The problem of the Syrian civil war is not merely empirical but also conceptual. The proliferation of armed groups, the interventions from myriad of international actors, have transformed the situation from one of a bipolar struggle between the Baathist regime and its enemies, into a multipolar conflict in which various armed forces are engaged in complex permutations of competition and co-operation. As a consequence, the scale of death and destruction seems to show little sign of abating. The explanations for the occurrence and continuation of the Syrian Civil War are as cloudy as the prospects and prescriptions for its speedy conclusion. It is not, however, the existence of the multiple actors which have only served to make the strategic calculations more difficult but also the absence of a conceptual vocabulary to describe and analyse the events effectively, which is to blame. This conceptual failure has major consequences for the formulation of policies that could impact positively on a situation fuelled by the Syrian Civil War. The framework of understanding of an event such as a civil war is always going to be challenging not only because of the scale of the humanitarian disaster, the multitudes of actors involved, and the cacophony of competing agenda, but also because events such as the Syrian Civil War are beyond the horizon of conventional statecraft.
The nature of the conflict that engulfed Syria in 2011 has been framed in three different narratives. Initially it was seen as a continuation of the sequence of events that formed the Arab Spring and began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia on 17 December 2010. In this interpretation, Syria joins Tunisia and Egypt as examples of countries in which people power topples authoritarian regimes. According to this interpretation the Assad regime was confronted by a genuine popular mobilization, and therefore it would not endure and would collapse swiftly. This interpretation underestimated the resilience of the Assad regime and its capacity to hold onto power despite the catastrophic loss of authority over large parts of the country.
This interpretation become further muddied as a second narrative emerged to describe the Syrian Crisis. According to this narrative the forces arrayed against Assad’s rule belonged not to the Arab Spring but rather could be best seen as another iteration of the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ like those in the former Soviet Union: the Rose revolution of Georgia, and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine as well as the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the Green Movement in Iran. In this narrative US moral and material support was only given to popular mobilizations selectively when they did not threaten friendly regimes, hence Western powers unwillingness to support uprisings in Bahrain. This made it clear that the Syrian crisis was part of US attempt at regime change. This interpretation took hold of the Iranian leadership who found themselves supporting the demonstrations that overthrew Mubarak (as part of a long fuse lit by the Islamic Revolution) and opposing the demonstrations against the Assad regime. It enabled Iran and its regional and international allies to see in the mobilizations against Assad an attempt to encircle the Islamic Republic, isolate Hezbollah from its logistical support, and assert American authority over the region authority which calamities of the Iraq invasion and occupation had done much to undermine. As consequence of this interpretation and to dismay of many supporters of the Islamic Revolution, the Iran found itself seeming to propping up one tyrant and while denouncing others.
The third interpretation saw the Syrian crisis as being part of the struggle between Sunnis and Shias in the region. This interpretation denied that the real cleavage in the region was a political one between the forces that supported dictatorships and those that opposed them. The political nature of the conflict became obscured, no longer was the Syrian Civil War based on a division between forces of the tribal and ‘republican monarchies’ and their enemies but rather a sectarian conflict in which primary difference was whether a regime or movement was Shia or Sunni. As a consequence of this view, the room for maneuverer and compromise was reduced in favour of an essentialist account in which the hostility to the enemy was based not on governmental practice but sectarian affiliation. The de-politicisation of the Syrian conflict allowed the ancien regimes of the region to establish themselves as guardians of the majority sectarian position rather than defenders of their own privileges.
These three interpretations have impacted upon the possibility of a resolution of the Syrian crisis, so that the civil war is fast becoming established as the new normal of the region. In this normal, fragile and collapsed states are no longer temporary aberrations but rather structural manifestations of a new state system in the region. The violence that the Civil Wars in Syria and Iraq have unleashed are less likely to be tamed, unless the cause of the violence is recognized as not purely the result of bad polices by bad people, but a structural transformation in the regional state system.
The emergence of new regional disorder
A regional order populated by states has given way to a system were the interacting units are no longer exclusively states but included armed groups and movements, and territories held but not integrated into a formal regional order, in short, warlordism has now been established in the region. Historically, warlordism appeared in China and Russia in the early twentieth century as centralized state collapsed. Currently it is fairly common phenomena in large parts of Africa, but it can also be found in some parts of Asia and the Americas (Marten, 2006: 50-51; Sanborn, 2010). In the MENA region this phenomenon is best exemplified by ISIL. The Cold War regional order had guaranteed most international borders in the area, thus removing one of the most important threats to state and regime survival: external invasion. This allowed these regimes to focus on internal security as the main challenge to regime survival was likely to come from within their borders. As these types of state did not rely upon their populations for revenue or support, but rather on a superpower patron, they could more or less dispense with popular legitimacy if it was not forthcoming. As long they had superpower indulgence and an effective apparatus of systematic torture and surveillance these mukhabarat states could maintain the monopoly of violence and forego the monopoly of legitimation of violence. The American-led invasion of Iraq and its interventions in propping up its clients in absence of a credible Soviet (or Russian) threat , combined to create the conditions in which neither Syria nor Iraq were able to maintain their monopoly of violence. The ability of ISIL to carve out a territory across two formal nation-states, signals the unravelling of Sykes Picot configuration of the region. It also suggests that warlordism will continue to generate instability and violence and that violence will not be contained in the existing national boundaries. This does not mean that ISIL will necessarily continue to expand, but rather that its existence will continue to contribute to creating a climate in which insurgencies will multiply and corrode the prospects of regional stability and prosperity.
