The numbers are staggering: up to 250,000-320,000 dead, 7.6 million refugees internally, 4 million more over the border, for a total of around 11.6 million people displaced. That’s from a total population of around 18 million. In other words, almost 2 out of every 3 Syrians has either been killed or has fled from their homes because of the war.
And yet the war grinds on, and few of the factions have yet seen wisdom in negotiation or peace.
But that may all be changing. Geopolitical conditions are rapidly shifting, and suddenly, for the first time in four years of murderous battle, diplomacy rather than guns may be gaining the upper hand in Syria.
What’s going on here? Why the change of heart? Time to get super.
- Civil wars are always deadlier than regular wars, since they are struggles to define society rather than struggles to gain security, power, or wealth.
- Syria’s civil war is no different, except that every faction minus the Islamic State is dependent on outside aid to continue fighting.
- These outsiders have helped stalemate the civil war, which has benefited the Islamic State.
- The expansion of IS is what’s worrying every outside backer of the civil war, and it’s one of the primary reasons why negotiation may well be in the cards in the next year.
- For negotiations to succeed, every faction will have to give up something, but that won’t be as hard of a sell as years past because the international community is growing united on ending the war.
So let’s talk about the nature of civil wars, why they’re harder to end, and why they must exact a high price before they do.
My 7th grade U.S. history teacher made a great point: there’s nothing “civil” about civil wars. (Being 12, I had no idea what the hell he was talking about until years later).
Civil wars can be seen two ways: short, sharp wars between a country’s elites, and long, horrid wars between factions that want to define an entire society. The former can be best seen in many of Africa’s most recent civil wars: one president refuses to give up power, some general turns on them, and the fight is limited to the infrastructure of the state. They fight over bases, government buildings, airports, and the like, while civilians duck and cover and try to get on with their lives. In such a civil war between elites, no one side has much of an incentive to kill civilians: they’re non-entities in the political struggle.
A good example of this type of civil war is the Second Ivorian Coast Civil War in 2011. Total casualties were in the low thousands and the fight ended with the capture of the ousted president.
Had this happened in Syria, it would have looked more like a general trying to oust Assad in a capital-based coup, and the war would have ended when either Assad or the rebel general was captured, killed, exiled, or bought off.
But that’s not Syria’s war. Syria’s is the more horrible kind.
And to understand it, just go back in time to your own country’s most famous civil war.
Few nation-states have come about without some civil war darkening their history. The French have their religious wars: body counts are estimated in the millions for those. The English Civil War took tens of thousands of lives. And the American Civil War was the deadliest war in U.S. history with social wounds still not fully healed.
The list goes on; you can research your own yourself. These wars were not between competing elites who were essentially applying for a new job using guns. These are battles of ideas where the most heavily-armed idea became the best one.
The goals of such a civil war are brutal but simple: one group of believers must kill enough of a different group of believers until they go underground and shut up.
In your own daily terms, this is like your school or work split between two factions on lunch choices. Say there’s a group who loves hot dogs but despises corn dogs with an opposing group doing vice versa. In order to establish a single lunch, the two go to war. But because they are both true believers, they must kill many, many more of their enemies than if they were fighting over, say, an extra desk or a promotion for just a handful of people. Everyone has a stake in the end of the war, and so everyone fights all the harder so they don’t have to give up their beloved lunch.
Victory typically goes to the side with the strong geopolitical situation, with the losing faction forced to give up much of their way of life after suffering appalling losses. If your office were divided between 60 hot dog lovers and 40 corn dog lovers, the odds would favor the hot dog lovers, who might need to kill, imprison, or exile up to 20 corn dog lovers before the survivors would accept the loss of their beloved lunch.
This is the struggle for Syria: secular vs. religious, Sunni supremacism vs. cosmopolitanism, tribal vs. national.
The societal fault lines cut deeply across Syria, and every faction has a very different vision for the country’s future. Syria’s regime still wants a nominally secular, pan-Arab nationalist nation, loyal to permanent elites who wear suits. Syria’s rebels are more divided, but their aims are closer than they used to be. There are few liberal democrats left; they’ve been exiled or killed. Rather, Syria’s rebels disagree on just how Sunni Syria should be in the peace, with the Islamic State being the most extreme.
Meanwhile, splitting this vision further is a natural tendency for many survivors outside the regime to seek a tribal, local solution to security rather than a national one; these groups are creating tribal fiefdoms that don’t welcome a national agreement for the war. The Islamic State is most adept at manipulating such groups so long as they meet the bare Sunni minimum.
But while there’s plenty to argue about, Syrians need outside help to carry on their war.
This is where the glimmer of peace now comes. Syria’s civil war was, from the very get-go, dependent on outside arms. Syria’s regime needed Iranian and Russian arms; the rebels needed Western and Gulf guns. The Iran/Russia axis wanted to preserve their old alliances with Assad; for Iran, it was about keeping an Arab ally to threaten Israel, pressure Iraq, influence Lebanon, and outflank the Saudis and Jordanians. For the Russians, it was about proving Moscow was still a reliable ally; having failed to protect Serbia in the 1990s, Putin found it imperative to save Assad.
For the West, it seemed, in 2011-12, that Assad could be bumped off on the cheap, much like Qaddafi in Libya, while Gulf Arabs thought they could overthrow an Iranian ally and gain all the strategic advantages of holding Syria.
