Attack on Syria: More issues, more tensions, and more systemic risk

Attack Syria

Today, the United States conducted an attack on Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier this week by the Syrian regime of President Assad. “The intent was to strike the various chemical weapons units,” said a former U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military planning. “We had postured our intelligence units to give us bomb damage assessments — and if we didn’t get the effect we were looking for, we would have hit them again.”

Military action is supposed to serve political objectives. When options are considered – like the strikes conducted today – decision makers and the military focus on the capabilities and intentions of its adversaries (the Syrian regime in this case). By conducting a strike like today, the United States tries to degrade its adversaries capabilities and to influence its intentions, e.g. by changing the adversaries cost-/benefit-calculations.

Risk of escalation, also is an important factor in the decision making process. What will or could be – for example – the response of Russia and Iran, both supporters of the Syrian president?

However, the risk of escalation is not limited to the intensification of hostilities in Syria or the region: There also is systemic risk, that probably is not taken into consideration.

Since (≈) 2011 the System is in a – what I name – a high connectivity regime; the last phase of the current international order (the United Nations), that has become increasingly dysfunctional and urgently needs an upgrade.

Typically, during high connectivity regimes, the (still increasing) connectivity of the network of issues of which states are integral parts, increasingly hinders the release of tensions in the System, and the ability of the international order and states to solve issues.

Instead of being solved, actions lead to further tensions, etc. Tensions and (unsolved) issues accumulate in the System.

At a certain point, the accumulating issues and tensions become connected, the System becomes critical, and produces a systemic war in response. That is what happened four times during the period 1495-1945. At this stage – during the high connectivity regime – the System is so to say charging for a systemic war, a reorganization of the System.

The United States’ strike on Syria today, will not solve the issue, but only further aggravate it, and contribute to the further buildup of tensions. That is a direct consequence of the current condition of the System

In below table I show in what issues the United States, Russia, Iran and China at this point are directly or indirectly involved. This overview is not complete (more states are involved, there are more issues, etc.), but gives an approximation of the inter-connectedness of issue clusters. The issues also are in different stages of development.

Network issues

This table shows the involvement of four states (The United States, Russia, Iran and China, all qualify as Great Powers) in various issues that have accumulated in the System. The United States is the node (state) with the highest centrality in this network. For that reason it also is the most vulnerable for attack. Its actions – but also for example its destabilization – will reverberate through the whole System.

Because of the overlap of states that are involved in the various issues, their is a growing potential for the forming of a global issue cluster. It is a matter of time.

The moment the network of connected issues spans the System (and involve all Great Powers in the System) the System has become critical, and will produce a systemic crisis (war) in response.


This figure shows how clusters in a network connect, and eventually span the System; at that point the correlation length of the System has become one, and system-wide communication is possible. That includes the ‘communication’ of hostilities (source figure: wikipedia).

Network science has studied the vulnerability of networks.

The United States links all issues in the network: It was also the United States that in 1941 linked the collapse of Europe (the European war cluster, in 1939) to the war cluster in Asia (with Japan as its main regional actor). From that point (1941) onwards, the global System (not only Europe, its core) was in a critical condition.

The United States is the most central state (‘node’) in this network, and its attack today on Syria has consequences for the challenges it confronts with North Korea and how it deals with China; the United States also has its (military) limitations, and is – as I explained- very exposed.

Whatever the ‘calculations’ and assessments of the United States, its most recent action – as will be the case with Russia’s subsequent response, and (even) the absence of an European reaction – will further increase systemic risk; the risk of an eventual systemic (war) response which will concerns us all, the whole System.

The System is a war trap, with its own autonomous logic and momentum. Their are only very limited opportunities left to alter its course.