Planning Syrian Peace? Understand its Wars


Emily Hawley     – April 13, 2016 –  Emily Hawley leads a planning initiative for post-conflict Syrian reconstruction for the Amman-based WANA Institute.

Syria is ravaged not by a single war but multiple interconnecting conflicts.  Even disregarding the Kurds’ gradual push for autonomy in the North or the dramatic fight against ISIS in the East, Syria’s civil war is comprised of at least two related yet distinct wars. Although the 2011 revolution began as a fight for political transformation, the movement quickly fractured. Political ideology now vies for relevance against the other conflict of religious sectarianism. This dynamic—a melding of ideological and sectarian wars—clarifies one obstacle in resolving the conflicts.

Ideological and sectarian civil conflicts play out in distinct ways, promoting different belligerent strategies and entailing contradictory ‘ideal’ outcomes that impede any purely political solution. An understanding of this distinction underscores the influence of sectarianism and the corresponding importance of the territorial dimension to resolving Syria’s wars, a prerequisite for political progress.

Let us first consider ideological civil conflicts. Vietnam is a classic example; this was a war of ideas, a contest for hearts and minds. In this type of contest, insurgents can easily dissolve amongst civilian population or feign allegiance to the government. Therefore, territorial victories matter less than genuine popular support. External intervention risks perpetuating these ideological wars and degradation of the local ally’s credibility, since winning is less a matter of superior force than the accumulation of mass approval. As Chaim Kaufmann outlines in his paper “Intervention in Ethnic and Ideological Civil Wars,”  victory in these types of cases is generally won through political competence and the establishment of loyalties across state territory in addition to military prowess.

On the other hand, Kaufmann points out that ethnic or sectarian civil conflict, as seen in Bosnia, is a military matter. These fights prioritizeterritorial control and sides are defined by identity politics. In these cases, political reform can achieve little; victories are instead achieved by force and often at a heavy human toll. Consequently, well-executed external interventions can shorten or mitigate a conflict through committed support to a side in defeat its opponents. Alternatively, external military intervention might help a weaker side achieve a defensible territory, implement partition plans, and develop a functional, external peace keeping force on contested borders. As Roy Licklider points out in “Civil War Outcomes,” territorial partition, despite its many flaws, is generally considered the most humane and effective method to end fighting in sectarian conflict.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad would have had great political difficulty implementing the reforms needed to win an ideological battle. This has given him significant incentive to inflame sectarian conflict.  Fellow Sunni and Shia regional powers quickly jumped on the Assad’s sectarian bandwagon, transforming the Syrian civil war into the rare phenomenon of mixed conflict that Syria experiences today. Any workable solution to Syria’s civil war now must solve a contradiction: one civil war will be won through hearts and minds, yet the other must be won on the battlefield.

For influential voices in Geneva, any discussion of a resolution to Syria’s conflict will fall flat if it only touches on political issues. Distasteful as it may be to acknowledge the effectiveness of sectarian policies, the corrosiveness of Syria’s sectarian war makes analyzing this dimension a vital priority for mitigating even worse aspects of the conflict. With this understanding, a partition of Syria—perhaps via the suggestion outlined by RAND of solidifying and securing multiple zones under regime, opposition, and Kurdish control through international oversight and support—provides the clearest road to stopping Syria’s sectarian fighting, although this method is admittedly far from foolproof. In later stages, these territories can be developed into a federal or confederal system within a united Syria. But for now, the priority should be in subduing the sectarian-charged fight for land.  No less important, this strategy permits prioritization of ISIS’s defeat and reopens the space for Syria’s ideological struggle.

Those demanding Assad’s immediate departure should consider that as long as the sectarian-fueled fight for territory continues, he will hold the upper hand through multiple external interventions on his behalf. Moreover, the current hate-charged rhetoric has drowned out the voice of the Syrian people. Calming sectarian tensions can allow a rebirth of political solutions to the crisis, as witnessed in the peaceful protests that arose during Syria’s recent lull in violence. Let us restore Syria’s fighting to its original meaning and force Assad to fight in the arena of Syrian hearts and minds.

Emily Hawley leads a planning initiative for post-conflict Syrian reconstruction for the Amman-based WANA Institute.