Syria: the life cycle of civil war

A comprehensive understanding of how, why and when opposition groups in civil war engage in civilian governance must have important policy implications for outsiders engaging or toying with engaging in Syria.

Shelley Deane
29 April 2013

In the two years since the Syrian ‘Arab Spring’ the international community has paid lip service to the Syrian predicament. Syria’s ‘stasis’, the Greek for civil strife or civil war defined first by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian War, follows the unique chronology of an evolving revolution-to-civil-war-conflict transition and the uniform trajectory of political rhetoric, fighting over resources, sectarianism and strategic logic.

Syria’s stasis

From its inception, the life of Syria’s crisis since the uprising is characteristic of civil wars, defined as an internal war within state borders, often with the participation of external actors. Syria’s Arab Spring began with a challenge to the incumbent regime’s monopoly of violence and power. Syrian citizens protested, challenging the status quo, to create change from within. Initially, the Assad regime was met with anti-regime graffiti, and responded with the long arm of the state, arresting the perpetrators and punishing them without due process. A peaceful protest march against the arrests was subsequently met with military force. The protests escalated, and repression in turn was countered with revolt. The state ruptured. The regime proposed partial reform. Protagonists persevered; ideological positions became entrenched and readily articulated. At this stage, the state had a choice, to initiate substantive reform or to escalate state control. The regime sought to reassert control.

Defections in the security elite indicated a tipping point. In conventional civil war scenarios military defections in sufficient numbers would alter the symmetry of the conflict and the balance of power. Not so in Syria; territory has been lost and retrieved. The balance of capabilities between regime and opposition has continued to shift to and fro, as external actors or third parties engage in their own rivalries, addressing the security dilemma instability posed by support for factions.

Interested powers engaged in co-option, meddling and mending in equal measure. Diverse diasporas began to behave as diasporas often do, re-directing funds ‘home’ to help the uprising, funding factions in favour of the most appealing ‘cause’. The opposition, regime challengers, insurgents, rebels or partisans secured further advances, threatening the regime’s control of topography, the capital and pipelines. Protracted violence escalated the existing security threats and civilian suffering increased, with displaced and refugees (59% of registered refugees are under 18 years old) fleeing the conflict, thereby creating increasingly unstable state borders.

Currently, cross-border contagion undermines neighbouring states, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, compounding fears of irredentist threats. The opposition groupings have been afforded support, recognition and legitimacy from some external states and delegitimized and banned by others. Competing external support for the opposition groups renders the state and the region increasingly susceptible to prolonged conflict. The regime no longer has the monopoly of territorial control domestically nor the necessity of international legitimacy.

Competition for the monopoly of ideology, however, has become increasingly difficult. For the partisan opposition, new fractures and factions appear. Opposition groups compete with one another, seeking to demonstrate their credibility and outmanoeuvre rivals by exploiting fear. Some remain ferociously committed to the pursuit of absolutist goals (Jabhat Al-Nusra), outbidding rival opposition factions.

Economic insecurity

Economic recession compounds the disruption civil wars have on regional economies. But when conflict fatalities reach a civil war threshold, emphasis is put on violence rather than on the political character of the conflict. In Syria, neighbouring states have begun the hasty renewal of alliances to counter escalating economic insecurity. Addressing the role of Syria as an unpredictable oil and gas corridor, neighbouring states are securing resource access routes and, where possible, war ‘spoils’. Iraq and Jordan have agreed to build a double pipeline (avoiding the Basrah terminal and dependence on Saudi Arabia) to provide Jordan with natural gas. In February, Iran, Iraq and Syria signed a memorandum of understanding for the construction of pipelines through Iraqi territory, delivering Iranian gas from Assalouyeh to Syria. Levant basin gas from Israel’s Tamar field - 9.0 trillion cubic feet (tcf) - is on the verge of extraction, encouraging erstwhile rivals, Israel and Turkey, to collaborate.

States have co-ordinated efforts to counter the contagion effect of the Syrian conflict and the corresponding Hobbesian fears of their neighbours impeding access to the aptly named Leviathan gas field (17.0 tcf). These internal and containment patterns of the Syrian conflict are well-worn civil war mechanisms, charting the politico-religious preferences that polarize states seeking regional religious or other dominance.


Syria’s political instability has morphed from political revolt through predictable waves of systemic internal violence and at great human cost. External observers promptly assigned an exclusively ethno-sectarian label to the forms of civil war violence experienced in Syria. They might have learned something from Thucydides.

In Thucydides’ History fear, honour and profit framed the rationale for the Peloponnesian war. Today, commentators, political scientists and economists argue over whether existential threat, honour or greed is the primary motivator for civil war. Arbitrary distinctions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ civil wars are being made in order to navigate the realities of revolution and civil war, simplifying scenarios to semantics in order to better persuade policy makers.

‘Old’ Cold War-era-style civil wars are deemed to have been motivated by virtue, driven by grievance, politically inspired and shaped by well-defined articulated ideologies of social change, with popular support, often stemming from a breach of the social contract and revolt. ‘Old’ civil wars were usually fought in an organized fashion employing a conventional pattern of symmetric non-conventional systemic violence where protagonists impose unbearable costs on their opponents to ‘win by not losing’. ‘Old’ civil wars were conceived along clear fault lines often constitutional in origin along visible ideological battle frontlines. Conversely, ‘new’ post-Cold War, civil wars are considered to be motivated by vice. ‘New’ resource-based civil wars, are described as criminal enterprises, motivated by predation and profit and often facilitated by ethnic distinction; employing asymmetric non-conventional warfare with limited local support which is, more often than not, coerced. But the reality is different.

Strategic logic

What do we make of Syria’s robust local networks of civil resistance which have sprung up in the form of administrative councils from 2011, adapting an ability to out-administer the incumbent regime, by out-governing the government? Local councils are creating a counter state with a ‘robust’ opposition. A comprehensive understanding of how, why and when opposition groups in civil war engage in civilian governance must have important policy implications for outsiders engaging with Syria. One critical and often overlooked concern is the fate of civilians caught in or attempting to escape the struggle. The creation and institutionalisation of these rule-based administrative and governance arrangements provides valuable insights into the motives of the opposition factions.

Providing shadow governance structures, especially where local councils involve the encouragement of voluntary participation (rather than through recruitment or ‘conscription’) indicates a future capacity to out-administer the incumbent central government. A review of resilient Syrian opposition groups or shadow administrations suggests that the nature of governance as well as the nature of warfare and violence is shaping the strategic logic of civil war transitions as a means of significant social change in the Middle East and North Africa.

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