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?