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.

Cliff notes!

  • 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.

Homs some years ago. When society is this far gone, people seek survival, and only warlords can promise that. (Source: PBS.com)

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.

Russia is seeing less and less value to such support. (Source: The Economist)

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.

Assad may well yet escape all this. (Source: Telegraph.co.uk)

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.

10 thoughts on “What Must Happen Before the Syrian Civil War Ends

  1. Respectfully, I think you’ve started off on the wrong foot by calling this thing a Syrian civil war. It’s like calling the events of 1848-1849 in Central Europe a Habsburg or – slightly anachronically – an Austro-Hungarian civil war. But the Croats, Hungarians, Italians, Romanians, Czechs, and German-Austrians were not fighting then to redefine “Habsburg society”. Rather, it was a competition among the nationalities for security, power, and wealth. I think things are similar here: there is no “Syrian society” or nation and there never was and likely there will never be one; there are tribes, the tribes of Aleppo vs. the tribes of Damascus, the ethnic Kurds vs. the ethnic Arabs, the “ghulat” Arabs (starting with the Alawites) vs. Sunni Arabs, there are Christians vs. Muslims, etc. Basically the various communities in Syria are fighting amons themselves as if they were already countries, independent of each other, fighting for their very survival; this isn’t a civil war. The fighting won’t stop unless something analogous to the Russian army in 1848-1849 in Central Europe will come in and kick everyone’s ass. These “Russians” can only be either the US or Turkey, I think, in the case of Syria (I know there are some people who think Iran can do the job; I don’t think so and even if they could, this won’t be beneficial for anyone except Iran if they actually do it.)

    What I’m trying to say is that in the geographical space of Syria / the Levant and Mesopotamia we don’t have an armed battle between ideas, but rather a battle between communities / ethnicities that have little in common and don’t form a society. It’s like in my workplace there are Romanians, Turks, Greeks, Tatars, and Ukrainians employed. Romanians and Ukrainians love borscht; Turks, Greeks, and Tatars love baklavas; but in the end every person fights for themselves and theirs, for their own people. Sorry for diasgreening I’m not trying to be rude, but I think you’ve got this all wrong. I think what Syria and Iraq need is some sort of “Trianon treaty” after the fighting stops. If there won’t be one, whoever comes in with troops to stop the fighting will have to stay in indefinitely. In one way I agree though – ideally, Turks will settle it, follwing by splitting the whole thing up, following by devising some pro-Turkish “little Entente”. I think anything less than this will all but guarantee indefinite fighting, should it come to it, with knives and bare hands, because I think the stakes of the fighting in the region are survival and security for well-defined groups of people (ethnicities, communities) and hen it comes to the lives of “you and yours” there’s no middle ground to give up. Please notice how Da’esh only rules in a well defined cultural area – Mesopotamian or “North Mesopotamian” Sunni Arab tribes. They have little influence in the Levant proper, in Kurdistan or in Iraq proper.

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    1. I absolutely agree on your point that there is no Syrian nation – and have written in the past to that point – but I would modify it in that each of the groups you aptly noted desire control of Syria as defined by its borders. They each seek to impose their ethnic or religious solution on everyone else. Only IS is the exception – they seek conquest further afield than just Syria.

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      1. What about the Kurds, the Druze, the Christians? Jabhat an-Nusra may desire the whole thing but the Aleppo area tribes might only desire their region and a sea opening. Iraq gov. might say they want the entire Iraq, but do the Si’a of Iraq proper really want to fight for anything but their own region. The Alawites might soon come to think similarly, and perhaps also the tribes of Damascus.

        What do you think of my comparison with 19th and early 20th cent. Central Europe?

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      2. I think it’s a solid comparison but there is a difference between Syria and Austria-Hungary. Syria has been trying to build a nation from its state while the Hapsburgs were running an empire of many nations that didn’t seek to create a single nationality. I agree the Druze might well like a situation much as they have in Lebanon, but Christians seem united behind a ssecular Syria. The Kurds, you’re right, don’t want the whole of Syria but certainly do seek a nation from its ruins. As for the tribes, I think they will fall in line behind the strongest Sunny and/or Arab force that eventually comes out on top. I suppose it is possible for Syria to become like Congo where factions more or less cannibalize large sections of the country permanently, but I think such a situation is hard to get away with since Islamic State thrives in those conditions.

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      3. (I hope this reply goes where it should…)

        People tend to ignore the sociology of the middle East when thinking about these things. I think each major group (ethnicity, relig. community, tribal grouping) should be given a country of their own. Look at the citizenry of the gulf countries (except Bahrain and the Saudi empire) – each one is just one tribe (more or less). After this empowering of the tribes (and of the Kurds, Alawites, Druzes and Christians), whoever wants, can form a confederation, ideally a pro-Turkish grouping – this would bring long term stability.

