An introduction to the historical context of the Syrian war
Over 250,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, and 9 of the country’s 22 million people are displaced. This winter millions of Syrians face misery as temperatures plummet, surviving on scraps of welfare from resistant donor nations.
This article is an introduction to the historical context of the Syrian civil war and a demonstration that there is room for peace in Syria. This peace relies on a counter-intuitive agreement between the West (i.e. the EU and US) and Russia, that the West will find hard to swallow, and will require benevolence on all sides.
The argument made is necessarily an oversimplification. But its value is as an exercise in working with the grain – allowing the strongest hand to take hold, and the greatest shared benefits to be realised.
Syria has had an uncomfortable relationship with the global super powers ever since it was colonised by France at the end of the First World War, following the Sykes-Picot agreement (a mandate for the British and French ownership of Syria, Jordan and Iraq).
Twisting independence revolutions, international and nationally instigated coups, socialist alliances, territorial wars with Israel, and a dictatorship since the mid 1960s – Syria’s recent political history is turbulent.
In 2011 the Syrian public attempted a continuation of the Arab Spring, through revolutionary demonstration against the fascist Assad regime. Assad’s brutal and unmoving regime gave no concessions to these demands, instead deploying military forces against demonstrators.
The uprising was a reaction to rampant corruption enduring since the mid 70’sthat has constricted international trade and access to basic resources, enacted censorship and brutality towards political dissent, and a host of other human rights abuses.
The bitterness that Syrians could no longer contain has long smouldered. So, after the initial energy of the Arab Spring, and a sustained military retaliation by the Assad regime, many Syrians decided armed conflict was their only viable route to freedom. These freedom fighters now constitute the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The Syrian State Army and the FSA are each backed by foreign players who seek to maintain or advance their own interests. These foreign interests are geopolitical concerns for control of and access to critical global trade routes, and for oil and gas extraction/pipeline development.
Consequently, foreign interests tug at the country’s political stewardship from opposing sides, shunting the balances of military force and democratic accountability. Now enter the true global power states – Russia (alongside China and Iran to a lesser extent), and the United States/Europe (alongside Saudi Arabia).
Currently we see Russia providing the bulk of military resources to Assad to secure their stakehold in the region, while the West directs training and funding to the FSA in hope of a pro-Western Syrian leadership. As such, Russia and the EU/US are at war. However, their proxy affiliations in Syria ensure that direct military conflict between the power states is negated.
Since 1946, Russia has given formal financial and military support to the Assad regime, as part of their ‘patron-vendor’ trade partnership. This partnership establishes $19.4b (in 2010) of Russian investments in Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism, and accrues at least $1.1b annually to Russia through exports.
This close relationship with Russia provides Assad with significant muscle, both in military resources against rebel fighters, and immunity from direct Western interference.
China and Iran then affirm the Russia-Syria partnership through funding and tacit support of the Assad government. This collective have political and oil/gas export partnerships that underline a clear, shared interest – to strengthen their collective regional territory and fossil fuel assets.
As such, Russia, China and Iran’s support of Assad is reciprocal to Assad’s role as a regional petroleum and gas ‘production manager’ for their fuel assets, and more importantly, as an ally to fortify their land holding in the region.
Syria has also been long engaged in combat against Israel, and is a strong proponent against the advance of Western alliances in the Middle East. These factors together are precisely why we now, at least according to the US, see Russian bombing of both IS and Syrian rebel forces, despite Russia’s stated ceasefire on rebel forces.
As is always the case, the picture is likely more complicated than that - at least some of these strikes are targeting IS crude oil transport routes which pass through “friendly” rebel-held territory. These strikes seek to cut IS’s central revenue stream of oil sales to illicit traders in Turkey, made possible by capturing 60% of Syrian oil assets.
Precisely whether this illicit trade with Turkey is endorsed by its government is unknown. However, the Turkish airstrike last year against a Russian plane that passed narrowly over the Turkish border nods to an atmosphere of collusion, and supports this articles central argument - that Western allies must retract their political and economic interests in Syria.
