Six Reasons Why You Are Confused about Syria

The historical changes behind the country’s complicated civil war.

The complex battle over the future of Syria is like something we have never seen before in this region or perhaps anywhere else in the world. An unprecedented array of local, regional, and global political actors, using a wide range of instruments of power and influence, engage each other militarily to achieve dozens of different and usually clashing outcomes.

So most of the analysis about Syria’s future—in both the credible and nonsense forums around the world—are routine and reasonable speculation, wild guesses, or self-serving propaganda. The overwhelming novelty of events in Syria preclude anything else, and the uncertainties of what is to come there, and, as history suggests, in the wider Arab region, are beyond comprehension.

For once, though, history is not a good guide, even though Syria has more documented settled human and political history than almost any other place on earth. Syria repeatedly was a pivotal imperial prize or headquarters in ancient history, and it was central to the post-Ottoman birth (or manufacture) of the modern Arab state system, when, like today, many foreign powers had a hand in the outcome. Yet all this history is of no use to understanding where Syria is heading, because during the past ten years or so we see for the first time, in Syria in particular, the full consequences of this generation’s six great, historic developments that are rewriting the rules of statehood, identity, community, nationhood, sovereignty, and legitimacy across much of the Arab region. These are:

  1. The full consequences of the end of the Cold War around 1990; as the two superpowers pulled back in parts of the region to focus on other priorities, some dependent governments and economies weakened, triggering continuing structural changes in how citizens, societies, and states interact with each (including the birth or re-birth of new states, statelets, and quasi-sovereignties in Kurdistan, South Yemen, South Sudan, Gaza, pockets of Iraq, Lebanon and Sinai, the so-called Islamic State, and dozens of similar others).
  2. The widespread stagnation of real economic growth as measured by family well-being, alongside widening socio-economic disparities; the non-stop rising economic and political pressures on perhaps 50-60 percent of Arab families since the early 1990s—alongside their almost zero real political rights—has sparked social, economic, and political fragmentation, and shattered the integrity of once stable states like Syria, Libya, Iraq, and others.
  3. The weakening and occasional collapse of central government authority and legitimacy inevitably followed; as the world no longer cared when strategically insignificant Arab states occasionally collapsed into a bloody civil war, contracting central governments focused on serving their own supporters, sectarian kin, contractors, business partners, cousins, and guards, leaving large swaths of their populations abandoned and vulnerable.
  4. Understandably, to fill the voids created by retreating central governments, powerful new indigenous, non-governmental political and military forces emerged, often based on religion, ethnicity, or tribalism; these included organizations like Hezbollah and half a dozen major Christian, Muslim and Druze organizations in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s ever-evolving movement in Iraq, Ansarullah (Houthis), Islah and others in Yemen, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, and hundreds of smaller armed Islamist, tribal, and secular groups fighting and/or governing local principalities in Syria and Iraq.
  5. The most recent historic change has been the direct engagement of major and mid-level regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, United Arab Emirates [UAE], Qatar) in other states’ affairs, including active military warfare on several fronts simultaneously, e.g., Turkey’s new role in Syria, Qatar, and the Kurdish regions; Iran’s deep strategic involvement in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq; the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen; and many Gulf states direct or indirect militarism in Syria and Libya.
  6. This coincides with the direct, long-term military actions of global powers inside Syria and Iraq, mainly Russia and the United States, who coordinate in virtual joint operations centers to allow their respective air forces to bomb away at will inside Syria; this novelty caps the others above, and completes the circle of extreme military and political cacophony that leaves Syria (and other Arab lands) in a condition of total unpredictability as to the future.

These six dramatic phenomena all had low-intensity historical antecedents in the region. But only now have they all reached fruition, and converged into a situation like Syria where thousands of local political and military actors, hundreds of would-be new post-war governance candidates, dozens of regional armed groups and states, and a handful of world powers all simultaneously intervene inside Syria for perfectly normal reasons. They each seek to preserve their interests, support their allies, counter their strategic foes, and carve out permanent footholds for their future involvement strategic well-being.

The most important unanswered question is: Which of the six major developments above is the most significant one that shapes the others, and perhaps holds the key to the future of Syria and other vulnerable Arab lands? We shall know soon enough—and in the vocabulary of Syria’s rich history of statehood and national configuration, “soon enough” means by about 2060 or so.

So my suggestion is, do not spend too much time worrying about what will happen in post-ISIS Raqqa or Deir Ezzor in the next three months. Instead, more usefully try to help identify the critical drivers of the recent historical forces that have brought us all to this difficult situation—so we, and the Syrians in all of us, can have some chance of getting out of this shooting gallery of statehood.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. On Twitter: @ramikhouri,

Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global