Statecraft is not a universal practice but is historical and textured. Successful statecraft requires a clear understanding of the nature of the state. The emerging disorder in the region means that a state-centric system has given way to a system in which warlordism threatens to become endemic. Statecraft, configured to the realities and realpolitik of the Cold War and fictions of the Westphalian state has to adopt to an environment in which grammar of international relations is increasingly based on the war on terror and different forms of the spatialisation of power. The reactive mode of policy-making produces statecraft that is dominated by a tendency to drift and fire-fight emergencies as they arise, and constantly threatens to push to the margins pro-active and truly strategic conduct in favour of short-term tactical advantages. The drift to the immediate is held in check to a certain extent by reliance on verities and protocols associated with the currently hegemonic model of statecraft. Politicians are considered to be successful to the degree to which their behaviour conforms to the current criterion of statecraft. Politicians who are lucky enough to find themselves attached to states who are the main beneficiaries of current international system generally find it easier to be considered successful since their policies and practices are more likely to be attuned with the dictates of the dominant paradigm of statecraft. Political leaders who find themselves in situations and in states which are not so closely aligned with the dominant paradigm have a harder time (Unger, 2004: 36-47). The challenges faced by policy-makers is that the region has changed but they are still having to operate according to the logic and demands of an increasingly inappropriate paradigm. This means, in practice, that the ruptural nature of the Syrian Civil War is neglected and there is a sense in which the war is read in terms of the architecture of previous regional order in which national borders were considered to be hermetically sealed. There seems to be an expectation that either the war can be contained, or that the usual configuration of interests and resources will bring about its resolution.
The resolution of the Civil War is imagined either as a victory of one side over the other or as some kind of compromise brokered by extra-regional powers or by some rapprochement between a Sunni and Shia coalition. It is very unlikely that either of these scenarios will be were successful in putting out the fire of the Syria Civil War, but even they were able to do so, there is little to suggest that will reduce the prospects of similar fires igniting elsewhere. The Syrian Civil War threatens not only the population of Syria, or the borders of its neighbours but also the wider Islamophere as its institutionalization threatens to turn Sunni-Shia differences into existential conflicts.
An extra-regional solution will de facto involve some kind of recolonization of the region, which will further defer the moment of sovereignty for the region’s people. Given the extra-regional powers proclivities (despite their loud protestations to the contrary) to prefer dictatorship over regimes which have to rely upon popular acquiescence, it is unlikely that an extra-regional attempted resolution of the Civil War would deal with the underlying gap between the ruled and the rulers which has blighted the region for so long. Nor will a regional solution along sectarian lines fare much better. Such an outcome will not only embed a sectarian understanding of the Islamicate and all that follows but also make good the claims of leadership offered by some of the most authoritarian and limited regimes in the region.
The most effective resolution of the Civil War would depend on a regional solution that addresses deep structural imbalances of the region and a historic re-alignment in which serious countries co-operate and collaborate to articulate and implement a vison that goes beyond the narrow calculation of national interests. Such a vision is most likely to come about by the co-ordination and convergence of Turkey and Iran in a sustained relationship.
Both Iran and Turkey benefit from having large well educated populations, complex civil societies and economies, and leaderships which have to take account of public opinion and depend on popular legitimacy. Building a long-term bilateral relations as foundation for new order, which neither Turkey nor Iran can singly achieve, is certainly the most progressive prospect possible. Such bilateral relations would help to subvert the idea of a Shia-Sunni conflict at the heart of the civil war. It would propel the vision of regimes in which the role of Islam and the people has to be taken seriously and not antagonistically. The long terms benefits of such a coming together are easy to see, however, the obstacles to such a realignment are many and also easy to detect (Sayyid, 2014: 117-132).
The obstacles to a sustained long-term bilateral co-operation between Iran and Turkey that leads to structural convergence of interests can be divided between those that are cosmetic and those that are deep-seated. Among the cosmetic factors are those which continue to understand and act upon the current policies of Iran and Turkey as being determined by fixed priorities and interests, thus making any change impossible to conceive. The more enduring obstacles are to do with how to convince the decision-makers and opinion makers in both countries that something beyond platitudes is necessary if they are to safeguard their future. For example, in the case of the European Union the bedrock of French-German convergence was based on recognition (emotional as much intellectual) that rivalries between these two countries had brought disaster to Europe. The fear of another disaster would have not been sufficient without an overarching vision of a better and different future: a Europe in which national rivalries were displaced and weakened through a series of institutional reforms and regional integration. So, beginning in 1950 with the process of creating a common market for coal and steel, to 1994 with the consolidation of the European Union, close co-operation between France and Germany was the key. A continent which in between 1914-1945 witnessed an unprecedented scale of violence in which millions of people had been killed and displaced, was able to embrace a different kind of future in which intense national enmities could be overcome. The challenges faced by the people of the MENA region are in some ways less severe but more hopeless. There is no vision of a better future that can hold at bay the cynicism that cripples the possibility of exercising agency. There is no vision of a future that promises justice, prosperity, and peace. Part of the tragedy of the Syrian Civil War is that it is hard to imagine its ending because it is hard to think of a better future.
Marten, K., “Warlordism in Comparative Perspective” International Security, vol. 31, No. 3 (Winter 2006), pp. 41-73.
Sanborn, J. “The Genesis of Russian Warlordism: Violence and Governance during the First World War and the Civil War”, Contemporary European History, 19, 3 (2010), pp. 195-213.
Sayyid, S., Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order, London: Hurst, (2014).
Unger, R. Social Theory: Its situation and its task, London: Verso, (2004).