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Syria's Escalation Scenario

No, the title isn’t a reference to an unwritten Robert Ludlum novel, though, in fairness, every thing in the world would be better if they had Ludlum-esque titles. Instead, I want to talk about why--with the passage of time--the U.S. shouldn’t have attacked Syria last fall.

To do so, I will delve into a topic I briefly mentioned two years ago with Iran: decision trees. As a historian, I was trained to think of the world in a fairly deterministic way. Take X cause, link it to Y effect. Treat it like a forgone conclusion that because X existed, Y would have occurred. The media loves to use this type of logic. (For example, why did crime go down? Abortion. Or stop and frisk. Or fill-in-the-blank-subject-of-news-report.)

One of my primary missions/goals with my series on Iran two years ago was to describe all the various options Iran could use when responding to an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. At business school, I learned to go against my historical training and think probabilistically. Though many of the options at Iran’s disposal had a low probability of success, they were still a probability. Ask anyone who’s played Risk: roll the dice enough times, and you are bound to hit a low probability event.

So when it came to Syria, last fall, I went through the same exercise. In short, while the U.S. likely would have emerged unscathed, in some cases, the war could have spiraled out of control. Those “spiraling out of control” events are why in hindsight we can be glad we didn’t start a war that Americans don’t care about now.

Here are the viable options I foresaw. For “viable”, I mean any situation with above a 1% possibility of occurring.

1. The most likely outcome. Playing the odds, if the U.S. had launched cruise missiles at Syria, it most likely wouldn’t have lost any soldiers. In most cases, the U.S. and its allies would emerge unscathed from military action. This is why Secretary of State John Kerry went to Congress and testified that this wasn’t war. He meant that the U.S. wouldn’t experience significant casualties. In most cases, he would be right. I’m honest about that.

What are the odds that this strategy would have disarmed or dethroned Bashad? We don’t know. But we do know that the strategy America did take--not intervening--achieved the same goals, without American involvement.

2. Syria attacks Israel in retaliation. Simply put, Syria has the ability to attack Israel. If the U.S. military campaign threatened the regime too much, Syrian leader Bashar al Assad could easily find it in his interest to attempt to deter the U.S. by firing missiles or using terrorist proxies to target Israel. Israel, then, could find itself beset by terrorist enemies.

3. Israel attacks Iran. I saw two ways this could’ve happened. In the above case, where Syria attacks Israel, in the fog of war—in this case an accurate description of the events—Israeli intelligence could rightfully or mistakenly believe that Iran had prompted the terror attacks on its territory.

Or--and this doesn’t require too huge a leap--Israel could decide to adopt the oft repeated maxim to “never let a good war go to waste”. (I won’t cite a source because that quote is in most cases a quote behaving badly.) Israel’s primary foreign policy aim for the last twenty years has been to maintain its position as sole nuclear power in the Middle East, which means preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Thus, as the U.S. started firing missiles at Syria, Israel could suddenly launch attacks at Iran to bomb their nuclear facilities. They could also do this if they accused Iran of sponsoring terror attacks against it.

Then, President Obama would have a legitimate problem as Iran could attack U.S. warships in the Persian/Arab gulf in response. Or they could not, but the U.S. could have to finish off Iranian nuclear facilities if Israeli war planes failed to complete the job.

4. The U.S. has to put troops on the ground. This is the least likely possibility, but still more realistic than 1%. If the U.S. lost a warplane, as it did during the war in Libya, it would have to send in ground troops. Those troops could be attacked, or worse. Or it could have to send in U.S. troops to secure chemical weapons. Either way, the U.S. could quickly see its commitment escalating.

Add up the probabilities and an “escalation scenario” is unlikely. It requires Syria attacking Israel in response to U.S. attacks, or Israel blaming Iran and counter-attacking (or simply deciding to attack Iran anyways) and Iran attacking the U.S. in response. In total, that’s an unlikely chain of events, in that more times than not, it doesn’t occur.

But there is that chance. I pegged it at about 2% at the time. If 2% doesn’t seem high, try to remember the first World War. Adding up all the factors required for that war to spin out of control, it was probably about a 2% chance that World War I started. But boy oh boy did that 2% have a huge impact on Europe.

And that 2% is why I opposed the war in Syria and will oppose most wars of choice in the future.

three comments

I always enjoy your blog, but today I gave to ask how did you come up with your percentages? Are they historic, in that since 1776 we’ve done this or that so many times? Are they based on some polling of a people, sort of a 3 out of 4 dentist think we should launch cruise missiles? Or are they SWAG?

I don’t necessary disagree with you, I’m troubled about the validity of your percentages.

stay safe………..

I don’t argue pro-war here, but you got your probability stuff wrong. A business school likely did not teach you to approach issues like this.


Eric and Michael, I agree that politicians should consider consequences when preparing for war, but you sound like fearmongers when comparing the Syrian Civil War to World War I. Looking at Syria now, can you say that America decided well?