Bryan Caplan  

From Game Theory to Gas Theory

Adam Smith on the Glory of War... It's that time of year again...
What exactly are the strategic advantages of using poison gas?  Militarily, it's hard to see the temptation; by the standards of modern weaponry, poison gas sure doesn't seem remarkably cheap or effective.  Politically, moreover, the danger is obvious.  Since almost every major country deplores the use of poison gas, deploying it is a great way to make powerful enemies.

So how would a good game theorist make sense of the decision to use poison gas?  I don't know, but this 2017 piece by journalist Gwynne Dyer is the best analysis I could find.  Highlights:
When a crime is committed, the likeliest culprit is the person who benefited from the deed... [W]ho stood to benefit from the chemical attack in the first place?

There was absolutely no direct military advantage to be derived from killing 80 civilians with poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun. The town, located in al-Qaida-controlled territory in Idlib province, is not near any front line, and it is of no military significance. The one useful thing that the gas attack might produce, with an impulsive new president in the White House, was an American attack on the Syrian regime.

Who would benefit from that? Well, the rebels obviously would. They have been on the ropes since the Assad regime reconquered Aleppo in December, and if the warming relationship between Washington and Moscow resulted in an imposed peace settlement in Syria, they would lose everything..

Chemical weapons were stored in military facilities all over Syria, and at one point half the country was under rebel control...

The results have already been spectacular. The developing Russian-American alliance in Syria is broken, the prospect of an imposed peace that sidelines the rebels -- indeed, of any peace at all -- has retreated below the horizon...

Just Pro-Putin propaganda?  I think not.  Dyer continues:

But we should also consider the possibility that Assad actually did order the attack. Why would he do that? For exactly the same reason: to trigger an American attack on the Syrian regime. From a policy perspective, that could make perfectly good sense.

The American attack didn't really hurt much, after all, and it has already smashed a developing Russian-American relationship in Syria that could have ended up imposing unwelcome conditions on Assad. Indeed, Moscow and Washington might ultimately have decided that ejecting Assad -- though not the entire regime -- from power was an essential part of the peace settlement.

Assad doesn't want foreigners deciding his fate, and he doesn't want a "premature" peace settlement either. He wants the war to go on long enough for him to reconquer and reunite the whole country --with Russian help, of course. So use a little poison gas, and Trump will obligingly over-react. That should end the threat of U.S.-Russian collaboration in Syria.


Either of these possibilities -- a false-flag attack by al-Qaida or a deliberate provocation by the regime itself -- is quite plausible. What is not remotely believable is the notion that the stupid and evil Syrian regime just decided that a random poison gas attack on an unimportant town would be a bit of fun.

Note: Dyer is analyzing last year's Syrian gas attack, not the latest news...

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Grant Gould writes:

I think this undervalues the sheer terror of gas as a weapon. Accounts from the First World War of gas attacks make poison gas seem like the absolutely most terrifying weapon ever seen even in the miserable context of that miserable war.

If you assume that Assad's victory condition is not battlefield victory (which might just set the fuse for the next civil war a decade hence) but specifically a victory that leaves his enemies utterly terrified of stepping out of line, it makes sense to use the most horrifying weapon he can lay hands on -- and to use it specifically on civilians in hold-out territory.

Moreover it particularly makes sense to do so while the war is still in progress -- the fog of war will help to dull the international consequences, but everyone will know exactly which neighborhoods were wavering or rebel hold-outs. Waiting for the war to end would reduce the "benefits" while dulling the costs.

DWAnderson writes:

It is also possible that hatred, a desire for revenge or to inflict suffering on one's adversaries motivated the attack even if it was not in the overall interest of the regime. I grant however, that the lack of such an obvious benefit should make us be more skeptical of the claim that we otherwise might be.

Stewart Dompe writes:

Bryan, it would be interesting if you applied this analysis to the Iran-Iraq war where chemical weapons were also used. In this case, we know who use the weapons when and what they were presumably hoping to accomplish.

Interested reader writes:

Actually, the false flag theory *is* implausible. We know:

-A Syrian Su-22 attacked Khan Sheykoun in the morning of April 4. How could the rebels have known that? Do they keep a TV team in every town so that they can shoot a fake-chemical-attack video every time there's a bombing? (Rhetorical question - if they had so many teams they'd stage a lot of fake chemical attack videos!)

-Although Russia and Syria claim the airplane didn't reach the town until 12 or so, opposition-affiliated sources were claiming an attack hours before. It's unclear why Syria and Russia would lie about this - most likely they're just trying to muddy the waters or have trouble keeping up with their evolving versions of the story. But think about it: if Russia and Syria were telling the truth, why the hell would the opposition claim an attack horus before it happened? If they knew an air attack was coming that day precisely in Khan Sheykoun, why would they alert the Syrian government of the fake chemical attack they were supposedly staging?

