A man stands atop a building looking at the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, 2015. Photo Credit: Bulent Kilic/APF/Getty Images.
By: Krystel Von Kumberg, Columnist
Richard Haass’ theorem of nonpolarity can critically explain the complex dynamics that have brought-about the dozens of actors exercising different levels of power in Syria, as states become increasingly constrained from both regional and global organizations, as well as militias and non-governmental organizations. [i] The ways non-state actors can shape events is an oft-overlooked factor that has led to the poor state of affairs that have unfolded in Syria today. States are challenged from below in today’s world—and not only in the MENA region—as demonstrated by the gilets jaunes in France, it is becoming more apparent in Europe as well. This challenges predominantly realist-bent state-led conceptions, as the diffusion of power has enabled sub-state groups to play a significant role in the war. It is not simply a duel, it is a web of actors, fragmented and united by states, but also stemming and breaking apart from the rigidity of long-adhered-to state-centric conceptions. Haas’ notion of “distributed power” is relevant here, as these actors—who are often empowered by governments, are ultimately shaping that power and taking control into their own hands. [ii] This is important to understand, as the ways different states perceive and conceptualize this power will ultimately affect the operational levels of the battlefield and even alter the overall strategic political objectives.
The danger of not comprehending the power and influence of non-state actors is exemplified by Vice President Pence’s declaration that ISIL is “defeated,” a comment preceded by the killing of four Americans and ten others in a deadly explosion in the city of Manbij in Syria. [iii] After the details of the attack were confirmed, Pence further stated, “we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to re-establish their evil.” [iv] Unfortunately, the “remnants” are not as powerless as the U.S. would like them to be. The origins of ISIL, emerging as an insurgency out of Iraq suggests that power vacuums revitalize the group; the Trump administration’s decision to leave Syria therefore gives the group the perfect conditions to propagate its aims. [v]
The Chechen dynamic offers another exemplification of nonpolarity in the Syria conflict. Chechnya, a federal subject of Russia located on the North Caucasus, has been given an important role in Syria. The Kadyrovsty Chechen paramilitary troops experienced in irregular warfare, are veteran fighters given a mandate to extinguish their opponents; the Ichkeriysy and Emiratovsy rebel groups. [vi] The fact that Chechens are fighting other rebel Chechens, many of whom have joined ISIL, within Syria highlights the multidimensional nature of conflict that we see today. Rather than nation-at-arms fighting against each other, the fighting compromises a web of different actors. This Russian pragmatism of using Chechen fighters—that cause less domestic pressure on public support—also highlights the emergence of a new order that cannot be perceived in simple state-centric terms. As British Naval Historian Julian Corbett reminds us, “to assume that one method of conducting war will suit all kinds of war is to fall a victim to abstract theory, and not to be a prophet of reality.” [vii] Russia’s experience with insurgencies within its own borders perhaps explains why it deals with “terrorist” organizations in a businesslike, methodical way. According to Anatoly Viktorov, Ambassador to Israel, when highlighting Russia’s stance on why Hamas is not considered a terrorist organization, he stated “we are preparing partners for negotiations for you [Israel].” [viii] This highlights that the way states perceive certain actors can change the nature of the dialogue and in this way shape the future of Syria.
The ways non-state actors can also constrain states is apparent in the Russia-sponsored Sochi peace talks, which have thus far yielding little success. The problem posed by the Kurds divides Turkey and Russia, as the separatist threat alarms Ankara but provides a unique advantage for Moscow’s ability to leverage and expand its power in the MENA region. [ix] Rather than simply a proxy war, we see sub-state actors—like the Kurds—on the ground pushing states and swaying the pendulum of power.
Moreover, when analyzing power, specifically that of ideas—the definition of statism is important to consider, because it can have different connotations. ISIL, for instance, according to Dmitry Shlapentokh shares particular idiosyncrasies with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, in which it adheres to an “anti-statist” vision, whilst also sharing an extreme zeal for worldwide revolution. [x] This is important, as this non-statist identity captures an element that could be very appealing to stateless people, as the populations in the MENA region over centuries of re-drawn borders have experienced the negative implications of state sovereignty.
Overall, understanding the dynamics of a nonpolar order can better help us understand the vital power-shaping roles non-state actors can have. Realism, in some respects, becomes idealistic— in upholding states as the central actors, the messy and knotted relationships with non-state actors and their effects go unnoticed. The difference inherent in national security; relating to sovereignty, which is what we most keenly observe in international affairs is in Syria being overridden by social security; which relates to identity. We are witnessing identities loosely fighting for power—a diffusion of power that is no longer overridden by strict nation-states.
[i] Richard N. Haass, “The Age of Nonpolarity: What Will Follow U.S. Dominance?” Foreign Affairs (May/June, 2008); 44-56.
[iii] Zachary Cohen, Veronica Stracqualursi and Kevin Liptak, “4 Americans among those killed by attack claimed by ISIS,” CNN, January 17, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/16/politics/syria-attack-us-patrolled-city/index.html
[v] Mona Yacoubian, “Next Steps in Syria,” Council on Foreign Affairs, December 30 2018, https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/next-steps-syria-mona-yacoubian?fbclid=IwAR1nBTqZANQyvmgjH7oAFU3DE2cpM2q-qwCpmYdvQI2tg3xCoH-KtIhHVfY
[vi] Neil Hauler, “A War within a War: Chechnya’s Expanding Role in Syria,” News Deeply; Syria Deeply, November 30 2017, https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2017/11/30/a-war-within-a-war-chechnyas-expanding-role-in-syria
[vii] Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, (Project Gutenberg E-book, 2005); 28.
[viii] Anon, “Russian Envoy Says “Hamas not root of Middle East conflict,” i24 News, January 27 2019, https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/194079-190127-exclusive-russian-envoy-says-hamas-not-root-of-middle-east-conflict
[ix] Emil Aslan Souleimanov and Valery Dzutsati, “Russia’s Syria War; A Strategic Trap?,” Middle East Policy Council, Summer 2018, https://www.mepc.org/journal/russias-syria-war-strategic-trap
[x] Dmitry V. Shlapentokh, “Russia’s Approach to ISIL; the hidden benefit of evil,” NATO Review magazine, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/2015/isil/Russia-Syria-Putin-ISIL-Chechnya-Middle-East/EN/index.htm