The EU/US on the other hand aim for their own domination and resource appropriation in the area, which they seek to achieve through the energy and success of the civil uprising. The West’s alliance with major oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, then combines in strategic coalition against Assad.
Alongside consistent hostility towards the Western project of Israel, the Assad regime has made economic integration with Syrian markets and fuel development in the region near impossible for the EU and US.
Syria has bountiful oil fields and is strategically important for a pipeline development transporting natural gas from South Pars in the Arabian Gulf to Europe, known as the ‘Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline’. Assad and Russia have formally blocked both EU and US development of this pipeline, and instead aim to install it themselves, to provide access to the large European energy market (which is now making a marked shift towards natural gas).
These geo-political interests and proxy involvements therefore make negotiation with the demands of the civil uprising suspicious and tense.
The West and Saudi Arabia appear to back the honorable humanitarian strife of Syrian people, but with the wrong interests in mind.
Russia will clearly continue to support its regional manager, Assad, so long as the West lurks behind the crowd, using the rebel cause as its proxy Trojan horse.
Someone Has To Give
Central political stability must be achieved in Syria – to prevent in-fighting and the spread of Islamic State, and rebuild the country. Russia is best placed to achieve this, through its proxy management of the Syrian state. Achieving this stability requires removing Assad and managing a transition to a government of the people: a benevolent, representative state.
This transition would allow Syria and Russia to maintain control of their borders, oil resources, and re-start fuel production, at great benefit to both the Syrian and Russian economy. State unity on the other hand will provide stable foundations for public welfare and infrastructure, and establish strength against IS (who currently saunter through the great frailty of broken Syria).
For Russia to take on the role of broker and manager in a Syrian state transition, the EU/US/Saudi coalition must clearly relinquish its project to gain control over the region and its oil and gas resources.
This counter-strategic move is of course a deviation from the norm. Most importantly, however, it would provide Russia room to manage a Syrian transition away from the defensive, non-negotiable militarism that it is currently forced to adopt. In this environment of lowered imperial threat, lies room for peace in Syria, along with beneficial outcomes for both the West and East.
The continuing conflict pushes evermore refugees to Europe. While the cost of the refugee crisis remains monetarily quite small (just over €4.4b), the crisis is a strain to EU infrastructure, to its identity as a collectively responsible union, and challenges cultural cohesion in member states.
Syria’s economy on the other hand has contracted by over 600% since the civil war began, a consequence of its now crippled industries and public services.
A Russian led political transition of the Syrian government that establishes central stability thus now appears to achieve benefits for both Russian allies and European allies. The following argument demonstrates the viability of this contentious means of resolution.
Already having the political and military advantage in Syria, Russia has the most to lose if it were to relinquish power to Western-backed rebels.
Russia’s greatest interest in Syria is not even the economic value of its foreign investments, exports or arms trade (which represents less than 5% of Russia’s total revenue from arms trading). Russia’s greatest interest is in the territorial security that Syria provides, as a buffer for Russia’s own border, and as a stake-hold in the Middle East.
The EU/US/Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, have the greatest distance to travel if they aim to oust a Russian backed Syrian government. Such ousting would further perpetuate the slow, grueling civil war, byway of indirect support for rebels who will only be met by increasing resistance of the Assad-Russia coalition. As such, the European refugee crisis would merely continue under these circumstances.
To expect the EU/US to let up on the project of fossil fuel resource accumulation is perhaps wildly unrealistic, but in this grid locked conflict someone has to give, and clearly there is a great by-product of reducing Western fossil fuel appropriation.
Fossil fuels have been the lynchpin in all recent Middle Eastern imperial wars. Yet last month (Dec 2015) millions of people around the world are called upon leaders at the Paris COP21 summit for meaningful action on climate change. The groundbreaking agreement made at COP21 commits to a marked shift away from fossil fuels.
