Third Rome: Understanding Syria with Graph Theory

The Syrian civil war is coming to a close, and it looks like Russia – er, Assad – has won. According to the Military Balance 2019, Since 2015, 500 senior Russian officers have cycled through Syria, and nearly 39,000 flight missions have been carried out. Russia’s army has secured combat experience in informationised conditions, and a grateful client in West Asia. (And about 400,000 deaths, but that, apparently, is not relevant to weighty realist strategies.)

So what comes next in Syria? Here, I analyse the relationships between various actors using graph theory, specifically the property of triadic closure. Imagine you have three people – A, B, and C. If A is friends with both B and C, either B and C will become friends because they have a mutual acquaintance, or A will become friendlier with either one of B or C and less friendly with the other.

So first, let’s draw out the actors as nodes (dots). Here, I’ve selected the USA, Israel, Iran, Russia, Assad, and “Rebels”. Edges (black lines) represent relationships between actors – I haven’t connected them all because I want to make the shape easier to understand. Here, I’ve connected some more dots, so what we can see is that the USA and Rebels are apices of two pyramids with a shared base. At each point of the base is an actor. It doesn’t really matter what the shape of the graph is, just look at the edges. Specifically, since we’re looking at triadic closure, in any triangle, you should see either one green edge or three green edges. OK? (Of course, this is hugely simplistic and only works at a general level, for snapshots of time, within a particular region. Actors may act and calculate their interests differently in different contexts.) That said, check this out.

Let’s start with the triangle (Russia, Assad, Rebels). Assad is hostile to rebels (1 red side), Russia is friendly with Assad (1 green side). So Russia must be hostile to rebels (1 red side).  How about (Iran, Assad, Rebels)? Assad is hostile to rebels (1 red side), Iran is friendly with Assad (1 green side). So Iran, like Russia, must be hostile to rebels (1 red side).

Now let’s turn to the US and Israel. Look at (USA, Assad, Israel). The USA is hostile to Assad (1 red side). Israel is friendly with the USA (1 green side). So Israel must be hostile to Assad (1 red side).

We can apply the same logic (only 1 or three green sides per triangle) to the rest of the triplets as well. As you can see, the US and Israel are hostile to both Iran and Russia. Iran and Russia are friendly and cooperating with Assad against Rebels while keeping the US and Israel at bay. Now, as the war comes to a close, we’re faced with a new question: how do the dynamics change when you remove Rebels?

As you can see, it’s a much simpler shape. But the relationships are a little off, and need to be rotated. So now we have only one pyramid, let’s re-position ourselves in space to see it better.

There we go. Let’s begin by mapping the most recent relationships we’re familiar with. The US and Israel are great friends, and US-Iran tensions have been rising. So we can expect Israel to be hostile to Iran, which it usually is anyway.

Here’s where things change. Israel is now so hostile to Iran that it will attempt to keep Iran’s influence in West Asia to a minimum. It’s already cooperating with one retreating superpower – the US. To achieve its objectives, it’s now leaning towards Russia. And Russia would love to expand its role in West Asia. So in the (Russia, Israel, Iran) triangle, Russia’s calculation of its interests now makes it friendly with Israel, and makes them both hostile to Iran.

Which leads us to today’s state of affairs – the US and Israel are likely to cooperate with Russia and Assad in order to ensure “stability” in West Asia, but really they’re all working to minimise Iran’s influence. However, this might change again if Assad were to lean towards Iran as a balancer (though Iran has nowhere near the amount of global clout as the US and Russia).

American, Russian and Israeli national security advisors are meeting in Jerusalem this month, likely to reach a deal on Syria.

Relationships in IR are neither permanent or binary. They’re complex, nuanced, and extremely contextual. However, triadic closure is still a useful abstraction to track actors in high-stakes situations where relationships are clearer. Think about it next time you’re wracking your brains over a geopolitical puzzle.