The Syria situation continues to burn unabated – a conflict which becomes not only consistently more entrenched, violent, embittered and bloody, but which, in its quest for oxygen, has increasingly drawn in regional players like Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon and Iran.
There is currently a move, behind the scenes to try to think about the secondary effects of a military strike - to both map out likely future scenarios for the conflict, to identify key pinch points in order to identify strategic moments for intervention and key decisions, and to help generate degrees of empathy amongst combatants that allow for fuller calculation of exactly what conditions will be necessary before a resolution to the conflict is possible.
There may be some specific aspects of the Syrian case that render this approach slightly more problematic – in terms of levels of operation, specifics of motivation, and the potential for desired outcomes moving forward. In particular, the shift of the Syrian conflict, from what was at least partially defined along longer-term internal Syrian feelings of economic, social and political discrimination and repression (on the part of Sunnis) at the hands of Alawite elites (nominally aligned with Shias), and has now become aligned with much wider and deeper sectarian orientations that define key political drivers in the Gulf, in a chaotic and precarious Iraq, in a divided though functioning Lebanon, and in a situation where Iran is defined as the key ontological threat by the two disparate states of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
As will be discussed, this raises significant issues for definition of any form of possible transformation in the Syrian case – does it require transformation in the perspectives of internal Syrian actors (i.e. pro-Assad forces, the Free Syrian Army and groups like the Al Nusrat Front)? Does it require transformation of strategic geo-political conditions by state actors like Israel, KSA, Qatar and Iran? Or does it require some form of religious transformation, such that sectarian interest is not considered the zero-sum outcome for Sunnis and Shias being mobilised as foreign fighters to participate in the Syrian conflict?
Summary Of The Syrian Conflict
The specific risk in the Syrian case is one of perspective – and understandings of what the conflict is about. In part, this is because the conflict itself has mutated from one which was ostensibly caused by, and associated with the Arab Spring/Arab Uprisings and become increasingly symbolic of much wider, deep-seated and lethally passionate sentiments about the sectarian practices of Islam. This sectarianism includes identities as ‘true Muslims’ vs. kuffar who engage in Bid’ah (un-Islamic innovation) and Shirk (worship of false idols – which encapsulates both Alawite practice and some Sunni discourses on Shia Islam in some specific orthodox Sunni interpretations) and those who feel their very identity is based on a need to confront injustice and tyranny (Shia Muslims), and who feel that any advancement of Sunni Islam in Syria will be of direct and concrete threat not only to their religious identity, but a concrete and tangible threat to their very lives. This sectarian analysis stands outside of other immediate political considerations, and creates a specific prism of this conflict as a zero-sum game.
The transformation from local Arab Uprising-inspired revolt to bloody intractable sectarian conflict had its roots in the brutality of the Assad regime. Syria had been universally recognised as one of the bloodiest and most repressive authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa prior to the uprising there. Previously, the regime had declared the Alawite regime as a form of Shi’ism (a proclamation not without theological debate), but which was politically expeditious for both Syria and Iran, allowing them to create a clear East-West axis and interdependence in the Middle East. Alawites controlled, or were patrons of, all key Government positions in Syria, and controlled a vast part of the Syrian economic system. While the majority of the Syrian Army was, for example, Sunni, the officer corps were entirely dominated by Alawite and Shia Syrians.
For Alawites themselves, this was a rational response to the injustices and repression that they felt had been done to them for 300 years before Syria became a French protectorate, and later gained independence. For many inhabitants in Syria, the state, its borders, and its elites were arbitrary bastardisations of previous Ottoman millet experiences. The colonial period redrawing of maps (particularly the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1919) in no way reflected realities of identities or languages or ethnic identities on the ground. For example, the north east of Syria contained large pockets of Kurds, who were at points repressed and recruited by the Syrian state, and the far south east and west corners of the country include small but significant Druze populations. The coastal zones – the most commercially affluent and agriculturally viable, were (and still are) hugely intermixed, whereas vast swathes of the interior are uninhabited desert – with some populations hugely dependent on seasonal fluvial agriculture – flood waters which are decreasing thanks to water scarcity and ever further upstream damming and pressure on resource.