Never has there been a more blatant direction for benevolent leadership – relations with the Middle East are a priceless opportunity for substantive and synergetic action on climate change. Transitioning to a low carbon economy is an entirely feasible feat, if only the will can be found.
Russia has requested military cooperation from the US to help fight against IS in Syria. This call however, is an unrealistic expectation by Russia, as it would still leave the Assad regime in place (Shuster 2015). As such there is no interest for the US/EU to deploy its own resources in a ground fight that deviates international attention away from the evils of the Syrian State Army. For an proposal to be effective, Russia must relinquish its support of Assad, and the US/EU must relinquish its aim of gaining power in Syria.
Shaping the Political Transition
How would a just political transition in Syria play out? What kind of leadership and values would promulgate through ‘Russian benevolence’? In order for Russia to allow a political transition, electoral democracy will of course be limited.
This is clear even from Assad’s recent statement that a 2016 election would only be held following the defeat of ‘terrorists’, which in his view is the entire armed opposition. Yet for the transition to be worthwhile (i.e. to achieve stability), the demands of the civil uprising must be met.
It is therefore clear that in intervening in Syria, Russia will need to maintain a strong, largely dictatorial role, while assembling a government and legislation that is visibly and substantively representative of civil demands.
Including heads of the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in government would then be a critical requirement to achieve transparency and legitimacy in the current context. However, a party-based electoral system will not be a feasible vision for Syria, where a Russian predominance is maintained.
Instead, ‘democracy’ as the civilian uprising demands it, can be achieved through democratic forums solely for the design of civil legislation. The practice of democracy would then be reserved for the civic body to shape their own welfare legislature and civic law. As such, this would be a ‘non-partisan’ system, rather than a system of interchangeable governing parties.
This version of democracy may appear shallow but it is a greatly progressive step given the current context. It would achieve public stability while maintaining Russian sovereignty in foreign policy and finance.
Considering the human rights abuses by Assad that triggered the civil war, conceding power to Russia and expecting a benevolent political transition in Syria is a dubious expectation. Therefore the international community must watch this transition scrutinously, with every available sanction prepared for deployment against Russia in light of any foul play.
Fortunately, the great benefit Russia will gain from a stable, oil-producing Syria provides a strong impetus for cooperation to an international agreement of managed political transition.
To restate, a key incentive for European coordination with Russian sovereignty is to prevent the strain of a European refugee crisis. Central to this agreement then, must be a concerted strategy for the resettlement of Syrians and the rebuilding of Syrian livelihoods.
Syria has significant opportunities to rebuild stable livelihoods: developing its rich agricultural regions; nurturing its manufacturing base and already skilled citizens; and developing tourism for its beautiful desert and Mediterranean geography.
With responsible foreign and state investment, a quality of livelihood is available this decade that, while modest, will be vastly better than the current devastation experienced by over 9 million displaced Syrians.
Our greatest question and challenge in the West lies in the ability to relinquish our political project of Middle Eastern domination, and trust that Russia is able to become a responsible global steward.
With the correct incentive, to allow it sovereignty in the region, a step may be taken towards meaningful cohesion between the global power states, and most critically, peace for the Syrian people.
The Islamic Question
A further significant complication of the Syrian civil war is the influence of Islamic sectarianism. The popular uprising in Syria is explicitly non-sectarian, and driven by a demand for freedoms rather than a reaction to being ruled by a minority. However, the rise of Islamic State and Al-Nusra in Syria distort the anti-Assad uprising into a sectarian conflict.
As Revd. Nassim Nassar comments, ‘Sectarianism was not a part of a Syrian lifestyle until recently. It has been imported by foreign religious fanatics’. These fundamentalist values drive a vision for Syria that is grossly unrepresentative of rebel forces and the 2011 civil uprising. The code of conduct of the Free Syrian Army demonstrates the rebellion’s humanistic, tolerant vision:
The principles of our revolution: the principles of freedom, citizenship, and dignity. I will respect human rights in accordance with our legal principles, our tolerant religious principles, and the international laws governing human rights – the very human rights for which we struggle today and which we intend to implement in the future Syria.
