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    Middle East
     Sep 4, '13


Lousy game theory in Syria
By Chan Akya

"Because it's there" - Edmund Hillary on why he climbed Mount Everest

There are multiple humanitarian considerations to whatever is going on in the Middle East region, be it the military coup in Egypt or the mass murders of citizens in Syria. Then again, one does find it difficult to distinguish between the folks who are supposedly the friends of the West and those that are described as the other side. What, for example is the difference between the repression and killing of Shi'ite protestors in Bahrain and the killings of civilians in Syria?

If the criterion is that countries cannot be allowed to commit mass murder of their populations, how would the West describe the actions of its allies in Turkey (against the Kurds now and



previously the Armenians) or Saudi Arabia?

So we can easily remove humanitarian concerns as the key motivation of any attack on Syria.

Regime change is the next potential reason for any action in Syria, but that obviously begs the question of exactly what is in store for the country once the brutal Bashar Al-Assad regime is removed. From whatever the news reports point out, the counterpart of the Syrian regime is now well split between the generic opponents of Assad, while other groups have been bolstered by the presence of al-Qaeda trained militants. Minorities including Syria's long-established Christian community have been brutally targeted by opponents of the Assad regime.

Without needing to dwell on the ironies of the West intervening on behalf of al-Qaeda and other assorted Christian killers, the question does beg: what's the plan exactly if Assad were to be removed from power. If the fighting to date is any indication, it would be more brutal than the kind of fighting that has marked Libya since its "liberation" from Gaddafi all those months ago.

Even assuming that coalition of like-minded people can be depended upon to form a government in Damascus, one has to assume that - like in all coalitions - there will be lowest common denominator approach on the agenda. Let's see now - what on earth could Hezbollah and al-Qaeda agree on besides the bombing of Israel and the United States? Perhaps I have a lack of imagination here, but the list of other items that these two groups with their front organizations could agree on besides those two obvious points seems non-existent.

Alternatively perhaps the country will be split between areas controlled by Hezbollah / Iran and ones controlled by al-Qaeda. That kind of arrangement, given population concentration and density in key cities, virtually guarantees that Lebanon will be brought back into the conflict to provide strategic depth to Hezbollah forces.

Nice move there genius, bringing yet another ally down without any thought or planning.

Leaving Lebanon aside for a moment, Syria will likely crumble and become ungovernable in the months after the Assad's departure, in effect becoming a strategic threat to all its neighbors and providing (yet another) frontier for displaced militants on the lines of Yemen and Sudan.

Then there is the vexing question of the chemical weapons that were supposedly used by Assad's forces on civilians. If we take the West at face value and assume that such WMD exists in Syria (which is a rather big leap of faith after those non-existent chemical and nuclear weapon stacks that were supposedly stored and ready for deployment under every Iraqi bridge), why would you risk a regime change with no boots on the ground? Giving mustard gas bombs to either Hezbollah or al-Qaeda was what I thought the War on Terror was supposed to prevent, not achieve.

Then there is the question of whether (a) those chemical weapons exist and (b) who used them on the civilian population. So far, there has been no scientific evidence that those weapons exist but that aside, let's ponder the game theory question from Assad's perspective.

Here you have your basic schoolyard bully, who has been told that he can do whatever he wants except use chemical weapons because that would be a "red line".

To know that such a red line exists, and then to go ahead and do it nevertheless requires either rare foresight - ie to stare down the West and basically predict in advance that all Western governments would be doing what the UK parliament did last week - or it requires gains of such a strategic magnitude that offsets any damage from the West's reprisals. The latter is plausible, but simply doesn't pass the basic smell test: the weapons have hardly turned the war in favor of Assad - so why did he use them?

This incredulity brings me to the basic question - who actually deployed these weapons, if indeed they were used?

An obvious conclusion from the foregoing is that Assad will be bombed for the sake of expediency - for America and its allies to show that "something" is being done and that the West "cares" about Arab peoples, after all those obvious failings in human rights across regimes friendly to them.

This then is the West's Mount Everest moment: doing something due to expediency rather than any great strategy or to achieve actual humanitarian aims.

Step back further from the brink and think about what behavioral changes: if you were any one of the dozen or so tinpot dictators in that part of the world, how would your strategic calculations change due to Syria? In that respect, the master of the game was North Korea who earned their place in the "Axis of Evil" well after the designation was provided by George W Bush in his effort to name a non-Muslim country in the "Axis". To recap, North Korea went officially nuclear only after the declaration, as they moved to prevent anyone in the US high command ever contemplating an attack on their country.

Syria doesn't have nuclear weapons, and most likely also lacks chemical weapons. What an attack on Syria would do though is to pretty much guarantee that countries ranging from Egypt and Iran to Turkey and (eventually) Libya will accelerate their nuclear weapons programs or try to acquire them surreptitiously much like how the government of Pakistan managed to do in the '80s and '90s.

From the perspective of game theory, the mooted attack on Syria is a colossal failure; I am even inclined to suggest that the authors and supporters of this plan have spent far too much time in the sun over the summer break. Evidence of global warming perhaps; but nevertheless a failed idea before the first missile even leaves its silo.

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The indispensable (bombing) nation (Sep 3, '13)

 

 
 



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