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What to Expect from Multipolarity in Syria

Analysts are currently debating whether US airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will end up unintentionally bolstering the Assad regime as much as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that we are attempting to support. After all, Assad’s domestic Alawite constituency is increasingly losing faith in the leader as a direct result of ISIS’s successful strikes and demonstrations of strength in both Syria and Iraq. By striking down one extremist group in Syria, are we simply creating room for the authoritarian government to thrive? A consideration of multiple actors, rather than a simple Cold War-era assumption of bipolarity, will help us to more accurately answer this question. When modeled as a multi-player game, the potential effect of US opposition to ISIS in Syria may lead us to different conclusions.

If we consider the FSA’s gains relative to the Assad regime, it is not a foregone conclusion that US airstrikes will harm US interests by helping Assad. Rather than asking whether the Assad regime will benefit from airstrikes, the relevant question to ask is who stands to gain more from the elimination or weakening of ISIS: the United States and our allies or the Assad regime? While the answer to this question is unclear, it is far from obvious to conclude that harming ISIS differentially helps Assad. On the other hand, Assad is not the only US enemy who stands to benefit from a weakened ISIS. Al Qaeda, for example, has notably disowned ISIS for its extremism. By harming ISIS, then, are we indirectly helping Al Qaeda? Again it comes down to a question of relative gains. Who stands to benefit more from a weakened ally in Iraq and Syria? Because the US is conducting airstrikes on both fronts, whereas Assad and other groups are only fighting ISIS in one country or another, it is not inconceivable that the US has more to gain. On the other hand, the US also has less to lose as a result of inaction. A more formal modeling of the problem, as well as a more in-depth analysis of the groups in question, would offer greater clarification on this issue.

There are certainly other reasons that US airstrikes in Syria may not be the best way to pursue US goals. A crucial element in the success of US policy will be how our actions are perceived among Syrian Sunnis. If Sunnis perceive US actions as supporting the Assad regime, they will be more likely to support ISIS, causing the US strategy to backfire. The reaction of local Sunnis will largely be a factor of public education and non-military campaigns. But how these campaigns could be carried out with multiple groups is not well understood. For example, if we build infrastructure in Syria as part of a “hearts and minds” campaign, who would we be supporting? Which actors benefit most from improved infrastructure: the government or the moderate rebel group from whom the infrastructure funding is ostensibly drawn?

While a great deal of political science literature in the realm of counterinsurgency has considered actions of the government, insurgents, and civilians, very little work has focused on the role of multiple players in counterinsurgency warfare. We therefore have little understanding of how network dynamics, combinations of actors, and problems of collective action can affect the success or failure of a counterinsurgency campaign. Including multiple actors into our studies of international processes can bring us a long way toward understanding the best strategy for US actions in Syria. This is one of many cases in which multipolarity has the potential to lead us to useful scholarly and policy conclusions.

The ICRC and Deterrence in Ukraine

International institutions may be increasing in salience in our globalizing world, but their impact on deterrence is understudied. The current crisis in Ukraine illustrates an interesting model for considering international organizations in deterrence and reputation. It is well understood that international institutions can facilitate compromise by decreasing transaction and communication costs. However, international organizations may additionally have the ability to defuse crises by decreasing actors’ reputation costs. The situation in Ukraine presents just such a scenario. In a classic Chicken model of deterrence, disaster results when both parties “tie their hands” by throwing their proverbial steering wheels out the window.  Analogously, when two states commit to a hard-line approach in a military crisis, a costly military contest may result. However, the presence of international institutions can create an additional step between both parties’ defection and immediate disaster. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is playing this role now in Ukraine.

A critical tenet of deterrence theory is that states’ actions today can come back to haunt them tomorrow. A rich political science literature debates the importance of reputation in international relations, albeit with little consensus. The  importance of reputation in theoretical models of deterrence is understandable: past behavior can be a powerful predictor of future actions. While it is typical in this literature to think of reputation as an attribute of states, Sechser (2010) reframes reputation as a bargaining problem. He argues that a successful threat “requires the challenger and target to agree on a fair ‘price’ for the target’s reputation” (629). Under this framing, as long as reputation is a divisible good, it should not unduly affect crisis bargaining behavior. Sechser offers the idea of side payments to “divide” a state’s reputation costs. However, international institutions offer an alternative when such a division is difficult.

