Chaos theory and intervention in the Middle East

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop would be well advised to add Chaos Theory for Dummies to their reading as a cautionary note to intervention in the Middle East.

Chaos theory tells us that certain types of systems can be extremely unpredictable in their behaviour. Such systems function very differently from the majority of the systems that we encountered in everyday life. Railway systems for instance, despite occasional well-publicised lapses, performed with remarkable regularity, as does our banking system, our education system and our taxation system. This is because these systems have The pervasive subsystems which are designed to guard against any irregularity in behaviour. The technical term for these subsystems is negative feedback systems.

The timetable for the railways is such a negative feedback system. It is designed to stop unpredictable behaviour from train drivers: leaving when they feel like it, choosing which route they going to take, not stopping at some of the stations. is also designed to create predictable behaviour on the part of the passengers: turning up when the train is due.

There are other systems that are potentially chaotic, that is their behaviour cannot be predicted in the medium term. There are some characteristics of these systems that can help us identify them.

The first is a phenomenon called “sensitivity to initial conditions”. This means that small changes in the initial starting point of system can often lead to widely divergent and unpredictable finishing points.The classic example of this is the skier skiing over set of moguls. A small change in the starting position leads to a small change in the approach of the first mogul, this change is then amplified in the approach the second mogul and so on.

In the analogy of the moguls, the skier serves as a negative feedback system trying to iron out any variations that will adversely affect the line that they can ski. It is a matter of whether the skier can control the amplifying effects of the initial conditions.

The second important element of chaotic systems is multiple and close connections between the elements within the system. When people go to a large cocktail party, there are likely to be such multiple and close connections and as a consequence, the social (and sexual) outcomes of the cocktail party can be highly unpredictable. If however there is a negative feedback system in the form of the rule “you can only talk to your spouse” then the outcomes are far more predictable (if somewhat less interesting).

These multiple and close connections are most frequently observed in social systems. The cocktail party does not necessarily have a history of interactions between the attendees. But many social systems, such as political systems, have long histories of interactions that can influence the initial conditions for any given social or political situation.

And this brings us to the very interesting aspect of the concept of sensitivity to initial conditions. In the case of the skier, it is quite clear when the ski runs begins. However, in a political situation such as the one that exists in the Middle East the concept of initial conditions is a continuous one where the sensitivity of the system state at any given time, on any given day, may determine the divergence of the outcomes.

The third important element of chaotic systems is the predominance of positive feedback systems which serve to amplify the behaviour of the system overwhelming any negative feedback systems (which tend to dampen the behaviour).

These positive feedback systems are exemplified by the systems archetype “Escalation” which be seen as a non-cooperative game where both players suppose that just one of them can win. They are responding to actions of the other player in order to “defend themselves”. The aggression grows and can result in self-destructive behavior. The vicious circle can be broken by one agent stopping to react defensively and turn the game into cooperative one. One classic example of this is the arms race of the 1950s and 1960s Source Wikipedia

The political situation in the Middle East has all the classic characteristics of a chaotic system. The first is that there are multiple and complex interactions between the various players. At the heart of this conflict is the sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites which involves who is the true successor to the Prophet Muhammad. It is not the kind of conflict is going to find an easy resolution.

Sunni and Shia Islam are the two major denominations of Islam. A good approximation is that 87–89% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni however majority of Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, as well as being a politically significant minority in Lebanon are Shi’ite which makes the concept of multiple and complex interactions are so important.

The Sunni/Shi’ite division runs through every country in the Middle East. The civil war that has raged in Iraq since withdrawal of US troops is between the deposed Shi’ite minority (which was headed by Saddam Hussein) and the US-installed Sunni government. So while individual countries may be at war with each other, there may also be dealing with civil disturbances based on sectarian divisions where Sunnis one country may unite with Sunnis in another to fight the established government. And remember, that these sectarian divisions date back to 632, the year the Prophet died. This was some 900 years earlier than the birth of Protestantism in Germany.

The historical context of the sectarian divisions in the Middle East plays an important role alongside the national interests of ruling elites and these interactions will have a complexity and history that very few western diplomats will be able to understand.

The second important element that makes the situation in the Middle East potentially chaotic and certainly unpredictable is the lack of any negative feedback systems that can dampen the escalation of the violence. The counter-intuitive of effect of the Escalation archetype is that the intervention by the “coalition of the willing” to degrade ISIS is designed to be a negative feedback system that will bring the system back into a stable state. The difficulty is that the response of ISIS will be designed to bring the situation to a different stable state,one where the Caliphate rules large section of the region. When you link two negative feedback systems together like this, you wind up with one single positive feedback system where the particular action, in this case war, escalates which on turn destabilises the region.

Left to its own devices, the political system in the Middle East will eventually find some equilibrium. This equilibrium may be unacceptable to the Western powers as it will include ISIS having some power and influence within the region. It is likely that a number of Western leaders, including Julie Bishop recognise this.

The dilemma is that military intervention, even that limited to air strikes, may make the situation far less stable weighting the balance very strongly in favour of the Iraq Kurds who are predominantly Sunni but who are also opposed to the rule of Sunni Baghdad. The Western allies are basing their support of the Kurds on a belief that they are the most effective buffer against ISIS. This may well be true but they’re not yet recognised national group, being spread across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Eventually their claims for self-government will need to be recognised and this is likely to produce widespread tensions across the entire region

There are no easy solutions in the region. In fact, there may be no solutions. Ultimately, it will be a question of what the equilibrium state will be: the degradation and containment of ISIS through an ongoing presence and sporadic military intervention on the part of the West or a political solution that the main players in the region work out for themselves.

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