The fundamentalist sectarianism of Islamic State and Al-Nusra is a protrusion of an ideological schism that took hold from the day of the prophet Mohammed’s death in AD 632. The schism was a contention over who should concede Mohammed as the head of Islam – Mohammed’s close associate, Abu Bakr, or Mohammed’s nephew, Ali.
Ever since, Islam has been divided into the two sects – Sunnis (supporters of Abu Bakr) and Shias (supporters of Ali).
Islamic State (IS) and Al-Nusra are Sunni groups. Syria is a majority Sunni country, but the highest ranks of the Assad regime are from a minority Shia group called Alawites. The jihadist’s primary motivation is strictly sectarian – to remove the ruling Shia minority.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah on the other hand, are a Shia fundamentalist group working to maintain Assad’s dominance.
The Middle East is now a patchwork of national representation for these two pillars of Islam. The sectarian composition of Syria and international alliance to these sects is therefore another source of proxy involvement.
These alliances are largely an extension of hegemonic (i.e. state ideological power) affiliation, funnelling support to their desired victors. Critically, and as demonstrated by Mehdi Hasan, it is not an inherent trait of Islam, but a distortion by politics and nationalism that turns sectarianism into a source of grave disharmony.
Saudi Arabia is the most severe in this regard. The Saudi government has a long-standing history of piggybacking on Sunni Islam’s strong cultural influence for political support (which Iran mirrors with Shiism, although to a lesser extent).
Saudi Arabia seeks to break Syria’s age-old alliance with Shi’ist Iran, through motivating a Sunni majority uprising. Thus sectarian hegemony partly undergirds these states’ stubbornness to relinquish religious allegiances in Syria. As such, the Saudi government must be seen to advocate strongly for Sunni preservation and expansion in Syria in order to maintain public legitimacy.
Although formally denouncing jihadism and Islamic State, Saudi Arabia has an enduring history of nurturing the fundamentalist Sunnism of Wahhabism that both al-Quieda and Islamic State have spawned from.
For this reason, if a Western backed leadership took hold in Syria, the West’s alliance with Saudi Arabia will event in tacit support for increased Sunnism. Consequently, the predominantly moderate, humanitarian demands of the Syrian civil uprising would likely congeal and slip towards a sectarian hegemony.
Russian proxy sovereignty in Syria on the other hand, would not be able to sway the Sunni majority towards strong interpretations of Shiism without upsetting cultural balance – thus there is a natural check in place.
By allowing the humanitarian, moderate demands of the civil uprising to be represented in Syrian legislation, a practice of Islam may be nurtured that is sheltered from political distortions, from ideological gaming and enhanced sectarianism. As a result, a culturally relevant, fortified response to Islamic State fundamentalism can develop, as well as a path towards healing the sectarian rupture in Islam.
In total, there is room to manoeuvre in Syria, if only the political will can be found. The sketch of resolution laid out here demonstrates there are synergies to be found in relinquishing Western advances in the region – turning away from Middle Eastern fossil fuels, preventing fortification of Sunni nationalism, and most importantly, fast-tracking the end of the conflict.
In a context of lowered hostility with the West, Russia can direct a political transition away from Assad towards a new era that is politically and economically stable. Regional stability can only be achieved by coordinating with civilian demands, and further to this, IS can only be combatted with regional stability.
The international community must therefore act to monitor and support benevolence in Russian leadership, to overcome the paranoia and stagnation that leads global governance astray, and step away from the current ‘propaganda war’ that blurs public understanding.
Thank you for reading. Please look out for my other articles where I will be exploring the viability of transitions to sustainability.
Shuster, S. (2015) Putin’s Syria gamble. TIME magazine, Oct 26, 2015. pp.22-25.