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While internal pressures – economic, social, political and religious created a resonance for the Arab Spring in Damascus, Homs, and other large population centres in Syria in 2011, the conflict quickly spiralled out of control. What began as a series of (relatively) peaceful demonstrations following Friday (Jumma) prayers, were brutally repressed through the use of snipers, tear gas and state violence. The protestors began to take up arms – through organisations like the FSA and others – and there was a high degree of heterogeneity in identity and purpose amongst these first organisations. Some sought to gain the support of a wide slice of Syrian society – across the board from Sunnis, Shias, Alawites (if possible), Kurds etc. – in order to demonstrate that the nature of their conflict with the Assad regime wasn’t about religion, ethnic or tribal identities, but about the brutal nature of the Syrian state under Assad’s control. Others, however, saw this conflict as an opportunity for payback – both in terms of religious oppression of Sunnis, and more specifically as an opportunity to enact vendettas – both recent and ancient – against neighbours who were felt to have done wrong against a family or tribe in the past.
The conflict was further exacerbated through foreign support for some of these groups. Turkey, for example, intervened on behalf of groups that were largely Muslim Brotherhood (Ikwhan) and Sunni facing – though found itself in a difficult position. Domestically, getting involved in the conflict in Syria is hugely polarising – so too, however, are massive sanctuary camps of Syrians fleeing the conflict inside its southern borders. Additionally, the Turkish Government has entered into a positive and constructive relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and begun negotiations with the PKK while, at the same time the PKK, via the PYD (a Kurdish nationalist and PKK affiliated party in Syria), has decided not to fight against Assad in exchange for zones for (relative) Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria. The complexity of their positions becomes ever more apparent. While reports on recent riots in Istanbul’s Taksim Square were reported in European and American papers as being about popular dissatisfaction with the moderate Islamist Government of the AKP, some of the dissent has been about the change in policy towards the Kurds and the PKK as well as a deeper angst as to the Turkish role in Syria.
For Saudi Arabia, on the one hand there has been both official and unofficial support for groups that are promoting a clearly orthodox Sunni and anti-Shia doctrine, and these groups explicitly espouse an agenda that seeks to reorganise a future Syria along these lines. From the perspective of the KSA (and Qatar), such groups are fighting on the frontlines for the survival of a degree of status quo in the Middle East in the face of transnational Shia challenges, organised from Tehran. From their perspective, Shia control of Baghdad is abomination of previous Gulf security arrangements – and the Al Maliki Government has become nothing more than a puppet of Iran. The Syrian state is part of an arc of Shia control in the Middle East running from the Gulf and the Indian Sub-Continent through to the Mediterranean. This arc, from their perspective – is geographically unrepresentative of Islamic demography – and because Shi’ism is inherently an affront to true Islam (from their perspective) this represents an evil that must be put right. The threats posed to the longer-term prospects of a fellow Gulf monarchy in Jordan are also important in these calculations.
Furthermore, the KSA and Qatar relish their role as players on a global stage – as able to do what Obama, Cameron, and Hollande are politically unable to do – to directly intervene in Syria. The US, UK and France lack political appetite and suffer from conflict fatigue thanks to post-Iraq and Afghan experiences, and are wary as to the danger of a new cold war with Russia, who is backing the Syrian regime. Russia’s role is pragmatic and symbolic – Syria is a long-term ally, a home to the Russian fleet in Tartus, and holds a variety of Russian non-state financial assets. Furthermore, the loss of face for Russia at the massive (and from their perspective – over-reaching) intervention in Libya and overthrow of Gaddafi means that they are unwilling to find a solution for the Syrian conflict that does not foreground support for Assad.
For other states, like Israel, Lebanon and Iraq – the Syrian conflict has huge immediate geo-strategic and political implications – for example Israel views the arming of a hostile neighbour (Syria) with missiles and other military technologies (by Russia) as a clear and present danger to its immediate security – and has already kinetically intervened to prevent the proliferation of such capacities. Furthermore, Israel views Iran as the fundamental existential threat to the existence of the state of Israel – especially Iranian nuclear capacity – and therefore anything that weakens Iran is inherently of benefit to the long-term fundamental security of Israel. Iranian provision of men and materiel – in terms of Republican Guard fighters and technological knowhow – represent an immediate threat to Israeli security, from their perspective. The Lebanon is also being sucked into this conflict, and though its long and bloody Civil War was ultimately resolved through a form of non-functioning consociational settlement that provides the state with enough centrifugal force to keep it together – Hezbollah has already hugely contributed to the Assad regime’s fighting capacity – and is receiving further funding from Iran and encouragement to do so even more.