-The US also says they detected the Su-22 and the attack took place at 6.30 or so. Why would they lie about this? It's worth saying the US was engaged in a drone campaign against HTS, the jihadi group which held Khan Sheykoun at the time (HTS left the town a month ago or so). Are they bombing the group and simultanously lying about the position of Syrian aircraft just to provide cover for a fake chemical attack?

-Dozens of people, possibly over 100, were killed with no signs of blood. Did the rebels strangle them to death just to shoot the video?! In fact, samples taken from the town confirm that they died from sarin.

-Another theory floated by Russia and Syria is that the Su-22 did attack the town and the 100 or so people did die from contact with sarin... released from a rebel depot they coincidentally bombed. Okay, even assuming this is physically possible (it's not clear if sarin spread this way would get very far), Khan Sheykoun is a pretty small place. The town itself has less than 20k people... where the hell is the supposed depot? Surely Russia and Syria can point to it in a map! They don't do so because, if they did, it would be obvious that either no other buildings in Khan Sheykoun that day were damaged, or if they were damaged they were nowhere near the place were most people died. (There is a Bellingcat article explaining which of these two is true, but I can't find it right now).

Also notice that there were at least 3 claimed sarin attacks in Syria in a few months: Uqayribat December 2016, Lataminah March 2017, Khan Shaykoun March 2017. But after the strong US reaction to Khan Shaykoun, they completely stopped. There have been chemical attacks since then but these were with chlorine, which usually only wounds people. The Douma attack was definitely not sarin but the agent is unclear; in any case, it appears to be the first deadly chemical attack in a year.

(Very little info is available on THE Uqayribat attack because the area was controlled by ISIS at the time - and is now held by the Syrian regime. But, if someone is thinking ISIS could have made it up... why haven't they made up any similar claim since?)

As for the attack on Douma, again, dozens of people died with no signs of blood. A false flag would imply the rebel group in question, Jaish al Islam, strangled them to death then recorded a bunch of videos...

...only to surrender the next day! Yes, the very next day is when Syrian government forces entered Douma and JaI started the evacuation towards northern Syria. If JaI wanted to prompt miltary action by the West, shouldn't they have tried this weeks before?

By contrast, Assad knew he stood little to lose because, even if a military reaction from the US came, it wouldn't alter the course of the battle. Using chemical weapons wasn't necessary to win, but it's a reminder to the opposition that he will stop at nothing to bring them to their knees.

PS: looking at the big four claimed chemical attacks in Syria, the story that these happen "when the rebels are losing" is absurd. East Ghouta 2013 didn't fit that description at all. Neither does Uqayribat - there was no active front at that time, and in any case the US wasn't going to attack Assad over deaths that happened in ISIS territory. In Douma, as explained, it was useless for the rebels to stage an attack that late in the game; a US intervention might have saved the East Ghouta enclave (which Douma is part of) if it had happened a month before or so. The only chemical attack from which the rebels might have benefited militarily was Khan Sheykoun, but even then, the US reaction basically grounded the Syrian air force for a week - and that was it.

PPS: to reinforce the above point, read on the battle that was going on in North Hama (close to Khan Sheykoun) at the time. Fighting continued until the end of April and was essentially unaffected by the US intervention.;_Taybat_al-Imam_and_Halfaya_captured

Iskander writes:

Don't forget principal-agent problems!

AMT writes:
What is not remotely believable is the notion that the stupid and evil Syrian regime just decided that a random poison gas attack on an unimportant town would be a bit of fun. many things has Trump said and done that you would say are not smart? Is it not even remotely believable that a regime could do something that is really, really stupid?

Like maybe:

Are there not arrogant, overconfident people in the world, that might even know something is probably a bad idea, but think they will beat the odds because "they are going to do things differently"? Are there no people who are unable to resist their desires, possibly for revenge? Or maybe people that bully and tease others, just for fun?

Let's not fall for "The Myth of the Rational Ruler."

Mark writes:

But who actually makes the decision of whether/when to use chemical weapons? I wouldn't take it for granted that the regime itself is necessarily involved in such decision-making. Maybe it's the prerogative of officers to use whatever is available to them. And they may just hate their enemies a lot and want to do as much harm as possible. In any case, though I don't dispute there are many reasons to despise Assad, I'm not sure we should assume that each chemical attack is the result of him specifically ordering some town to attacked with chemical weapons. Not all decisions come down from on high; in fact, especially in the disarray that is Syria, perhaps most of the important decisions don't.

Ed Hanson writes:

Just a note, substituting the word terrorism for poison gas in the first paragraph works well. And we all know it is deployed.

A second note. It can be easily imagined that there are unknown resources that can not be spoken of that which prove to a reasonable certainty who deployed any poison gas. Perhaps this is true or not, but it comes down to sometimes you just have to trust those who are put in charge and have the responsibility to act or not to act


Jeff writes:

Bryan, why did Stalin starve the Ukraine in 1933? Why did the Iranian government hold American diplomats hostage in 1979-80? Why did Hitler gas the Jews? Why did Mao force desperately-needed skilled and educated people to starve in rural communes in the Great Leap Forward?


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