Prospect Theory Syria 1946-1991

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Prospect Theory and Soviet Policy Towards Syria, 1966-1967 Author(s): Audrey McInerney Source: Political Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 2, Special Issue: Prospect Theory and Political Psychology (Jun., 1992), pp. 265-282 Published by: International Society of Political Psychology Stable URL: Accessed: 10/02/2009 08:48Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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Political Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1992

Prospect Theory and Soviet Policy Towards Syria, 1966-1967Audrey Mclnerney'

Thispaper first describes and analyzes Soviet behavior toward its Arab clients, especially Syria, in 1966 and 1967. It then shows that the Soviet leadershipwas risk-acceptantin order to avert the loss of the incumbent Syrianregime. Finally, the paper argues that the Soviets defined the status quo in the Middle East as including a socialist-oriented Syria aligned with the Soviet Union against the West and against China in the socialist and national-liberationmovements.KEY WORDS: prospect theory, the Soviet Union, decision-making, risk-taking.

INTRODUCTION The Six Day War in June 1967 struck a devastatingblow to the Soviet Union's Arab clients and risked a U.S.-Soviet confrontation.It was a war the Soviets did not want and had sought to avoid. But, in fact, Soviet rhetoricand behaviorjust priorto the June Warwas inflammatory reckless in such a way and thatthey helped provokean Arab-Israeli confrontation.In the monthspriorto the war, the Soviets became more willing to accept the risk of war in orderto defend the existence of the neo-Baathregime in Syria. This article arguesthat prospect theory provides a plausible explanationas to why the Soviet leadershiptook a foreign policy risk to defend the Syrian regime from an Israeli attack. Evidence suggests thatduringthe periodof intense East-West rivalrySoviet leaders behaved in a mannersimilar to Tverskyand Kahneman'ssubjects when faced with similar situations. This perspective is interestingbecause it differs from standardexpected utility explanations and those based on unique Soviet experiencesor ideological biases. For example, NathanLeites's operationalcode of the Bolsheviks, based on a psychological analysis of Soviet leaders, suggests'Columbia University, New York, New York 10027. 2650162-895X/92/0600-0265$06.50/1 ? 1992 International Society of Political Psychology



they "know when to retreat"and accept small setbacks knowing that they will bounce back when conditions are ripe. The failure to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds is, according to the operationalcode, considered adventurism(Leites, 1953; George, 1969). HannesAdomeit (1982) has also drawnon Soviet ideology and the operationalcode to explain Soviet risk-taking.Prospect theory, on the other hand, suggests that the Soviets would be less willing to retreatif it meant accepting a loss to the status quo. Common cognitive processes, such as those identified by prospecttheory, can better explain instances of Soviet risk-taking. The Soviet leadership has reactedto foreign policy dilemmasin much the same way as otherstates'leaders, even though defining the status quo involves the interactionof cognitive processes with uniquely Soviet characteristicsinvolving ideological concerns and political culture. The most interestingquestion this argumentraises is how the Soviets decided whetherthey were faced with potentialgain or potentialloss. This, in turn, raises the question of how the Soviet leadershiphas defined the status quo, the standardagainst which gain and loss must necessarily be measured.

STARTING A WAR TO DEFEND THE STATUS QUO?: THE SOVIET UNION AND SYRIA In April and May of 1967, the Soviets circulatedwhat is generallyagreedto be incorrectinformationabout Israelitroop concentrations the Syrianborder. on to the Soviets, Israel'spurposewas an imminentassaulton Syriawith According a view to overthrowingthe incumbentneo-Baathregime. In April and early May the Soviets privately conveyed false informationabout Israeli troop concentrations to Egyptianleaders. In May the Soviets began publishingtheir accusations in the press. The purposein makingthese statementsaboutIsraelwas to cement the defensive unity of Egypt and Syria and to encourage Nasser to more vigorously supportSyria in general and to move against Israel in particular. To the Soviets, an Israeli attack must have appearedplausible in view of events in the region. Israel was seen as an agent of U.S. imperialismand hostile to the Soviet presence in the region. Additionally,in 1966 and 1967 there was a significant increase in U.S. economic and military aid to Israel (Neff, 1984), making Israel more capable of fighting the Soviet Union's Arabclients. Finally, the Soviets may have seen the April 1967 militarycoup in Greece as part of a larger imperialist design (Samoilov, 1967; Bragin, 1967). The Soviets could easily believe Israel was a U.S. tool in instigating a coup in Syria that would bring to power a pro-Western regime.

