Why the best option to avoid bombing of Syria is to authorize its bombing

September 26, 2013

Sometime in the near future, Bashar al-Assad will have to make a decision: should he turn over his chemical weapons to international control as specified in the recent US-Russian agreement?  A lot will ride on this decision.

When political scientists think about these sorts of decisions, we often think of them as a set of strategic interactions occurring along a game tree, such as the one in the following figure:

Figure: Joshua Tucker
Figure: Joshua Tucker

What we are really interested in here is Assad’s decision (the green dot): will he hand over his weapons or not? However, when Assad makes this decision, he is also going to be thinking about what Putin and Obama are likely to do. If Assad chooses to hand over the weapons, then he knows he gets outcome No. 1: he doesn’t get bombed, but he doesn’t get to keep his weapons. Let’s assume he would instead prefer outcome No. 3, where he gets to keep his weapons and does not get bombed. However, let’s also assume that he would prefer any outcome that involves not getting bombed (outcomes No. 1 and No. 3) to any outcome that involves getting bombed (outcomes No. 2 and No. 4). (If he actually prefers to be bombed and keep his weapons — and there are legitimate reasons to suspect he might – then he’ll keep the weapons in any case and the rest of this exercise is unnecessary.)

The challenge for Assad, then, is that he has to move first. Thus he has to guess what Putin and Obama are going to do. So if Putin announces he will still veto any resolution regarding the use of force against Syria by the U.N. Security council and Assad believes that Obama will not bomb Syria unilaterally, then Assad has a clear path to his most preferred option, No. 3 (keep weapons and not get bombed). Thus at the first stage of the game when Assad has to move, he is likely to be tempted to not hand over his weapons.

Now let’s consider Putin’s perspective. Let’s assume his goal is simply to keep the U.S. from bombing Syria in any capacity (i.e., avoid options No. 2 and No. 4). Intuitively, it might seem the best way to do so would be for him to announce that Russia would veto any U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force, thus taking option No. 2 off the table. But as we’ve just seen in the previous paragraph, if he does that, he encourages Assad to try for option No. 3, which then means the decision of whether the U.S. bombs Syria or not comes down to Obama’s move (blue dot), and therefore it is possible that Putin could end up with option No. 4 (US bombs Syria unilaterally) which Putin prefers less than option No. 1 (Assad hands over weapons). On the contrary, if Putin were to announce categorically that Russia would authorize the U.N. to use force if Assad does not hand over the weapons before Assad makes his decision, Putin could essentially force Assad to choose option No. 1, as we know Assad prefers option No. 1 (not getting bombed) to option No. 2 (getting bombed). Thus if Putin really wants to prevent the U.S. from bombing Syria, he should be able to do so unilaterally by announcing that he would renounce the use of his veto in the U.N. security council on this issue, thus taking options No. 3 and No. 4 off the table and forcing Assad to choose between option No. 1 and No. 2, in which case Assad will choose No. 1.

Interestingly, by the same logic the U.S. should also be able to force Assad to choose option No. 1 by renouncing the “don’t bomb Syria unilaterally” option (i.e., that is, committing unequivocally to bomb Syria should the weapons not be turned over). Of course, in practice it is difficult to commit to using force ahead of time, but one could imagine that if the U.S. Congress turned around tomorrow and unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria should Assad fail to turn over the chemical weapons, it could have a strong effect in this direction. Thus — again counterintuitively — the best way for Congress to prevent Obama from bombing Syria may be to give the strongest possible endorsement of Obama bombing Syria! Crucially, this would again need to be done before Assad makes his decision, and would need to be conditional on Assad’s decision (i.e., the resolution only goes into force if Assad does not turn over the weapons).

As an aside, this logic would also explain perhaps why Obama made the seemingly contradictory decision to announce he was reserving the right to bomb Syria without Congressional approval at the same time that he was asking for Congressional approval: it was yet another way of trying to convince Assad that option No. 3 was never actually going to be on the table. Put another way, the more likely Assad is to believe option No. 3 is never going to happen, the more likely he is choose to hand over his weapons, which of course is also Obama’s preferred outcome.

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
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