Political Science on Syria

As political scientists gather for APSA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago, and the U.S. government considers its response to the suspected use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime in Syria, it is worth stepping back to look back at how political scientists as academics are engaging with this critical question. There has been a lot of recent commentary on Syria by political scientists, so much so that I can link to summaries here, here, and here.

Yet something is missing from the conversation among political scientists: Syria experts.

Now let me be absolutely clear here: I am not opposed whatsoever to using general theories and general statistical associations to inform how we think of contemporary events like those in Syria. (Although I am surprised we’re not hearing more about prediction rather than explanation, and I’m still waiting for Jay Ulfelder to post on this [for now, this post is good enough].) But I also want to read informed commentary from people who really know Syria, who have lived there and who have contacts within the regime and real knowledge about how it works, what Assad’s constraints and incentives are, and so forth.

This kind of knowledge cannot be gained from reading the news, reading the secondary literature, or from a couple of visits—although these are better than nothing. It requires careful and focused study, and real language proficiency, all with an eye towards the types of questions that political scientists ask.

People with this sort of deep knowledge about Syria exist, they just aren’t part of the political science academic community, at least not the one participating in this conversation. And that leaves our discipline at a disadvantage. Especially given reasonable worries, such as those expressed by Erik Voeten, that Syria may be different from other cases. (There are also massive selection issues in the quantitative study of the effects of military intervention on war outcomes and killings, but I’ll just ignore these for now.)

Think about it this way: if China had used chemical weapons against an insurgent opposition, we would be having an interesting and hopefully productive conversation between quantitative security scholars and China hands about what U.S. policy options would be. Why do we have so many China hands, but no Syria hands? Probably because of the professional incentives associated with the learning about small countries. It also may have something to do with the way that Middle Eastern studies and East Asianstudies operate, and how they interact with political science as an academic field. I’m not an expert in either so these are only guesses.

It may be inevitable that political science will not produce a deep pool of Syrianists(?) whose expertise can inform the academic discussion of Syria in the context of a possible foreign military intervention. Yet it is worth acknowledging that this leaves us at a distinct disadvantage at a moment that we most want our discipline to be relevant.