With an Iron Fist: What the Start of Syria’s Civil War Tells Us About its End

Photo Credit: Breaking World Wide News

By Jonathan Challgren, Columnist

When Bashar al-Assad declared during a January 2012 speech that he would crush a “terrorist conspiracy” with “an iron fist,” Syria was already well on its way towards civil war.[1] Understanding Assad’s strategy and the opposition’s viability are critical as efforts to curtail the violence are sputtering. While many analysts stress the conflict’s ethnic roots, economic and geopolitical factors were in fact much more important in the creation of the opposition.[2] Until these factors are adequately addressed, it is likely that Syria’s civil war will continue.

Many commentators have argued that ethnic rivalries between minority Alawites and disenfranchised majority Sunnis triggered the conflict, but this analysis is shortsighted.[3] In reality, Sunnis account for about 60% of the Syrian Army, and there are some Sunni areas within Syria that support the regime.[4] Others have argued that the Arab Spring prompted the state’s collapse, like in Libya and Egypt.[5] Using the Arab Spring as a driving factor is problematic, however, because other countries, like Algeria and Saudi Arabia, managed major protests without bloody revolution. Thus, although ethnic identity and the Arab Spring were undoubtedly factors in Syria’s collapse, other underlying issues were more critical.

First, economic conditions—poverty, economic decline, and natural resource dependency—provided incentives and the means to organize against the state. The pre-war Syrian economy was characterized by “high unemployment, high inflation, limited upward mobility, [and] corruption.”[6] While state reforms nearly tripled Syria’s GDP, wealth accumulated with elites and created “a peasant class frustrated by mismanaged resources and scarce economic opportunity.”[7] Tellingly, the first protest in Damascus largely involved blue-collar Sunni Muslims from Douma, an outlying suburb.[8] Additionally, as conditions degraded and the opposition endured increasing state violence, Syria’s dependency on oil sustained some opposition groups and incentivized others. Captured oil allowed some groups—such as the Islamic State (IS), which made up to $1 million a day in 2014[9] —to sustain their fight against the better-equipped regime.[10] As a result, economic conditions supplied both the spark and sustenance to opposition organization.

Second, recent conflict in the region gave opposition groups access to the resources—operational, human, and material—necessary for armed conflict. The Arab Spring (2010), Libyan crisis (2011), and Iraqi civil war (2011-13) served as the training grounds for foreign fighters that would participate in the Syrian conflict. At critical moments in the rebellion, these groups provided organizational structure and capacity for opposition activists. Among other groups, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) gained experience, support, and sanctuary in Iraq and provided extensive operational capability to nascent rebel groups struggling against the regime.[11] When the Free Syrian Army (FSA) struggled to organize and avoid internecine bloodshed in 2013, JN conducted over 600 attacks.[12] In addition to operational and human requirements, the region’s conflicts supplied the material means for resistance. One extensive survey of the Lebanese arms market found that despite the civil war, the region’s ample small arms supply met market demands, though there was an initial spike in small arms prices.[13] Likewise, according to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Libya’s collapse resulted in 20,000 SA-7 MANPADs that “just [disappeared] into the maw of the Middle East and North Africa.”[14] Regional conflict provided the organizational potential and raw means necessary to resist the state’s coercive power.

Finally, the state’s escalating levels of brutality against the wider Syrian population triggered an internal security dilemma that led to the growth of numerous violent opposition groups.[15] In March 2013, the state’s execution of several political prisoners resulted in non-violent protests around the country. After some reconciliation attempts, Syrian tanks suppressed increasingly large protests in March and May.[16] These state operations formalized the opposition organization by October with the New Syrian National Council and the FSA. In December, the civil war began in earnest with the state’s use of artillery against population centers and JN’s first suicide bombings in Damascus.[17] By 2014, more than 1,500 groups had formed complex webs of alliances that enlisted outside powers and local actors to survive against the state’s increasingly indiscriminate violence, a far cry from the non-violent protests of a year prior.[18]

What do the underlying factors in Syria’s conflict mean for ceasefire negotiations? First, since the economic factors that sparked the conflict have not improved—and no doubt have gotten worse—the region will remain a tinderbox for some time to come. Syria’s economic condition and persistent regional conflicts are long-term problems that could turn any groups aggrieved by the settlement into spoilers. Thus, talks should address all stakeholder concerns in negotiations, to include those that the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations recently called “terrorist delegations that belongs to a terrorist faction.”[19]

Second, since the state’s strategy galvanized the conflict, ending the war will be difficult without altering the nature of the Syrian state itself. While there remain a large number of opposition groups, most were chartered to oppose the state’s behavior and hold legitimate political grievances. This makes them unlikely to lay down arms without redress or utter exhaustion—especially given the resource pool provided by alliances. An effective truth and reconciliation commission must hinge on altering Syria’s leadership and the regime’s structure to address opposition concerns.

Third, the ongoing security dilemma between rebel factions and the state must be addressed in order to end the violence. With the number of groups currently engaged in fighting, this will be exceptionally difficult. While most civil wars last a decade on average, those with more combatants tend to go on longer.[20] The presence of a neutral third party such as a UN peacekeeping mission or a coalition of neighboring countries could mitigate some concern for self-preservation. However, recent negotiations indicate that an international mission would struggle to gain the commitment and authority necessary to act as an arbiter. Further, a coalition of regional powers with higher commitment levels is unlikely to be neutral for all sides—a committed Sunni Gulf State Coalition, for example, would trigger status concerns for Shiite and Alawite populations. The possibility of partition, suggested by some, is also undermined by the opposition’s fractionalization and questionable international commitment. Key regional allies, for example, would be opposed to any Syrian partition that empowers a Kurdish minority. Unfortunately, most tools to resolve the security dilemma lack either credible commitment or neutrality.

