By Simon Mabon
Five years have passed since the deadliest civil war of the 21st century began. Dr. Simon Mabon discusses what caused the uprising and the Curse of Aleppo that will give us a deeper understanding of the Syrian civil war.
After five years of the Syrian civil war that began with the Arab Uprisings – pro democracy protests in early 2011 – but was exacerbated by the involvement of external actors, the Syrian state lies in ruins. Few expected Syria to go the way of Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain or Egypt, with the young, pro-Western ruler Bashar al-Assad expected to offer token political reforms that would appease the protestor and remove the sting from an increasingly volatile situation. Instead, the Assad regime responded with force, violently repressing protestors and cultivating a narrative of sectarian dimensions within the protests. As Michel Foucault once argued, “a battlefront runs through the whole of society, continuously and permanently” and such a statement goes some way to characterising the Syrian conflict. Academic research on civil wars reveals the increasing durability and intractability of the conflict, which intensifies when coupled with the external interference that has made resolution increasingly difficult. And when the number of different actors within a conflict grows, the situation is exacerbated.
On the ground across Syria, the conflict is often seen in binary terms, as the regime versus the opposition. Of course, to reduce the conflict to such a Manichean outlook belies the complexity of the situation and ignores the existence of Da’ish within Syria. Moreover, within each side are a range of different actors with different perspectives and methodologies, particularly with regard to the use of violence. It is estimated that there are around 60 different organisations at play within the Syrian conflict, many of whom possess transient, amorphous relationships with one another. Of course, questions of influence and control must be asked of all relationships and this conflict is no different.
With an increasingly complex range of actors involved in the conflict, possessing multifarious incentives and desired outcomes, supported by numerous external actors, identifying the key actors within the conflict is of paramount importance when attempting to resolve the crisis. Understanding the motivations of these actors is then a primary goal before diplomatic efforts can gain traction. Yet to comprehend the involvement of these actors we must also identify the needs of actors on the ground, many of whom require financial and logistical support from powerful external actors. This concept of support is regularly referred to, yet rarely fully engaged with and is, instead, lazily used.
Amidst the fracturing of Syria’s sovereignty, understood in Carl Schmitt’s words as “he who defines the exception”, the inability of the Assad regime to exercise complete control over the Syrian state meant that uprisings would result in existential questions about the future of Syria. Moreover, the conflict eroded the ability of state institutions to regulate daily life across Syria, resulting in individuals having to turn elsewhere to ensure that their basic needs are met. In doing this, many retreated into their localised identities, the tribe, the sect or the ethnic group, further challenging the authority of the centralised state and its ability to regulate behaviour.
Since the beginning of the uprisings, almost 500,000 people have died and an estimated 11 million people have been displaced from their homes, 7 million within Syria and 4 million into neighbouring states of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. An oft-overlooked factor within understandings of the uprisings resulted from a drought that hit Syria in 2006. Following this environmental crisis, migration from rural to urban areas took place, dramatically altering the organisation of cities across the state, often without the means of providing employment to all of the new arrivals. Mass migration, coupled with environmental challenges and economic challenges posed serious challenges to the stability of Syria yet also across the Levant. Since 2011 and migration from Syria, the Lebanese population has swelled by around 50% of its 2011 population and these consequences have the capacity to impact back upon the Syrian conflict.
The onset of violence would result in the Assad regime employing a number of strategies to secure his support base, both internally and externally and the framing of events along sectarian lines would locate the conflict within the geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since the revolution of 1979, the two had been engaged in a rivalry that while couched in sectarian terms was driven by questions about the organisation of regional security and exerting influence across the Middle East. The revolution placed religion at the forefront of the rivalry yet over the following years, the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran oscillated between periods of rapprochement and burgeoning hostility. The onset of the Arab Uprisings provided the two with opportunities to rework political organisation and to weaken the influence of the other.
In the case of Syria, a long-standing Iranian ally, Saudi Arabia sensed an opportunity to weaken Iranian influence within the Arab world and to bring Damascus back into the Arab fold. The legacy of Iranian support in the Levant should not be ignored, as members of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force have provided strategic analysis in the conflict and Hizballah, the Lebanese Party of God, formed in 1982 with the support of Tehran, has proved instrumental in ensuring Assad stays in power.