Those with the greatest stakes in the fight were the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians; to hold Syria means to have access to Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, all of which are vulnerable to outside power.
These geopolitical needs are critical, because Syria has no arms industry beyond a few rifles and bombs. On a long enough timeline, the civil war would slow to a simmer without outside help.
So while Syrians themselves were and are very willing to fight their civil war until the last believer, they can’t keep up the pace of fighting without allies. Up until last summer, these allies didn’t have reason to get along.
But the times are a-changin’.
The value of Syria as a proxy battleground is pretty much gone now. It’s mostly a ruin, society broken and state failed, with warlords running around making things worse.
There are two powers that could achieve victory in Syria, should they push hard enough: the United States and Russia. But that would require a massive, decades-long commitment that neither wants. With the U.S. having just gotten finished half-assing its way through Iraq, the American public has no appetite for another Middle Eastern occupation.
The Russians, meanwhile, must conserve their power for their showdown with NATO in Eastern Europe. To pivot to fix Syria would fatally weaken Russia’s European flank, and certainly doom its adventure in Ukraine. Syria is a wishlist item rather than an essential.
Both Iran and the GCC lack the power to overcome one another, which has led to stalemate today. That’d be just fine and dandy for those two, who would rather fight through proxies rather than directly, except for the Islamic State.
When you break nations, you should expect backlash.
The Syrian civil war decayed Syrian society so much that a group like the Islamic State was inevitable. Remove all the IS-specific adjectives and describe it in broader terms: think of it as a local, ultra-conservative militant force with officials from defeated regional governments imposing a mythical version of a distant past that never existed in response to near-anarchy. You could easily make it Christian, Buddhist, Chinese, Mexico, Californian, etc., should those places suffer from the same geopolitical conditions as Syria.
And since IS is a local response to foreign adventures, it has no paymaster but its own mythos. Nobody tells the caliph what to do. And that’s why those powers that were so eager to carve up Syria suddenly willing to put it back together again.
Because IS threatens everybody, and the longer the war lasts, the bigger that threat will be.
The Russians hate IS because it’s a proving ground for would-be anti-Moscow jihadists. Moscow’s fear of its Muslim population goes back a long, long way, and most famously helped propel it to invade Afghanistan in 1979 when a religious uprising threatened to topple a friendly communist government.
The Americans hate IS because they’re al-Qaeda on steroids, and unlike the Taliban, which gave safe haven to al-Qaeda but never aspired to attack the U.S. homeland, IS openly revels in fantasizing about killing Americans on their own soil.
The GCC hates IS because they’re next on the targeting list: should the caliph ever ride in triumph through Baghdad or Damascus, he’ll speak of going on to Mecca, Riyadh, and Dubai.
And Iran hates IS because it fears the caliphate may do just that; should IS hijack the geopolitical powers of the GCC, it could begin an aggressive war of extermination on Shi’a that would make Saddam’s invasion look tame.
So what might a deal look like? Well, the model to follow may well be Lebanon.
From 1975-90, Lebanon fought its own vicious civil war, with the same kind of foreign meddling, shifting alliances, and unhealthy doses of jihadism. That civil war concluded when Lebanese society had had enough of civil war and the main foreign sponsors of the war – Syria, Iran, and the West – concluded they couldn’t get what they wanted through violence.
The result were the Taif Accords, which were an imperfect peace that makes Lebanon a fractured, if still largely peaceful, state. Few were held to account for the atrocities that took place, and no single social vision was imposed on the diverse country. Corruption remains rife; Lebanese democracy is dysfunctional, and, on occasion, people still die in car bombs and other score-settling between the factions. But since few Lebanese see advantage to a second civil war, and no foreign sponsor is convinced another proxy war would win them Beirut, Lebanon is able to hold itself mostly together.
That may be the working formula for Syria: an informally broken up state in a permanent cease fire, not above allowing occasional assassinations between rivals and far from a democracy, but nominally still one country.
There’s just one problem: IS prefers war.
And here a hinge of history may sway.
The Assad regime and the original rebels are fatigued; they may well be persuaded to freeze the frontlines and call it a day. But IS will not. So what’s to be done? A U.S.-backed plan to organize Syria’s rebels to take on the caliphate has failed; GCC states are too busy in Yemen to send troops, and nobody wants to back Assad to reconquer IS territory. Iran’s military isn’t capable of that kind of force projection, and, as I’ve said before, neither the Russians nor the Americans want to send troops when they’re so busy facing down one another in Europe.
So two things must happen: either the world comes to accept IS as a more or less permanent feature in the Middle East, even if it refuses to recognize the caliphate, or the Turks, the only regional force with a strong enough army, invade.
In truth, the former may happen before the latter; should the world abandon eastern Syria to IS, invariably Turkey will be drawn into the war, since Turkey is also on the caliphate’s conquest list.
Such a war would bring Turkish power into old Ottoman territory with the blessings of virtually every state on Earth. Syria as a Turkish vassal might be the result.
One thing is certain: few are willing to tolerate a chaotic Syria much longer.
True negotiations shall begin in earnest within the next year. The greatest challenge will be deciding who gets to clean up the Islamic State mess.