Ten Observations on the Wars in Syria

The scale, intensity, and persistence of the last five years of nonstop and often barbaric violence reflect the fact that Syria today, as in the past four millennia at least, continues to be a central pivot in the geopolitics of the Middle East and its neighbors.

The various wars and ideological contestations taking place simultaneously in Syria have entered their sixth year, with no sign of how they might end and Syria’s political future unfurl. The scale, intensity, and persistence of the last five years of nonstop and often barbaric violence reflect the fact that Syria today, as in the past four millennia at least, continues to be a central pivot in the geopolitics of the Middle East and its neighboring civilizations.

Here are my ten observations on what I see as the most important or intriguing aspects of the wars in Syria.

  1. The large number of political and military actors in Syria is stunning, with several dozen major actors that impact nationally, and over a thousand that engage with others at the local and provincial levels.
  1. The political and military actors in Syria represent five distinct levels of identity and interests: local, province- or governorate-level, national, regional across the Middle East, and global. The disparate interests and ever-changing alliances among them are kaleidoscopic in their variety and constant change.
  1. The nature of the many actors crosses every conceivable category we know of, including state, religion, tribe and clan, ideology, ethnicity, nationality, and sect, along with ancillary sub-categories like businesspeople and others.
  1. The very rapid militarization of the conflicts in Syria simultaneously reflected the direct or indirect military action of Syrians, transnational non-Syrian Islamists, regional powers (Arab, Iranian, Turkish, and occasionally Israeli), and global powers. Most of these parties actively engage in direct warfare in different parts of the country.
  1. The ups and downs of various parties and their need to avoid losing means that the physical borders and political alliances among many of the fighting forces are constantly shifting and changing, with key parties often simultaneously losing ground in one area while gaining it in another. This indicates that no single party can definitively win outright today and control all Syria, though it also suggests that we cannot rule out this possibility in the future, if some key actors become exhausted, bankrupt, or lose their critical external support.
  1. All the political trends and military behavior in the country since March 2011 offer nothing genuinely new in the land. They reflect existing legacies of power and identity that we have experienced in the modern Arab world since the 1920s, albeit sometimes in more extreme forms—notably state authoritarianism and brutality against one’s own people, politicized and militarized religion and ethnicity, a tendency to state fragmentation, Islamist and secular-nationalist citizen rebellions, activist for democracy and human rights, rapid environmental deterioration, socio-economic disparity, urban collapse, refugee flows, and regional and foreign military intervention.
  1. The possible consideration of creating ethnically pure statelets for Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Sunnis, and others—following the trailblazing path of Israel’s self-perception as a Jewish state and the rickety “Islamic State” (ISIS) that Daesh has established in parts of Syria and Iraq—reveals the fragile and conditional nature of statehood and sovereignty in Syria today (and parts of other Arab countries). The massive destruction and pain that Syria and its people have suffered shows that indigenous and foreign powers would happily control a landscape that has been devastated and denuded of people, towns, and economic infrastructure, for they seem to care little for citizen rights or wellbeing, but seek only incumbency for themselves and their allies.
  1. We witness the important paradox of, on the one hand, the strength, capacity to act, and frequent local anchorage in society of Islamist militant rebel groups like ISIS (Daesh), Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham, and dozens of others like them in many ways; and, on the other hand, our total ignorance of whether these groups would have the management capacity and political legitimacy to actually rule all or parts of Syria if they prevailed in the long run. The proven military strength and organizational capabilities of militant Islamists in Syria reflect their power and credibility as opposition forces, but there is no indication of whether they would succeed as incumbents. Most other incumbent Islamists in the Arab world in recent decades have been total failures and managerial amateurs, and were ousted from office.
  1. Regional and global powers like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia, support much of the fighting and political jockeying for power and position in Syria; yet, most of their long-term goals, like their short-term actions, have been mostly erratic and/or unclear. The Syrian wars are a dynamic without a clear destination.
  1. Syria today reminds us of Syria a century ago, when local, regional, and foreign powers in 1915-1925 fought for control of the land and its destiny. Syria also reminds us that the great missing element in the modern Arab world remains today, as it has been for a century, the self-determination of citizenries.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global