Different incidents on the Iraqi border – including the massacre of pro-Assad forces withdrawing out of Syria across the border into Iraq, the recent heightened anti-Shia bombing campaigns, and the jailbreak of 300 Al Qaeda operatives, indicated the extent the potential for Iraqi Sunnis, dissatisfied by what they perceive as a hugely unjust and repressive Shia-led government in Baghdad, to get sucked into the Syrian conflict in order to help their Sunni compatriots – and to eventually carve a clear safe niche for themselves in a differently organised Middle East state system.
Lastly, there is the way that this conflict is operating at a symbolic level. The conflict in Syria has come to symbolise this issue for many Muslims not directly associated and affiliated with the Syrian crisis itself – and after statements by key scholars like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, is likely to draw in more participants from abroad who view the conflict through this lens. These symbolic lenses in turn have an ‘observational effect’ on the conflict, such that while the crisis may not have started out as geo-political proxy wars or indeed as entrenched sectarianism, these ideas are likely to shape the conflict’s development.
Because these ideas are now forming discourse about Syria, there will likely be an increased connection between those who perceive the challenge to Assad’s role as being about democracy vs. despotism (on the grounds that Syria under the Assad’s has been massively repressive, violent and brutal) and those who choose a more sectarian analysis of this conflict (that Assad’s dominant minority Alawite regime sought an alliance with it’s other minority Shi’a population, and exploited this alliance to increase it’s alliance with Iran, via organisations like Hezbollah in Lebanon). On the other side of this equation, those loyal to Assad read these challenges conversely – and see this is an attempt on the part of Sunni Syrians to deliver ‘payback’ to minority communities throughout Syria – and that the nature of this conflict has become zero-sum – were Assad to lose, more or less the entirety of the Syrian Alawite and Shi’a communities will be subject to genocide and extermination.
The geo-political context inflames these perceptions – where deep concerns have not been assuaged by Saudi Arabian backing for militias challenging pro-Assad forces (which are viewed as being pro-Wahabbi forms of Islamic practice), and the latest pronouncements by leading Sunni scholars such as Qaradawi calling for Sunni Muslims to join in Jihad against Shi’a Muslims in Syria
What prospect for meaningful change in Syria - this is the fundamental question – and it is not entirely clear that such an option exists.
The biggest danger in the Syrian conflict is that there are multiple drivers of conflict, which are discrete and do not overlap. Syria has become a container for a series of challenges, conflicts and discontents, amongst state and non-state actors with simultaneous disputes operating at different levels. Viewing the conflict as a situation which needs transforming still requires us to be able to identify actors likely to realise that their specific ideals and aspirations are implausible given the range of likely scenarios as they might play out in the short, medium and long terms.
For example, any analysis that doesn’t simultaneously recognise the need to address the repressive nature of the Syrian state, the way that this repression has become about sectarian truth, or the way that this sectarian truth is operationalized for geo-strategic purposes by external actors, will be unable to take fully into account the drivers of the conflict.
Any analysis of this scenario would, equally have to take into account the simultaneously divergent, and contrary perceptions of hierarchy between states and non-state actors in this kind of engagement. Tell an ANF fighter that they are a stooge of an external government, and the need for full and trusted engagement will break down. Equally, explain to a state why it must accept a degree of existential threat based on a nuclear threat, and there will be inherent questions posed as to when, if ever, such an existential threat is acceptable. It is even more difficult to ask a Shia to understand an orthodox analysis of their practices and beliefs.
There are other cases of conflict where different levels have been handled simultaneously in a way sympathetic to bottom-up perspectives on why a conflict was being fought, while still recognising sovereign concerns and boundaries. Here the outstanding example is Northern Ireland – where the sovereignty of the UK over Northern Ireland was recognised by all parties – but the interest of an external party (ROI), both in terms of the conflict, and because of its symbolic association with combatants and agitators (SF and SDLP) meant that the process would not be credible without it.
