Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam suggests a federal governance structure may be the answer to disorder in Syria at a presentation at the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy


What strategy should be used to create order in the land of Syria, where disorder reigns, causing widespread suffering, fostering extremism, including ISIS, and a huge refugee crisis?

Professor Bar-Yam, president of NECSI, recently challenged the students at the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and DIplomacy, to go beyond conventional ideas and develop a model for peace in the area. He proposed that it may be necessary to transcend the Westphalia Peace Convention that relies upon nation-states as the entity of power in order to recognize the importance of increased local autonomy for ethnic/religious/linguistic groups, as well as the need for global decision making due to global interdependence. He provided two scientific results that can guide the effort: (1) the need for federal governance structures to allow for local autonomy of groups that are geographically separated in areas of a certain size, and (2) the need for global policies that ensure the poor are not made desperate because of the cost of food in the global food supply system.

These recommendations arise because of NECSI’s work on ethnic violence and on the origins of the social unrest leading to the disorder of Syria in the first place.

NECSI’s research [1-4] into ethnic violence shows that violence is likely in areas where ethnic groups are in patches of between 20 and 60 km embeded in areas of other groups. Intergroup friction for neighborhoods below and above this range is low because of integration in the former and separation in the latter. The work also shows how violence in Switzerland is prevented though geographic and political (primarily Canton) boundaries in their federal system. He suggested that federal governance structures (Switzerland and US) are much more adaptive to local population structures and thus can be a model for peaceful solutions in other places. The problem in Yugoslavia and India, on the other hand, is that local administrative boundaries, and the degree of local autonomy, is not well adapted to the demographic geography of the population.

In the case of Syria ethnic geography suggests, and recent experience confirms, that ethnic violence is a major component of conflict there. Bar-Yam suggests a federal structure with well placed boundaries is an important step toward stabilizing local and national governance.

NECSI research [5] also shows how economics plays a key role in the social unrest. It identified a direct link between global grain prices and unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, including Syria [6,7]. A global food price increase in 2007-8 coincided with food riots around the world and a second in 2010-11 coincided with the riots and rebolutions in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, which led to the destabilization of Syria.

Moreover, NECSI showed that the food price increases triggering the Arab spring and the Syrian Civil War can be traced back to energy and market polices of the United States. Deregulation of US commodity markets allowed speculators that left the mortgage and stock markets during the financial crisis to invest in commodities, leading to the large bubbles and crashes that were the food price spikes in 2007-8 and 2010-11. The price increase was also strongly affected by the conversion of corn into ethanol mandated by US biofuel laws. Bar-Yam suggested that US policymakers should recognize the worldwide impacts of internal US economic decisions, as starkly demonstrated by the Syrian crisis. The research implies that food prices can be stabilized by reversing or reducing the ethanol mandate, and by reregulating commodity markets with laws originally implemented during the Great Depression to prevent such market fluctuations.

Taking these two scientific results in to account requires developing new federal governance structures for Syria and imbuing domestic decisions with global attention. Prof. Bar-Yam poses these as a challenge for students of diplomacy and foreign policy.


  1. A. Gros, A.S. Gard-Murray, Y. Bar-Yam, Conflict in Yemen: From ethnic fighting to food riots. arXiv:1207.5778 (July 24, 2012).

  2. A. Rutherford, D. Harmon, J. Werfel, S. Bar-Yam, A.S. Gard-Murray, A. Gros, Y. Bar-Yam, Good fences: The importance of setting boundaries for peaceful coexistencePLoS ONE 9(5): e95660 (May 21, 2014). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095660

  3. M. Lim, R. Metzler, Y. Bar-Yam, Global pattern formation and ethnic/cultural violenceScience 317: 5844 (2007).

  4. Y. Bar-Yam, Making Things Work (Knowledge Press, Cambridge, 2005), Chap. 16.

  5. M. Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, K.Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Accurate market price formation model with both supply-demand and trend-following for global food prices providing policy recommendationsPNAS (September 26, 2015). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1413108112

  6. M. Lagi, K.Z. Bertrand, Y. Bar-Yam, The food crises and political instability in North Africa and the Middle East. arXiv:1108.2455 (August 10, 2011).

  7. M. Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, K.Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam, The food crises: A quantitative model of food prices including speculators and ethanol conversion. arXiv:1109.4859 (September 21, 2011).