Only one approach could plausibly have avoided catastrophe in Syria

How can lessons learned from 2013 shape decisions made about today’s current events?

This striking depiction, from work by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick, shows that U.S. retaliation against Assad in Syria in 2013 would have likely led to higher civilian casualties than the numbers without such an intervention. (Image: Courtesy Ian Lustick) 

Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of civilians have died as a result of violence in Syria, including from the use of poison gas by Bashar al-Assad regime’s against his own people. Most recently, in an attack this past week, 43 men, women, and children were gassed to death, many while huddling in underground shelters. 

Washington is poised to respond, but how? With the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, now dominant on the battlefield, no American action would likely tip the strategic balance, according to Penn political scientist Ian Lustick. But both the United States and France, at least, seem committed to action. The key challenge is balancing the enforcement of the poison-gas ban and punishment for war crimes against unintended consequences of actions that could escalate violence or entrench America in another Middle East war.


University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick

There is an element here of déjà vu. In August 2013, 1,400 Syrians died as a result of a sarin gas attack perpetrated by the Assad regime. The U.S. partnered with Russia to make arrangements that, for a time, substantially handicapped Syria’s ability to use such weapons.

Could different action have prevented more civilian casualties? Or were the odds of success so low and the risk of unleashing other kinds of violence so great that caution was a better course? How can the lessons learned shape decisions made about today’s current events?

Lustick uses computer modeling to answer tough questions like these. Commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., he and fellow researchers Miguel Garces and Thomas McCauley analyzed hundreds of alternative scenarios—what the researchers refer to as “counterfactual futures”—each attached to one of five “critical junctures.”

Using a rigorously tested, sophisticated computer-simulation model based on years of academic research and on work for other government agencies, as well as on real data from Syria, Lustick and his team found that only one situation—something the researchers refer to as Assad’s acceptance of a “democratizing bubble”—would have had the potential to avoid the atrocities Syrian civilians have experienced.  

“There wasn’t really much the U.S. could have safely done that would have yielded reliable positive results without making the situation worse in other ways,” Lustick says. “We did find that, had the U.S. been able to encourage Assad to treat the rebellion as a political movement, as protesters during the Arab Spring had intended, the distribution of possible futures greatly improves, with significant reductions in the likelihood and scale of civilian atrocities.”

To draw this conclusion, Lustick and colleagues examined each of the five critical junctures by comparing 200 future trajectories based on what actually happened to 200 trajectories that resulted from options that could have reasonably occurred but did not. One such juncture occurred early on: Fragmenting of Western opposition to the Assad regime. What if, the modelers asked, this had been united instead? How likely is it that this would have brought the Free Syrian Army to power and reduced civilian casualties? 

A second scenario tested what would have happened had Americans bombed the Syrian army and some elements of the Syrian state in September 2013. The third scenario imagined significantly weakened jihadi groups, and the fourth examined the outcome had Iran and its Hezbollah allies not intervened. Each one produced some positive results, but repeatedly the team found that, in the long-term, unintended consequences of short-term success led to even more civilian casualties, though not necessarily by the Syrian state.

Only the fifth treatment condition, a successful democratizing bubble, resulted in substantially fewer civilian casualties. But for that to have played out, Assad would have had to step down peacefully and hand power and opportunity to the rebel groups, Lustick says. “The U.S. kept holding out hope that Assad would start treating the uprising in a non-violent way,” he says. “It was the only thing that would’ve worked and would’ve been a lot better than what we got. But he didn’t do that.”

The provocative findings aren’t without their detractors because they can be seen as affirming the Obama Administration policy to wait many months before asking Assad to step down. Some have criticized the results as whitewashing the former president’s decision, but, according to Lustick, it was an unexpected result that highlights the complexity of foreign policy decision-making.

“Should the U.S. have stuck to its attempt to evoke that response, even when the rest of the world was calling for regime change and even though the policy did not lead to a positive result in Syria?” Lustick asks. “We argue that Obama was probably right to wait because though the odds were against success, going down that road was the path most likely to lead to no large-scale civilian atrocities.”

The reality of this type of big-data work, which takes a bottom-up approach, is that it can never be 100-percent certain, he adds. “We are engaged in forecasting, which always includes probabilities and confidence. Not clairvoyance.”

Though it’s not possible to predict the ultimate consequences of any given situation, how bad it might get and when, this systematic counterfactual thinking made possible by computer simulation can help decision-makers appreciate the real dilemmas they face. The task is not “solving” the problem, but judging which course of action will more likely yield a better set of problems than others, which kinds of futures are plausibly attainable, and which options run the greatest risk of catastrophe. 

Lustick says he favors an American strike against Assad’s loyalist battalions as a way to insure the regime will not repeat its use of poison gas. In general, however, he says the U.S. should invest more heavily to put in place structures that might reduce such situations emerging in the future. “Rather,” he adds,” than devising ways to intervene once they have begun.”

Ian Lustick is the Bess W. Heyman Chair and a professor in the Political Science Department in the School of Arts and Sciences. He presented this work this month at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, in San Francisco.