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From Game Theory to Gas Theory

Summary:
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

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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.

Punchline:

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...



Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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