaps knowledgeable readers could point to it.

[2] Owen B. Toon, Alan Robock, and Richard P. Turco, 2008. Environmental consequences of nuclear war. Physics Today 61(12) 37-42.

[3] Timothy M. Maher Jr. and Seth D. Baum, 2013. Adaptation to and recovery from global catastrophe. Sustainability 5(4) 1461-1479.

[4] Anthony M. Barrett, Seth D. Baum, and Kelly R. Hostetler, 2013. Analyzing and reducing the risks of inadvertent nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Science and Global Security 21(2) 106-133.