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  2. “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.”

    First I want to say that I like your blog. But man, you always overestimate the power of the Islamic State. It’s nothing but local (border) Iraqis who resent their sectarian central government and taking advantage of a power vacuum. Their propaganda isn’t popular and doesn’t have the international appeal that alqa’ida once had. Anyone following the news can see how politically stupid they are. They have no allies anywhere, not even among extreme Wahhabis. And they certainly can’t fight any real regular army. If the Syrian war ends, Syrians would be able to clean up themselves with enough outside help. But which Syrians? That is the question.

    And on the “there is no Syrian nation” comment, what country on this planet doesn’t have tribes Mr. Geopolitics ? It’s the same shit everywhere. You would have Asians fighting black people fighting white supremacists (as well as religions) if the US government fell. These are tribes too.

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    1. Thanks for the comments. Let me respond in bits here.

      I’m going to work to make sure I don’t come off as thinking IS is more powerful than it is; it’s potential power is vast, but it’s actual power is not. Its greatest strength is that it’s the Sunni equivalent of the Iranian Revolution, which was the greatest geopolitical destabilizer in the Middle East since Israel’s foundation. It could expand to further Sunni territories and follow the pattern of Communism, which found the right geopolitical patterns to follow and ended up dominating a superpower. I think the coming days of Saudi instability will provide a dangerous opportunity for IS if it’s allowed to survive.

      Second, let’s make sure we’re on the same page when we’re using the term “nation.” From an international relations perspective, “nations” are unified groups of people who satisfy two conditions: they have basic common cultural traits (language, religious, ethnicity, etc.), and they see themselves and others within their borders as members of the same nation. Syria has always had a bigger problem with the former rather than the latter; although the process of nationalization was underway before the revolution, traditional tribalism continued to dominate large swathes of Syrian society. In IR terms, “tribalism” means people who are linked by blood or family and who see themselves as so: Syrians still do often use tribal identifies in their names. That’s key when comparing tribalism to the very real racial differences in the U.S. – race differences here don’t link themselves by family or blood, nor are there racial tribal leaders who are able to speak on behalf of various races. Racism is a different phenomenon that is less of a threat to a state: it’s a brittle ideology that a well-organized force can always overcome if determined enough. Tribalism, on the other hand, can crack and even destroy a state, since most states with tribes within them are forced to rely on tribal compliance to remain in power.

      When Assad’s regime began shooting in 2011, his forces killed tribes people whose relatives and extended kin felt compelled to take revenge. This is a key component of tribalism: when kin is killed, you strike back.

      Compare that with the Ferguson, Missouri, killing of Michael Brown. Those riots were not kin-motivated, but politically and racially so. That’s why they sputtered out; once the initial political and racial anger was used it, the rioters went home. Tribes don’t give up as readily.

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  3. I don’t think there is GCC political will to fight ISIS. The anti-ISIS maneuvers have been anemic at best, where they have even existed. This was true before the Houthi coup which tried to change Yemen. Partially this is because GCC want to see Assad ousted, but they also want a resurgent Shia Iraq to be destabilized. Remember that Turkey has bought ISIS oil. And at least in the past, Gulf states helped fund ISIS.

    ISIS is on some levels a continuation of the Iraqi regime that was trying to destroy Iran to solidify Saudi/Gulf dominance in the region (Iran/Iraq war). Remember there is some continuity from Baathist Iraqi elites and IS leadership today. The Houthi are a real threat to this, but ISIS is at least composed partially of a Saudi ally – and remember the Saudis opposed the invasion of Iraq that toppled that ally.

    I think quite a bit more is going on “behind the scenes” in the form of diplomacy (or at least calculation) by Gulf states toward ISIS. Even if there is no trust or communication line, there is an understanding – ISIS’s existential threats are Shia Iraq and Assad in Syria – both allied with Iran. These are all Saudi enemies. Saudi Arabia is quite happy to have a Sunni thorn in their sides.

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    1. I would largely agree with you pre-capture of Mosul, but the declaration of the caliphate, I think, changed the GCC’s calculations in regards to ISIS. I think the GCC is still hoping the U.S. will destroy it first, but ISIS is a clear and present danger to the GCC, as exhibited by the Kuwait suicide bombing in June and by the arrests of ISIS sympathizers in both Saudi and the UAE. The UAE, remember, was quite active on the bombing front against ISIS, but is now sidetracked in Yemen. You’re right the GCC, at least Saudi, sees Yemen as the greater priority, but I think that’s because they know the Americans won’t do much to put Yemen back together, while the U.S. can still be cajoled into fighting ISIS on their behalf.

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