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Is the Syria conflict a new kind of war?

Neither a revolution nor a civil war, the Syrian crisis today presents all the characteristics of a new kind of conflict. This means that it needs new and different approaches for finding a resolution.

It was in March 2011 when Nour (name changed), a student at Damascus University, first heard raised voices in the streets of Damascus. She read on Facebook that there was a protest against the regime; she could not believe that it would really happen, but it was true. Beneath her window, hundreds of people were shouting and chanting slogans against the regime, crisscrossing the area and calling for democracy.

Her body still shakes when she remembers that day. Today, in the same city, many young men have defected from the Syrian army and are hiding inside their houses. Check points are on every corner and snipers are positioned on rooftops, controlling the movements of the residents in each neighbourhood. Laments for the 7.5 million brothers and sisters dying of hunger in the rest of the country run through the Damascene nights, along with the echo of gunfire from outside the city. Life, though, carries on in the Syrian capital, where people pray that the Free Syria Army do not enter the city to liberate them from Bashar Al-Assad. At the moment, this is still better than freedom.

On the front line in Aleppo, residents struggle under the dreadful barrel bombs of the regime. One is dropped every 30 minutes. Every day, they say. In July 2012, the city was divided into two zones: the west, which is under regime control, and the east, occupied by the opposition forces. Three years later the boundaries are still the same. Only the “Islamic State” (ISIS) jihadists have brought a new twist on the ground, with their advances from the countryside since 2013.

Meanwhile, each of the warring parties in Aleppo has besieged opposition areas, sabotaging utilities such as water and power. Looting, smuggling, extortion and all kinds of criminal activities weigh heavily on the fragile existence of those who are too poor or too proud to leave the city. “It is not about the military capture of the territory any more,” explains Professor Mary Kaldor, a lecturer in Global Governance at the London School of Economics. “There is very little fighting [in this war] between the [different] groups; most of the violence is actually directed against civilians.”

Throughout history, people across the world have constructed their identities by engaging in battles and violence. They were all following the Clausewitzian paradigm of warfare, which considers war as “the continuation of politics by other means”. During the First and Second World Wars, governments mobilised all of their human, economic and technical resources in order to combat their adversaries, but this is not what is happening in Syria. Threats there are aimed directly at civilians and the protagonists are unwilling to stop. All around the country, networks of legal and illegal trade, oil, arms and drug trafficking have increased under the control of jihadist groups, local fighters and militias. Syria has lost its revolutionary soul but has not yet reached the total sectarianism of a civil war. So what happens when a conflict is lead by nothing but “greed and grievance”?

“New war is a weak definition but I cannot come up with anything better at the moment,” says Kaldor. In 2006, her book “New and Old War” looked at the transformation of warfare. Syria today is a mix of identity fights and a new war born of the political economy. “They are all making money on this”, she argues, “and not just the many opposition groups financed by Qatar, Saudi and Turkey. The regime also uses militias which are making money from the checkpoints and the kidnap of wealthy Syrians.”

Ahmed (not his real name) was one such citizen. He was a successful pharmacist from an area still under regime control. In 2013, a group of militiamen entered his house, took all his saving and arrested him. He says that he refused to go with them and threatened to call the Syrian Army. “We are the Syrian army,” was the reply. After being tortured and kept in captivity for 4 days, he was released with apologies. “Sorry doctor,” his abductors told him, “there must have been a mistake.” But his money had disappeared and no investigation was started by the local authorities.

In a war where blood and violence lead to mutual enterprise, justice becomes a word without meaning. The world watched Syria’s deterioration passively until 2013, when the regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta. After the 1990s tragedies in Rwanda and the Balkans, the international community again found itself questioning where the sovereignty of a state ends and the right for international intervention begins. Nothing happened, though. The Geneva II peace talks organised in 2014 were also a deadlock. It was the “war on terror” that, once again, was used as the justification for America and its Arab partners to strike against the jihadists of ISIS in Syria.

Yet, after almost a month, airstrikes have achieved little more than a slight slowing down of the ISIS advance; a decisive victory is unlikely. Many observers agree that no army is trained to defeat such fighters, with their degree of mobility on the ground. Instead of defections, they say, US coalition air strikes will simply produce more terrorism, which will need an increase in the size of the army on the ground. “Is that just stupidity,” asks Professor Kaldor, “or is the war on terror some sort of mutual enterprise for us?”

Wars in the globalised era are part of the international network of dependency by which world markets operate. Private security companies, international NGOs and terrorist groups are all part of it. The privatisation of violence, the access to fully-equipped fighting forces by small militias and the absence of political coordination have dissolved the distinction between organised crime, warfare and violation of human rights. Today, new wars are fought by actors who do not belong to any legitimate political authority, and any effort to re-establish the rule of law by a top-down approach is difficult to see through to completion.

However, according to Kaldor, there is still a chance. She and other academics have recently conducted research on 35 sets of local negotiations in different parts of Syria. Many of them failed due to the interventions of regional actors with vested interests and the thriving war economy. Others didn’t, and one fact has emerged clearly from all of them: local society was engaged in the negotiations and willing to support these efforts to agree on truce conditions.

To be ended, wars need to be understood. Syria, as a new war, has not yet unravelled completely. The peace efforts launched by ordinary people could be a starting point, but they need more support and a comprehensive strategy to be implemented. The people of Syria are ready for that, desperately so, but is the international community?

The author is a freelance reporter based in Beirut

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

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