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Was civil war predictable in Syria?

January 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal in January 2011 that his country is immune to the so-called “Arab Spring” that had already started in Tunisia and Egypt.  After two months, however, the first peaceful protests took place in the southern Syrian province of Daraa proving Assad wrong. Over time, protests grew violent as a reaction to the brutal suppression of the Syrian authorities. Interestingly, these peaceful protests decreased after the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in September 2011. The FSA, whose main objective was to protect the peaceful protestors, became an organised and armed rebel group, which declared its intention to topple the regime by military means. Thus, the strengthening of the armed opposition, its active resistance against the government, its territorial control and gained legitimacy marked the onset of the Syrian internal conflict.

The current civil war in Syria is, however, highly internationalised. Further, the foreign role in sprinkling legitimacy and providing arms to the armed opposition facilitated the start of the war. Regional actors such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with international actors such as Russia, China, the US and UK, played and still play a significant role in inflaming the conflict but such factors play a more significant role in expanding and escalating it rather than causing it.  Professor Mohammed Ayoob argues that the states which experienced foreign occupation in the past, including colonialism, are prone to civil wars primarily due to domestic reasons.  Thus, in this paper I will study two of the domestic conditions that made the eruption of the war in Syria likely and therefore predictable. The role of the foreign actors will be downplayed but not annulled altogether. The findings of “Civil War in the Post-Colonial World 1946-92” (Henderson and Singer) will be the bases of the analysis.

Regime type

Ted Gurr et al find that the regime type is closely associated with the likelihood of civil war.  Democratic regimes are usually immune to violent civil wars and more prone to peaceful protests. The opposite, interestingly, is not true; autocratic regimes are also immune to rebellion to a certain extent because of the repressive measures that they take against any uprising attempt.  However, it is worth noting that although rebellion might be minimal in such a regime because of the government’s repression, this does not eliminate the fertile ground for rebellion should an opportunity arise. John Burton argues that if the authorities suppress citizens’ human needs  a conflict will be likely because they will inexorably seek to fulfil their requirements.  Regarding the political opportunity, Erik Melaneder argues that domestic, regional or international changes can create good political opportunities for deprived groups to rebel against their autocratic governments. 
Another type of regime that Singer and Henderson analyse is the semi-democracy. They find that semi-democracies are most prone to rebellion because such regimes neither acquire legitimate and peaceful dispute resolution processes nor possess the means of suppression to put down rebellions by force.  In this regard, Sumit Ganguly finds that “… increased access to education technology, media, and grass-roots political power by previously disenfranchised groups …” in semi-democracies enhances the chances of rebellion.  Regarding the Syrian case, it is legitimate to ask under which category the Assad regime can be placed: democracy, semi-democracy or autocracy?

Indeed, it is not hard to spot that the current regime in Damascus is an authoritarian system based on security and military apparatuses. As such, Syria has been fertile ground for rebellion at least since Hafez Al Assad, the current president’s father, seized power in 1970. Many attempted rebellions have been recorded since then, such as the Hama uprising in 1982, which had already started in 1976  and the Kurdish rebellion in 2004.  After Assad the younger took office, the main structure of the regime remained in place. Nevertheless, some important changes have occurred which, according to Gabguly, Singer and Henderson, are important for the onset of civil war. In 2000, right after the death of Hafez Al-Assad, his son promoted political openness known as the “Damascus Spring”.  This did not last; nevertheless, it activated the political opposition inside and outside the country. Assad also promoted the spread of technology; schools and universities acquired computers, the internet became increasingly cheap and accessible, and mobile and smart phones were seen in every Syrian house. In the same period, access to satellite TV channels became a simple requirement of life and became available everywhere. This has had a major impact on the Syrian audience due to the easy access to foreign media and TV programmes. It is difficult to say that all of these developments made Syria a semi-democracy but such changes, which are typical of semi-democracies, played a crucial role and made the occurrence of civil war a possibility.

Ethno-political factors

Two other variables that Henderson and Singer discuss are cultural polarisation and the presence of different ethno-political groups and their significance in promoting civil war. Ethno-cultural factors are often characterised as crucial inducements for civil war. Retrospectively, many states around the world experienced ethnic-based violence. At least in the Middle East, many conflicts have been labelled as ethno-religious or culture based conflict, including the Yemeni and Lebanese civil wars, Iraq’s ongoing internal violence, the Bahraini uprising and the Syrian civil war. Nevertheless, it is problematic to dictate that ethno-cultural differences per se can actually be the reason behind a civil war. Henderson and Singer, along with many other authors, find that the presence of ethno-political groups and cultural factors hardly initiate a civil war. Rachel Bronson in her essay “Cycle of Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa” concludes that ethno-religious differences are not a potential stimulus for civil war.  Similarly, Walter Barrows claims linguistic and ethnic fictionalisation do not have a significant impact on civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa.  Furthermore, Collier and Hoeffler claim that there are factors, other than the cultural, which are more vital to the onset of a civil war.

In fact, Henderson and Singer, in their empirical research, find hardly any correlation between the presence of ethno-political groups or cultural polarisation and the onset of civil war.  Instead, the authors find that the mobilisation of ethno-political groups and the utilisation of different cultural and religious groups are political factors that the decision makers use.  Indeed, these findings are interestingly adequate to the ongoing civil war in Syria. Despite the fact that there are various cultural and religious groups living in Syria, neither the uprising nor the onset of the civil war carried apparent ethno-religious sentiments. Peaceful protestors’ demands were largely political; their main objective was to democratise the regime in Syria. Only after the mobilisation of certain groups by both the government forces and the opposition militias did the conflict take on a religious dimension. On one hand, the Syrian government utilised Alawites and Hezbollah fighters (both Shia groups) to fight alongside the military and the security forces. On the other hand, the radical Sunni jihadists started infiltrating into Syrian territories to fight the government. Accordingly, the sensitive ethno-religious division in Syria became the bases utilised by different actors. Indeed, the willingness of both sides to mobilise certain groups before the civil war made the latter’s onset inevitable.

To conclude, it is necessary to note that civil war in Syria very likely arose not merely because of the aforementioned reasons but also many other factors. Henderson and Singer also elucidate the correlation between other domestic factors such as military spending, development and economic growth, and the likelihood of civil war in countries that experienced a colonial past. It is possible to find relations between these factors and the Syrian civil war. Nevertheless, the aim of this paper was to show how the nature of the regime is a determinant in the likelihood of a civil war. Undoubtedly, President Al-Assad had, and still has, mass support in the country; however, the dilemma here is related to the type or the regime rather than the person. Secondly, it would be wrong to comprehend the Syrian war as an ethno-religious war since its onset. As argued above, different ethnic or religious groups rarely confront each other merely because of their differences. Notwithstanding this, the utilisation of these groups may have a major influence on the civil war. In short, although the belligerent parties had different calculations before the war, these two factors – regime type and ethno-political factors – had made the civil war very likely and almost predictable.

Armenak Tokmajyan, an Armenian who has lived in Syria, is currently a student at the Master’s Degree programme in Peace, Mediation and conflict Resolution at the University of Tampere.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.