Foreign Policy Blogs

Threefold Repetition

In chess there are several ways a game can end without a victor, none of them particularly satisfying. There is the stalemate, when a player cannot move but is not in check; essentially a locked board. There is the fifty-move rule, which kicks in when fifty successive moves do not result in a capture; no one wants to play when nothing is happening. However, there is also the more obscure means to ending the game without a winner, known as threefold capture. Threefold capture kicks in when the same position occurs three times in the same game, the board staying the same despite both players best efforts.

If Syria were a game of chess, threefold repetition would have been called months ago.

The uprising, now entering its fourth month, has gone through a long series of moves by both sides–if you can reduce the Syrian uprising to something as simple as sides–and we seem to keep ending up in the same space.

The protest movement is simply not strong enough to unseat the Syrian state apparatus. And, the Regime isn’t strong enough to stamp out the frothing social movement that fights to unseat it. There have been several moments when it looked like this equation might change, but it remains an elemental truth; neither side is strong enough to defeat the other.

For the time being, the silent majority of Syrians continue to remain on the sidelines of the conflict, which is at least a tactic approval of the status quo. Whether that majority remains quiet because of fear–understandable–or out of genuine approval is largely unimportant, as the status quo will remain in place if the general populous is not speaking out, irregardless of their reasons.

The crazy part is that both sides keep resorting to the same tactics.

Threefold Repetition

Syrian Soldiers enforce an ongoing government crackdown against political demonstrations

The Regime is holding out against meaningful reform to the last. While many promises have been made, very few have been kept. While the emergency law was abolished, a major demand of early protesters, it was replaced by an even more restrictive piece of legislation. The President has promised that violence will not be used by his forces, only to have fresh reports of large scale murder and torture seemingly pop up each week.

By doing so the regime is creating a toxic environment for itself, neglecting the age old adage against using the restroom in close proximity to one’s bed.

For its part, the protest movement hasn’t changed tactics either. From the beginning Syrian demonstrations have been largely leaderless, and unable to coalesce around any sort of central program or ideology. That still remains true, as Syrians who are actually fed up with Assad, and might be convinced to rally around a viable option, see no such option waiting for them amongst the protesters. Consistently able to bring numbers to the streets through a mixture of anger and hope, the protest movement has been unable to allay the sectarian, and political fears of Syria.

Threefold Repetition

Syrians continue to take to the streets against the Assad Regime across the country

Even international actors are seemingly stuck in the holding pattern of repeated moves, as the US tries to come up with even more ways to sanction the Syrian regime.

Thus we find ourselves at a threefold repetition, both sides occupying the same space, taking the same moves, with no arbiter to call the game.

Where will this lead?

It seems certain that for the short term Syria will remain deadlocked in this brutal series of moves and countermoves, with neither side able to do anything definitive.

The longer you project this out however, the more pressure will be placed squarely on the regime, and the more likely a dramatic move will take place, one way or  another.

One of the pressures that has been building on the regime for sometime, and will only get worse, is the economic component of the protests. The Syrian economy has essentially ground to a complete halt. Even before I left Syria in early March, business had slowed down significantly as Egypt and Tunisia had people scared, and unwilling to part with hard earned cash. Now, in the middle of a full fledged challenge to the status quo, no one is spending on anything outside of the basics.

The urban business class has always been a main pillar of support for both Assads, benefiting from the cozy deals and stability they provided. However, if Syria is closed for business that pillar will eventually evaporate if the protests continue, as the merchants will find the cost of reform to be lower than continued unrest.

There is also the diplomatic pressure that comes along with murdering your own people. Bashar navigated one trip through the waters of international condemnation. Can he do it again? Especially with his crown jewel of improved ties with Turkey being taken away? Even Russia has begun to show signs of balking at Syrian actions.

The most serious challenge to the Assad dynasty is ideological and domestic. International and economic pressure can do a lot to weaken a President. Take a look at Syria in the immediate aftermath of the Hariri assassination: dramatically weakened, the Syrian president was able to withstand significant international pressure, and a poor economy, because he enjoyed the support of his people.

Soon enough, that support will have completely eroded as legitimate demands are repeatedly met with violence. Syrians can see the world around them, and they want a piece of the action.

President Assad looked like the ticket to that opening, that better life, when he came to power eleven years ago. It would take a dramatic, and seemingly impossible, move from him to regain that status. Unfortunately, he has proven to be either unable or unwilling to make that move and so we find ourselves here, at a bloody and prolonged draw with no immediate end in sight.

Who knows what will upend this perilous draw.



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.