Ultimately, the causes of the civil war imply that the conflict will not be easily resolved by current efforts because the factors that began the conflict are unlikely to be dispelled through negotiations. As a result, without a unified international effort focused primarily on these underlying issues, the United States and the international community will struggle to marshal the resources or leverage to end the conflict by reassuring combatants and addressing grievances. Absent these necessary measures, Syria seems likely to join the 75% of civil wars resolved on the battlefield rather than at the negotiating table. [21]

[1] Anthony Shadid, “Syrian Leader Vows ‘Iron Fist’ to Crush Conspiracy” (NYT, 10/1/2012), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/11/world/middleeast/syrian-leader-vows-to-crush-conspiracy.html?_r=0

[2] For a detailed discussion of ‘feasibility’ see Paul Collier, “The Market for Civil War,” Foreign Policy, May-June 2003, pp. 38-45

[3] See Fouad Ajami, “In Syria’s Civil War, the Lines That Matter Aren’t Red.” (The Washington Post, 9/5/2013), available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-syrias-war-the-lines-that-matter-arent-red/2013/05/09/b29ac688-b808-11e2-92f3-f291801936b8_story.html

[4] Chris Zambelis, “Syria’s Sunnis and the Regime’s Resilience.” (CTC Sentinel, Vol 8, issue 5, 05/2015) pp. 5-9; Thanassis Cambanis, “Assad’s Sunni Foot Soldiers.” (Foreign Policy Magazine, 11/5/15), available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/05/assads-sunni-foot-soldiers-syria/

[5] Kathy Gilsinan, “The Confused Person’s Guide to the Syrian Civil War” (The Atlantic, 29/10/15), available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/syrian-civil-war-guide-isis/410746/

[6] Christopher Blanchard, Carla Humud and Mary Nikitin, Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response. (Congressional Research Service, 2015), pp. 6-9

[7] David Kilcullen and Nate Rosenblatt, “The Rise of Syria’s Urban Poor: Why the War for Syria’s Future Will be Fought Over the Country’s New Urban Villages,” Prism, Syrian Supplemental, Vol 4, 2014, pp. 2-3

[8] David Kilcullen and Nate Rosenblatt, ibid, pp. 3-4

[9] David Cohen, Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in David McCabe, “Treasure: ISIS makes $1M a day from oil sales” (The Hill, 10/23/14), available at: http://thehill.com/policy/defense/221644-treasury-isis-makes-1m-a-day-from-oil-sales

[10] Ben Hubbard, Clifford Krauss and Eric Schmitt, “Rebels in Syria Claim Control of Resources” (New York Times, 28/1/14), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/world/middleeast/rebels-in-syria-claim-control-of-resources.html accessed: 3/1/16

[11] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, “Jabhat al Nusra: A Strategic Briefing” (Quillam Group, 2014), available at: http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf

[12] FSA’s supreme commander has even noted the necessity for coordination with JN affiliates like Ahrar al Sham. Gen. Salim Idriss in David Enders, “Syrian Rebel Leader Salim Idriss Admits Difficulty of Unifying Fighters.” (McClatchy DC, 5/7/2013), available at: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article24748906.html; Martin Chulov, “Free Syrian Army threatens blood feud after senior officer killed by Jihadists.” (The Guardian, 2/3/2013), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/12/free-syrian-army-officer-killed; Christopher Blanchard, Carla Humud and Mary Nikitin, Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response. (Congressional Research Service, 2015), pp. 1-5

[13] Nicholas Florquin, “Arms Prices and Conflict Onset: Insights from Lebanon and Syria” (Springer Science + Business Media Dordrecht, 5/2014) pp. 17-19

[14] US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates quoted in Scott Shane and Joe Becker, “A New Libya with ‘Very Little Time left’(New York Times, 27/2/2016), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/us/politics/libya-isis-hillary-clinton.html?partner=rss&emc=rss accessed: 2/29/16

[15] While state selective control policies can engender status concerns among repressed groups, brute force control techniques like those later employed by Syria can have an even greater effect on group security concerns. See Daniel Byman, Keeping the Peace: Lasting Solution to Ethnic Conflicts (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 44-80

[16] Dominic Tierney, “Bashar al-Assad and the Devil’s Gambit” (The Atlantic, 16/4/2014), available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/07/assad-and-the-art-of-the-devils-gambit/374501/

[17] Christopher Blanchard, Carla Humud and Mary Nikitin, Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response. (Congressional Research Service, 2015), pp. 1-5

[18] DNI James Clapper in Christopher Blanchard, Carla Humud and Mary Nikitin, Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response. (Congressional Research Service, 2015), pp. 9, 14; Lucy Rodger, David Gritten, James Offer and Patrick Asare, “Syria: The Story of the Conflict” (British Broadcasting Channel, 3/2/16), available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868 accessed: 2/27/16

[19] Bashar Jaafri in Henry Meyer, “Assad Regime Spurns Direct talks with ‘terrorists’” (Chicago Tribune, 3/16/2016), available at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-wp-blm-syria-bg-89f97858-eb88-11e5-a9ce-681055c7a05f-20160316-story.html

[20] Barbara Walter, “The Four Things we Know About How Civil Wars End” (Political Violence at a Glance, 18/10/13), available at: http://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2013/10/18/the-four-things-we-know-about-how-civil-wars-end-and-what-this-tells-us-about-syria/

[21] Barbara Walter, “The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement” (International Organization, vol 51, No 3 Summer 1997) pp. 335-64.

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