Russia’s apparent decision to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine provides an example of just such a case. When Russia challenged Ukraine by sending a convoy to the border for “humanitarian” purposes, it was acting upon its estimate of Ukraine’s resolve. Wary of Russians bearing gifts, Ukraine refused entry to the vehicles, simultaneously demonstrating Ukraine’s resolve and challenging Russia. This creates a situation in which either Russia or Ukraine must pay a reputation cost for backing down. According to Sechser’s framework, the party to back down could demand a side payment in exchange for their humiliation. However, such a side payment may be difficult to identify in practice. Fortunately, the ICRC has created a third option, allowing both parties to avoid paying high reputation costs for standing down. The ICRC, as a neutral third party, is able to allow Russia to carry out its ostensible mission without being blocked, while Ukraine gets the piece of mind of knowing that the aid is truly humanitarian. What’s more, ICRC can defuse this contest without coercion: it is in both states’ interest to comply with ICRC’s mandate.

More formal theorizing is necessary to truly understand the implications of this role of international organizations in deterrence. Will a potential decrease in reputation costs increase the rate of foreign policy crises, especially with humanitarian pretenses? If so, will the consequent international organization activity be sufficient to decrease the overall rate of war? Will states be able to resort to this method of decreasing reputation costs in all cases, or will Russia’s reputation suffer regardless of the ICRC’s involvement? The costs and benefits for international organizations in future deterrence are uncertain, but their potential role is worth more inquiry.

The Power of Numbers and Space Security

Official, unofficial, or simply made up, statistics drive public and policy-maker opinions of the problems and solutions in international relations. Academic research both draws upon and creates statistics, and political science research examining the power of numbers can benefit both the scholarly and the policy community and expand to fields, such as arms control, in which the importance of official statistics in guiding state behavior remains understudied.

Numbers appeal to us for their simplicity and their perceived objectivity. They are especially useful for ranking and for establishing cut-offs, where quantitative differences become qualitative. Our fervor for quantitative evidence has driven scholars and policy-makers to rely upon official counts and rankings. However, interpretation and effective use of statistics can be difficult. Political science research has an opportunity to guide both the scholarly and policy communities in gathering, developing, and interpreting numbers in an informative, intelligent way.

A spate of recent research in political science has concerned itself with the power, as well as the fallibility, of reported statistics. In a recently published article in the American Journal of Political Science, Simmons and Kelley highlight the role of performance indicators in effective international governance. In the current issue of the American Political Science Review, Fariss introduces a systemic change in the way human rights monitors have interpreted information over time. In their 2010 edited volume, Andreas and Greenhill suggested a careful scrutiny of official numbers, which they argue are often manipulated for political purposes or simply innocently misinterpreted. Other working papers point to discontinuities at critical measurement thresholds used for environmental regulation and foreign aid decisions, indicating manipulation of official data. Even when data are not manipulated, however, the use of statistics can have policy implications.

One field of political science in which numbers can play an important role is arms races. Almost by definition, quantitative arms races rely upon quantitative assessments of an opposing state’s capabilities. When these estimates are incorrect or misinterpreted, inefficiency can result. Without official and unofficial estimates of Soviet missile numbers, for example, the alleged “missile gap” of the Cold War would not have been possible. Recent evidence of Chinese anti-satellite missile launches indicate that we may now be in a new arms race. The quantity and type of states’ space capabilities is becoming increasingly essential information. Qualitative and quantitative research, as well as rigorous theory-building, can help to ensure that an arms race in the space domain does not escalate, creating more space debris and unnecessary spending.

One interesting challenge in measuring and studying arms races in the space domain is establishing a unit of analysis by which to compare states. Like many conventional, or even nuclear, weapons, a raw count of assets is not as relevant in space security as a portfolio of capabilities that complement one another. For example, orbital satellites alone are less useful to states without an independent launch site to send them from, and even this may be worthless without the technology and expertise necessary to defend against cyber attacks on satellites. Additionally, some space capabilities may be substitutes for conventional capabilities, such as the choice of using either aircraft or low-Earth-orbit satellites to search broad expanses of ocean for ships. With its conventional weapons advantage, the United States tends to focus on the former strategy, but China has increasingly been developing its capabilities in the latter. Asymmetry makes measuring space capabilities and comparing them between states an increasingly difficult task.

Like conventional and nuclear domains of the past, the emerging domain of space security provides challenges in collecting and interpreting data. The role of data in states’ decisions to arm themselves is an important line of research that has yet to be fully explored. By what criteria will states universally measure each other’s space capabilities? How objective can these criteria be? When and how will states over or under-represent these particular capabilities? To what degree can space technology serve as a substitute for conventional weapons, and which types of states can advantage from that? The answers to the questions will require a lot of work in data collection and interpretation, a potentially fruitful crossroads for policy and political science communities.