Small Wars Journal

After Checkmate: The Use and Limits of the Chess Analogy Regarding Syria

After Checkmate: The Use and Limits of the Chess Analogy Regarding Syria

Ranjit Singh and CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, USN

The Value of the Chess Metaphor

Many commentaries have shown that the temptation to view Syria as a regional chess match is strong.  The chess metaphor is often invoked to analyze the potential benefits and risks of the decision towards US intervention, too.[i]  Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be surprised that in May, the Russian leader of the World Chess Federation, Kirsan Ilyumizhinov, met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, purportedly to discuss an end to the conflict.[ii]

That said, it is worth questioning the value of the chess metaphor itself, to the analysis of the Syrian situation more generally. This article contends that chess does indeed help us to understand the stakes involved in the Syrian conflict. However, it does not do so in the manner commonly assumed.  Chess is a useful way to model conflict, but doing so requires an understanding beyond the simple dimensions of the game, and into the psychology, culture, and sociology of a game played over centuries. 

Rules? What Rules?

Chess itself varies considerably by time and place in ways that can affect the metaphor’s utility. Surveying the muddled, extremely fluid, and very data-poor “board” of the Syrian conflict, who can say who is a pawn, a rook, a bishop, or a knight? Indeed, who are the two queens, the game’s most powerful actors? Are there even only two sides at play?  Of course not; there are multiple players, and the queen may not be a person but a key city or stronghold, as we have seen with the pro-Assad forces retaking the strategic city of Qusair and attempting to recapture the city of Aleppo.  For the Alawites, the port city of Latakia is key to their survival. 

Psychologically, too, chess is played differently in the United States from Russia or the Middle East.  For instance, historically the queen is known as the wazir or fers (minister or councilor), and before the evolution of modern western chess, this piece moved only one space and was not the powerful piece we know today.  However, the minister psychologically supports the lesser pieces in addition to the king, it is not a co-partner in the sole defense of the king. In Syria, this means that Bashar al-Assad and his inner-circle rely on “ministers” that enable him to remain in power.  These ministers may also be in Iran, and one would be Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.  When anti-Assad forces detonated a bomb using a suicide bomber within a conference room packed with Assad’s inner-circle taking out the head of intelligence, armed forces chief of staff, and several other key figures to include Assad’s brother in law Asaf Shawkat, this was as if a pawn took out two knights in two moves, before sacrificing itself.  

Whose Rules? If Any?

Furthermore, the rules of chess are not fixed across cultures.  Some rules the authors have encountered playing chess in the region include a prohibition on castling, and granting victory when the only piece left to the opponent is the king.  Another peculiar rule permits opening the game by moving two pawns two spaces, instead of our usual option of moving one pawn two spaces or two pawns one space each.  It is not always easy to ask the chess opponent in an Arab coffee shop which rules they would like to follow, because basic rules are taught from childhood. 

For the Syria analogy, as for all war, there are no real rule books. Even if there were, rules are often set aside in the heat of war, even more so in an insurgency. Yet Arabs typically view with favor the opponent who arrays the pieces on the board to maximum advantage by not focusing completely on the pieces and their intrinsic worth, but on space.  This strategic emphasis may derive from the importation of proto-chess from India. The Arabic word for chess, shatranj, comes from the Sanskrit chaturanga, and the idea of dominating space and maneuver typifies an eastern view of the game.  Playing chess in the Near East is more nearly like combining chess with the Asian game of Go.  As in the latter game, Syria must be viewed in terms of terrain and dominance on a landscape, with border areas being a source of supply, and with the added complexity of air-space.  Depriving Bashar al-Assad from access to spaces undermines his ability to resupply.

After Checkmate

Perhaps no aspect of the chess metaphor is more problematic than how the game ends. Ideally, the game of chess ends with “checkmate.” Checkmate, from the Persian “shah mat,” means “the Shah – or King – is dead.” In the game, this occurs when the cornered King is done for and must resign.  It has no other outlet and all options on the 64 square board have been exhausted.

In Syria, the obvious candidate for “King” is dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose father built the current regime, starting in 1970. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, can be viewed as having rewritten the rule-book for the game, transforming Baathism into a mechanism by which the Alawite minority ascended to the pinnacle of power from among the minorities favored during the French Mandate (1920-1946).  We may want to see Bashar al-Assad’s departure as the logical conclusion of Syria’s chess match. But, as students of the game know, and a peek into any chess manual reveals, one typically arrives at the “end game” stage only after most of the other pieces are eliminated. Let this be a sobering thought for any actors now contemplating direct intervention in Syria: rarely is the checkmate of the king accomplished in the early stages of the game. 

Moreover, the fact that one wins the game by defeating the king tells us nothing about what happens afterwards. Chess simply doesn’t go that far. For all its analytical rigor, after checkmate there simply aren’t any post-conflict resentments, blowbacks, or bloody sectarian reprisals that demand more, possibly graver decisions be made – and may require more intervention.

Therefore, imagine the remaining pieces after checkmate carrying on the fight, wearing down the opponent on the 64 square board.  Envision the squares of this board being influenced by other independent boards that represent neighboring states like Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran.  Or picture  an influx of pawns and rooks onto a square or squares of the board; i.e.,  non-state actors such as Lebanese Hizbullah, as well as Iraqi Sunni and Shiite factions filtering across the border.  Victory in the game of chess is simple and conclusive. But the many concerns that will undoubtedly appear should al-Assad be checkmated are real, probably horrific, and absolutely crucial to the quality of current US decision making on Syria. What will happen to the Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and even Sunnis who supported the old regime, and is the US prepared to intervene on their behalf should violent sectarianism persist?

Finally, chess also incorporates the not-uncommon outcome of the draw, where neither side wins.  The draw is manifested by Bashar al-Assad remaining in power on parts of the board, while the insurgency against him rages on.  What do we do then?  Or should the Russians equip him with advanced anti-air weaponry complicating attempts to enforce a no-fly zone, likely a topic of discussion in the G-20 Summit this month in Ireland. 

It is the responsibility of decision makers and advisers, especially those who advocate direct intervention in the Syria conflict, to consider these questions as fully as possible. The US is morally obligated to assist refugees and lead efforts to find diplomatic solutions to the civil war. But, as we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan – and this may be the ultimate value of the chess metaphor – it is far easier to upset the board than later to rearrange the pieces to our liking. We also cannot play the game we wish to, but are driven by the reactions of the opponent, but in the international arena there are various degrees of opponents.  Other players, like Russia and China, will manipulate the pieces, and – as in the case of the al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons – will not play according to the rules we like.

The views expressed in this essay are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Both authors thank CAPT Chandler Swallow, USN for his encouragement and edits that made this essay possible.