I believe the Obama administration’s planned punitive strikes on Syria are wrong for larger reasons (see here for a 2012 post that’s still relevant today), but I’m also convinced that they’re likely to be ineffective for the narrower goal of deterring the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond. I don’t mean to make light of a horrible situation, but I think a gaming analogy can help show why.
Think of the repeated interactions between the Assad regime and the U.S. as a single game of poker with several hands. In 2011, President Obama said Assad had to go, and the U.S. hinted that it would intervene to support the Syrian opposition. That was a raise, Assad called it, and the U.S. effectively folded that hand by not following through on its initial raise.
More recently, President Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that Assad’s forces must not cross, and then they crossed that line, apparently more than once before the massive attack near Damascus on 21 August. Again, the administration made a raise in hopes of driving Assad off his hand, but again Assad re-raised.
Now the Obama administration is threatening to strike Assad’s forces to punish him for the CW attack. While making this threat, though, the administration is simultaneously signaling that a) the attack will be limited and b) the administration hopes not to have to do more. These terms are more or less written into the authorization Congress is now considering, and they are being reiterated every time a member of the administration makes a public case for a military response.
In poker terms, this approach is like trying to drive your opponent off a pot with a modest bet when you hold a weak hand. Unless your opponent has really weak cards, that kind of bet is usually more effective at enticing that opponent to stay in the hand, not encouraging him to fold. In the Syrian case, the Assad regime has repeatedly signaled that it will play every hand to the end, so this kind of bet will almost certainly not have the desired effect.
That outcome is even more likely if the opponent has good reason to think your hand is weak. When the Obama administration can’t muster much domestic or international support for its punitive strikes and whatever support it can muster is predicated on those strikes being very limited in their scope and intent, then I’d say that’s easy to read as a weak hand. It’s a bit like waving around a pair of eights and threatening to make a small raise. To drive a committed rival to fold, you need to really change the expected value of the pot, and this approach simply doesn’t do that to a regime that has shown itself to be deeply committed to playing every hand to the end.
Some supporters of punitive strikes seem to think the effect those strikes would have on Assad’s forces is less important than the signal this action would send to potential future violators. The goal is not to hurt Assad as much as it’s to reinforce the norm. Unfortunately, the same problem extends to future hands with other players, too. If I were a ruler considering using chemical weapons at some later date, the lesson I think I’d have learned from Syria so far is that the rest of the world actually isn’t willing to pay a steep cost to reinforce this supposed norm for its own sake. In fact, we’ve developed a tell: if the stakes are high for other reasons, our initial raise will probably be a bluff, and it probably won’t be that costly to stay in the hand and see if that’s right.
I can see two paths out of the current situation. One is to acknowledge that our tepid raise has failed to drive Assad off this pot and go ahead and fold this hand. The outcome is essentially the same, and we don’t incur bigger losses getting there. The other is to change the hand we’re playing by committing to do whatever it takes to prevent Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons again. In other words, we commit to regime-defeating war if necessary and we signal that stronger commitment to Assad’s forces and their backers as clearly as possible.
If this more aggressive approach isn’t both feasible and desirable—and I believe it’s neither—it’s hard for me to see what’s gained by continuing to pretend that’s the hand we’re playing when everyone knows it isn’t and calling yet another of the Assad regime’s horrible raises.