The problem in the Syrian case could, in a sense, be managed with multiple levels of intervention – on the one hand an internal one, which would bring together all actors and the existing state regime to try and generate plausible scenarios based on the multitude of perspectives. At the same time, one could bring together a separate stream of state actors (track 1?), which would allow for an open discussion of the issues and alternative scenarios for Syria, which would seek to reduce the perceptions of strategic important of Syria in order to give the first level some time to work. Lastly, there would have to be some form of intervention at a religious level – which would seek both to engage with those calling for religious conflict in Syria – and a series of voices that challenge such perspectives in the search for a form of Islamic ecumenism. This last stream is hugely problematic, unlikely, and risks constantly being outflanked by actors who claim that participants in such forms of organised intervention are religiously illegitimate and unrepresentative. Furthermore, such discussions cannot, by definition, be based on political realities, but will be based on theological truths – and this poses its own set of risks.
Breaking down spaces between states, religions, and local identities and actors is also complex, requiring a hugely deep knowledge of local relationships, historical conditions etc. There is a danger that for groups like the Kurds, they will feel under-represented and under-guaranteed in the process – at a relative disadvantage without a client state like Iran or KSA.
In fact, from this kind of perspective, the entire prospect of intervention may look like an effort to resolve sectarian disputes that are of huge concern to the USA (post-Iraq) and other western states, as well as regional powers, but of little or no specific value to the Kurds. This would also require massive guarantees and trust-building measures from the outset - and initial reports amongst actors on the ground in Syria indicates that there is little appetite to relinquish post-conflict retribution by giving guarantees not to pursue low-ranking officers or insurgents for charges like war-crimes or terrorism.
The Implications For Intervention?
In Zartman’s (1995) analysis, conflict regulation needs a ‘ripe moment’ for success. The problems with imagining effective intervention in the Syrian case is that while the conflict on the ground may, at points, be reaching a bloody stalemate without clear potential for idealised victory for any side, external actors may not view the conflict as being entirely played out yet.
Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine that combatants who imagine that they are fighting for the ‘correction of erroneous religious practice’, or those who feel that their basic survival is on the line will accept that stalemate is co-terminous with a ripe moment. These kinds of dissonances indicate how intervention will be problematic in the Syrian case – because there is little consensus about what needs to be transformed as a first step to developing a potential for a shared vision of a future outcome.
As discussed in this Exeter SSI paper of October 2012, the situation is massively complex, and the nature and effect of intervention are difficult to define and to determine. One of the major problems is that intervention requires not just as an analysis of how to deliver intervention on the ground in Syria with the requisite international partners (in a military coalition for action) but furthermore requires deep consideration of how such intervention may or may not effect the wider geopolitical considerations of neighbouring states and interested parties. Some of these questions are obvious – for example how would US/UK/French intervention in Syria effect, or require careful management of Russian concerns in Syria? Others are more complicated and less straightforward to consider. For example, what knock on effects would intervention have for stability in Iraq and Lebanon?
The consideration of effects of intervention must transcend these immediate questions as well. There is a cost to non-intervention. What would the effect of an Assad regime victory on neighbouring states? How would Assad’s survival affect Israeli analysis of Iranian regional power – and how might this affect the potential for a strike against Iranian nuclear capacity? What would the long term effects of conflict be for western allies in Turkey and Jordan – and how have events in Taksim and Tahrir Squares affected strategic considerations of state and non-state actors at the moment?
And without intervention, is there an increased risk of the rise to prominence of Al Qaeda associated and affiliated groups? Are the recent jailbreaks and sectarian attacks in Iraq linked to events in Syria – and how might any intervention in Syria (kinetic or non-kinetic) affect Al Qaeda capacity to recruit, mobilise and act in the short, medium and long terms in the region? A last, fundamental question must be, how has the lack of intervention on the part of the west affected western power and prestige in the short, medium and long terms?
About the author
Jonathan Githens-Mazer is a professor in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, of the Strategy and Security Institute of the University of Exeter.
This article originally appeared on Open Democracy