Game Theory v. Reality in Syria

Game Theory v. Reality in Syria

Despite the overwhelming skepticism of the international community, the Obama Administration recently changed its evaluation of the ‘evidence’  of chemical weapons use in Syria. By its own admission, this was to serve as a pretext for their previously-rendered and domestically unpopular decision to deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict in an attempt to offset the Syrian army’s momentum in recent months. Simultaneously, the Administration deployed a number of U.S. assets to Jordan and delayed the scheduled Geneva II summit on Syria in the hopes that the rebels could gain ground in the interim. According to Washington policymakers, this should put the regime in a weaker negotiating position going into the talks, making it increasingly likely that Bashar al-Asad will be willing to step down, or offer greater concessions to Western powers.

This strategy is informed by Game Theory, popular among the sociologists, political scientists and economists who advise Washington policymakers–reaching its current level of popularity largely as a result of prominent intellectuals at the University of Chicago, from whence the president hails.

Game Theory models “rational” choices in competitive situations—where “rationality” is defined in terms of risks v. payoffs / costs v. benefits calculations, typically relative to some material outcome. Of course, the dirty little secret of Game Theory is that whenever its experiments are run with actual subjects (as opposed to the typical method of running simulations with idealized agents), people are found to be robustly irrational—this is actually a good thing, as a game-theoretic “perfectly rational” agent would essentially be a psychopath/sociopath.

Considering that most people are not psychopaths, it should not be surprising to find out that practitioners reliant upon game theory generally have terrible predictive success rates (exacerbated by the “Black Swan” problem). The supposed credibility of the method is derived almost entirely from post-hoc analyses of historical events—analyses which can be conveniently spun regardless of what course of events ultimately occurs; accordingly, Game Theory serves mostly to “explain” the status quo rather than to provide insight into fluid  situations. For these reasons, even prominent game-theorists have come to admit that the method has negligible “real-world” utility, and that reliance upon the method for making predictions about actual situations is likely to do more harm than good (insofar as it obscures more effective analytic frameworks or is used to lend credibility to terrible policies); apparently Washington hasn’t received the memo.

Had the Obama Administration invested more time attempting to understand the person Bashar al-Asad, and the actual dynamics on the ground (as opposed to developing plans in response to the predicted behaviors of some abstract agent making decisions in the context of a propagandized idealization of the Syrian conflict), a number of critical facts would have been well-known: first, that the regime was not going to quickly crumble, as the dynamics favored the Syrian government over the rebels—both on the battlefield and in the hearts and minds of the Syrian people–over the medium-to-long term. For these reasons, the opposition and their international backers should have been much more willing to engage with the regime’s constant outreach for dialogues, ceasefires, and negotiated settlements—and they should have been much more willing to comply with the U.N.’s repeated calls to de-escalate the conflict, rather than funding non-state actors in violation of international law.

Second, Bashar al-Asad intends to serve out the remainder of his term which ends in 2014; he is unlikely to step down before the end of his term, but has stated consistently that 2014 may be an opportune moment to initiate some kind of transition under the principal conditions that:

  1. There is some kind of indigenous and domestically credible alternative to replace him, rather than expatriate elites supported by outside powers.
  2. The situation “on the ground” is stable enough for a transition to be viable

Those parties interested in getting the president to step down should be focusing on meeting these criteria, working with the regime towards a 2014 transition. This method certainly holds more promise than a military “solution.”

Similarly, anyone who has followed Bashar al-Asad’s rhetoric closely should know that he is much more willing to reach out to the opposition and to offer concessions when negotiating from a position of strength—when his back is to the wall, he is likely to dig in and become more rigid, more defiant. His sense of duty would prevent him from simply leaving Syria “to the wolves” in order to save himself. Accordingly, should certain international players wish for the President to resign, they would have been better offering guarantees and incentives rather than threats and coercion.

That is, al-Asad’s “calculus” seems to be the virtual antithesis of what Game Theory might suggest—this should not be surprising as, like most people,  President al-Asad has a number of priorities which supersede and supervene expected utility estimations—even to the point of an apparent willingness to sacrifice his own life for these causes. And so we can see that the Obama Administration’s current strategy of “equalizing force” in Syria, justified under false-pretenses and based in an ivory-tower fantasy world, seems to be a precise recipe for spreading, deepening, and perpetuating the conflict and humanitarian crisis: in light of the preceding considerations, we can see that Bashar al-Asad will be less willing and less able to compromise or support a transition should the opposition succeed in “turning the tide” (an eventuality which is far from certain, even with the increased aid).

And even as it undermines the government’s likelihood of offering sufficient concessions, the policy removes all incentives for the rebels to compromise or negotiate with the government (let alone the fact that the Administration may have essentially rewarded the rebels for using chemical weapons—this seems to set a dangerous precedent for future insurrections):

Throughout the conflict, the opposition has been goaded on by the U.S. and its allies into outright rejecting negotiations unless and until the President resigns. Moreover, they have been unable to solidify into an interlocutor for the state, capable of articulating a coherent vision or set of demands. The current course of action exacerbates these trends. What the U.S. should be doing is freezing arms, supplies, training etc. to the rebels in order to dramatically reduce their ability to keep fighting—and in conjunction with the U.N., exerting meaningful pressure on Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the E.U. to follow along, in order to make a ceasefire viable in the lead-up to negotiations.

As it stands, the White House’s tactics take the party that has been willing and able to negotiate and restore order and they render it less able to achieve those ends—even as they make the party that has been unwilling to compromise (with one another or the government) and turns them into a less cooperative and more destabilizing force. This is underscored further by the overwhelming and long-standing evidence that most of these weapons have ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated groups. It seems patently insane that the Obama Administration’s “solution” to the problem of al-Qaeda’s growing influence is to flood Syria with more weapons in the hopes that this time they end up with the “right people. Without question, it would be better to heed Brahimi’s reproach and avoid sending even more weapons into Syria—the political “scientists” should save their theories for a game.

Published 7/4/2013 on Syria Report
Syndicated 7/24/2013 on Press TV
Translated into Spanish and syndicated 7/30/2013 on Hispan TV

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