This melange of actors within the Syrian conflict, furthered by the presence of militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, only serves to intensify the conflict. In evidence given to a House of Commons Inquiry into the extension of offensive British military operations to Syrian, 78 different groups were identified as playing a role within the conflict.1 These groups can be framed as within a number of different clusters, including: Pro-regime Syrian forces; Lebanese militia; Iraqi Shi’a militia; Other Shi’a militias; Pro-regime Palestinian forces; Druze forces; Pro regime Christian forces; Jihadi factions; Islamists in the North; Islamists in the South; the Western backed Free Syrian Army; Kurdish forces; US backed groups; and Da’ish.
Although a group may be located on a particular side of the conflict, this does not necessarily indicate holistic support for (or against) Assad, but rather for certain aspects of the fight against opponents. This is perhaps best understood in the fight against Da’ish and other Islamist organisations, which has resulted in a number of groups supporting aspects of the Assad regime’s goals and strategy in an attempt to defeat such groups.
These come to the fore in Aleppo, the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the conflict and a siege that has all but destroyed Syria’s second city. Once home to a population of around 2 million people, an estimated 400,000 remain, caught in the middle of fighting that has taken on a seemingly existential importance within the broader conflict. Within the destruction of the city, the tweets of 7 year old Bana Alabed2 have caught the hearts of those who have read them, reminding those outside of Syria of the destruction of daily routines taken for granted elsewhere.
Underpinning this fighting is an argument emanating from the Assad regime that the conflict is a fight against terrorist groups and the presence of Da’ish and Jabhat al-Nusra (a former Al Qa’ida affiliate, not Jabhat Fateh al Sham), gives this argument credence. Diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia aimed at resolving the conflict found traction with regard to shared targeting of terrorist groups, yet amorphous definitions of terrorism coupled with power relations inherent within the term foster differences between the two. Of course, the election of Donald Trump on 8th November 2016 may alter dynamics between the US and Russia, although this is too early to gauge.
Geopolitical dimensions in the conflict have marred diplomatic efforts to end the violence. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has played out across Syria has intensified the conflict whilst the US – Russian rivalry has seemingly frozen the conflict within the United Nations. Complicating matters is Turkey’s engagement with domestic and regional dimensions, with incursions into Syria coupled with claims over Mosul following efforts to resolve the domestic Kurdish question. Untangling the web of geopolitical actors and motivations is paramount if one wishes to move forward and find a resolution.
Further complicating the conflict is the presence of Da’ish in the East of Syria and across the border in neighbouring Iraq. Military operations aimed at liberating the Iraqi city of Mosul were designed to facilitate the withdrawal of Da’ish personnel and their relocation in Syria, with Baghdad seeking to strengthen Iraq at the cost of Syrian stability. Such a move may strengthen Da’ish in Syria and also strengthen the argument put forward by Assad and Moscow that opposition forces are “terrorists”, which is a position largely rejected by Western actors.
Initial clamour for Western states to support a side in the conflict resulted in the provision of support to the Free Syrian Army, a group that reached its zenith in the first year of the conflict. Since then, infighting and the rising prominence of other groups led to calls to arm other groups. David Cameron’s claim that there were 70,000 “moderate” rebels to support in the conflict was met with scorn and the Prime Minister later backed down to suggest that this number also included some individuals with less than palatable backgrounds. Of course, the complexity of the Syrian conflict makes moving forward towards a diplomatic resolution increasingly difficult. In the meantime, it is the Syrian people who are paying the heaviest price.
Featured image courtesy: AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri
About the Author
Dr. Simon Mabon is Lecturer in International Relations and Director of the Richardson Institute at the University of Lancaster, and a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. He is the author of Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East (2013 and updated in 2015), co-author of Hezbollah: From Islamic Resistance to Government (2015) The Origins of ISIS (2016) British Foreign Policy After WWII (2017) and co-editor of Terrorism and Political Violence (2015) and People Sects and states: Interrogating Sectarianism in the Contemporary Middle East (2017).