The “Rational Actor” Fallacy and Stopping Syria’s Atrocities—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #8 (March 9)

“There are times, such as when a man or a group of men are in the act of firing weapons to kill innocent civilians, when it is necessary to halt the killing through means other than rational persuasion.”

A central flaw in the approach of the U.S., the U.N., and many other countries to the conflict in Syria is the assumption that by exercising “pressures” on Bashar al-Assad, we can change his calculus as to whether to continue his brutal repression of the opposition by committing atrocities and widespread and grave violations of fundamental human rights. The corrolary of this assumption is another: that if we change the calculus of the “rational” decision-maker, the behavior of the Syrian troops and state security personnel will automicatically change, in this case to halt the killing. Together, these assumptions amount to what is known as “the rational actor fallacy”, the belief that the decisions and actions of a large and complicated organization–such as the government of a country–are taken by a unitary “mind” that perceives reality, makes decisions, and implements those decisions as if it were a single “rational actor”.

See the classic studies on the rational actor fallacy:

(1) Graham Allison and Philip Zelikov, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (2d ed. 1999); and

(2) John D. Steinbruner, The Cybernetic Theory of Decision: New Dimensions of Political Analysis (1974, 2nd paperback ed. with a new preface 2002)

It is worth noting, in passing, that the rational actor fallacy is prominently at work in current discussions about whether or not to attack Iran to halt or set back its nuclear weapons program.

There are various assumptions here.  The first assumption is that al-Assad controls and directs the military and security forces which are committing the atrocities.

The second and related assumption is that he can stop the atrocities if he is persuaded, according to his own rational calculus, that it is more in his interest to halt the commission of these crimes than it is to allow them to proceed. 

Acting on this assumption, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has sent Kofi Annan to try to “mediate” the conflict, the assumption being that if he can persuade al-Assad, the killing will stop. 

There are several flaws in this reasoning.  First, on the basis of public information, we don’t really know if Bashar al-Assad is in control of decision-making processes in Syria, or if rather others are in effect controlling him. 

It is far from clear that Bashar al-Assad can stop the barbaric acts being committed under the leadership of military leaders, including his brother, who may view their mission as a struggle for survival and to preserve their own lives and families and, more broadly, the privileges of the Alawite minority that rules the country.  They may feel that they have reached a point of no return.

Could an emissary from the United Nations, or even China and the Soviet Union, have persuaded Pol Pot and through him the Kmer Rouge to stop the genocide in Cambodia in 1975-1979?

Could an emissary from the Allied Powers have persuaded Adolph Hitler to halt his exterminations at Auschwitz and other camps in 1943 (before adoption of the goal of “unconditional surrender” at the Casablanca Conference in January, 1943), or to have surrendered in January, 1945?

We are faced with a situation of war, of civil war, in which artillery and tanks are firing at civilian neighborhoods, and smaller weapons and even knives are being used to kill those caught in dragnets in cities like Homs, and in neighborhoods like Baba Amr.

Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that persuasion alone will stop the killing.  Even persuasion accompanied by robust military action, we may recall, did not stop Qadaffi and his military from fighting, long after any “rational” calculus would have determined it was time to stop.

Al-Assad may indeed have the leeway, under whatever constraints he may be operating, to negotiate with foreign diplomatic interlocutors as long as it gains him–and his military and state security apparatus–more time to pursue their efforts to annihilate the opposition.

In that context, he could in theory end up making some concessions, e.g., not to totally destroy Idlib like he did Baba Amr (in Homs), in order to forestall military action by the international community, or groups of states within that community.  But given the pattern of the last 11 months, even this seems unlikely. Perhaps he could agree not to destroy the next city after Idlib.

The Fourth Armored Division of the Republican Guard, under the command of Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, is currently on the march toward Idlib, according to reports.

See Khalen Yacoub Oweis (Reuters), “Forças sírias matam 54 antes da chegada de Annan,” Estadã (O Estado de São Paulo), 9 de marzo de 2012.

Lourival Sant’Anna (O Estado de S.Paulo/Antakya, Turquia), “Tanques de Assad cercam Idlib e rebeldes sírios temem novo massacre,” Estadã, 9 de marzo de 2012.

Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syrian forces kill 54 ahead of Annan peace mission,” The Daily Star (Beirut), March 09, 2012.

There are times, such as when a man or a group of men are in the act of firing weapons to kill innocent civilians, when it is necessary to halt the killing through means other than rational persuasion.

We have come to such a moment in Syria.

Kofi Annan has announced his intention to initiate a political process which would involve participation by the opposition in negotiations over how to settle the conflict.  The main opposition group has already declared its firm opposition to any such proposal. Annan’s proposals sound very similar to those of Russia. (China, to its credit, is now pushing for an immediate ceasefire and halt to the killing, at least according to public reports.)

Annan, whose greatest failure as Secretary General was to not stop the U.S. invasion of Iraq, appears determined to prevent the United States from taking any military action against al-Assad’s armed forces. He doesn’t seem to grasp the difference in circumstances between Iraq in 2003 and Syria today.

It would be a mistake to further militarize the conflict, Annan has asserted, ignoring the fact that one side in the conflict is highly militarized with all the weapons of the modern state, and is at this moment using those weapons against the Syrian opposition, including innocent civilians who have not joined the armed resistance.

Further militarization?  By providing people with arms and other assistance so that they can defend themselves against the wanton commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity?

Sadly, Annan’s mission will only serve to give al-Assad further time to eliminate his opposition, and to offer multiple opportunities for him to play the various nations of the civilized world off against each other.  This he did brilliantly with the Arab League in delaying its imposition of sanctions, with his immensely cynical “acceptance” of the Arab League monitors, when he had no intention of complying with the conditions for their deployment. And never did.

In short, the Annan mission, and further delay such as that being pushed by the United States, will under the best of circumstances, only serve to help al-Assad consolidate his regime, and his reign of terror. 

After the “mediation”, after the negotiations, any solution that leaves al-Assad and his regime in place will also be a solution that allows his military and state security forces to hunt down and torture and execute opponents to the regime. That is the best-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario is a long and drawn-out civil war, which over time is likely to drag in other powers from the region, and beyond.

Another part of the worst-case scenario is that the civilized world will have to live with the “day after”–the “day after” it has looked the other way in the face of the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The day after the international community, with full awareness–in real time–of the details of these acts of barbarism, has done nothing to effectively stop them.

It will be a different world, in which dictators everywhere can take heart in knowing that the international “responsibility to protect” is empty verbiage.

It will be a world in which such dictators will be emboldened to use all the instruments of terror, if necessary when faced by civil opposition, to retain their hold on power.

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