ProspectTheoryand SovietPolicy


In the immediateMiddle East scenario, therehad been severalrecent armed conflicts between Israel and Syria, including a dramaticair battle on April 7 in that which six SyrianMiGs were shot down and which demonstrated Syria could Israel on its own. As the conflict between Israel and Syria rapidly not fight escalated, bellicose statementsemanatedfrom the Israeligovernment,including threatsto overthrowthe Damascus regime if terroristactivities directedtoward Israeldid not cease. In view of the above, if the Soviets did not fully believe their claims aboutIsraelitroopconcentrations,they did appearto have good reasonsto make them. The effect of the Soviet warnings was that Nasser was handed the opportunity to take action against Israel by focusing on the need to defend his Arab ally, Syria. Nasser, sensitive to criticismthathe had not aided Syriaon April 7 or Jordanwhen attacked the previous November, and concerned for his slipping prestige in the Arab world, decided to use the informationprovided by the Soviets to demand the withdrawalof United Nations forces from the Sinai and subsequently to occupy Sharm el-Sheik and close the Tiran Straits to Israeli shipping. The Israelishad previouslymade it known thatthey consideredclosure of the straitsa casus belli (Golan, 1990; Stein and Tanter,1980) and the United States had publicly guaranteedfree shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba (Johnson, 1971). Thus, the Soviets knew that Nasser's actions createda real possibility of war, one that, in fact, materialized. Evidently, this was not what the Soviets wanted (Heikal, 1978). During the course of Nasser's actions in the Sinai, the Soviet leaders sent him several messages requestingthat he exercise caution and not antagonizeIsrael. The Soviets belatedlybecame concernedaboutthe risk of a Middle East war, which, of course, broughtwith it potential confrontationbetween the United States and the Soviet Union. Perhapsof even greaterconcernto the Soviets-because they knew it more likely-was that war could topple the Syrianregime. This was the very outcome the Soviets had soughtto preventwith their earlier warnings. Immediately upon the outbreakof hostilities, the Soviets began working toward a ceasefire, cooperating with the United States and the U.N. Security Council. The only instance of Soviet militancy came on June 10 when Kosygin threatenedvia the hotline to intervene unilaterallyand militarily in the war if Israel did not stop its advance into Syria and towardDamascus(Johnson, 1971). When the ceasefire did go into effect, the Soviet Union returnedto a more cooperativestance on resolving the issues, one that its Arab allies believed to be too favorableto Israel. It seems clear that at least some of the Soviet leadership could see no benefit in an Arab-Israeliwar and were fearfulof one startingonce Nasser moved his troops into the Sinai. Yet Soviet decision-makershad been willing to engage in the reckless tactic of originatingand spreadingthe story of an imminent Israeli attack on Syria.



THE PUZZLE Why did the Soviet leadershipchoose to risk war in the Middle East? The standardexplanationis that the Soviets sought to enhance their prestige in the to region, and particularly decreaseWesterninfluence. The way to do so was via an anti-Westernanti-imperialistcoalition of Arab regimes. To that end, Soviet policy emphasizedArabunity among "socially progressive"regimes like thatof the Baath Party in Syria. Jon Glassman writes:... in the weeks before the Six-Day WarSoviet diplomacyplayed a dangerousgame that wished to fortify Syria's "progre