Resolving Conflict in Syria and other 21st Century Wars

ANGUS MCKEE is a diplomat in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and a 2017 graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies.  This post is based on his MA dissertation.  The views expressed in this paper are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the UK Government. 

Since Syria’s 2011 uprising spiralled into civil war – and what is now a protracted, bloody, internationalised conflict – there has been much analysis of the multiple drivers of conflict and debate over external intervention.  Less attention has been directed specifically at conflict resolution efforts.  My year at the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) provided an opportunity to review the Syria war alongside conflict resolution literature.  My conclusions offer little solace: not only is Syria likely to see conflict for many years to come, but many of the war’s features have parallels in other contemporary settings, obliging us to revisit how we approach conflict resolution.

The Syria conflict represents first and foremost a failure of conflict prevention.  It is now some 20 years since the Carnegie Commission’s ground-breaking report on the importance of structural prevention (to reduce the likelihood of such “crises” occurring in the first place) and operational prevention (in the face of such a “crisis”), but Bashar al-Asad both missed and dismissed opportunities to address grievances during his first decade in power and, in the summer of 2011, the hardened attitudes of ruler and ruled alike left little space for local or foreign mediation.

The communal grievances, socio-economic exclusion and political repression which drove the early stages of the uprising – attributed in part to the cruelty and arrogance of the regime – then combined with new grievances, polarisation, and the development of war economies.  The Syrian protagonists – both regime and armed opposition – made deliberate choices to pursue their goals through violence, and were further hardened by a “security dilemma”, the weakness of moderates seeking an accommodation, and absolute rejectionists such as ISIS.  This was compounded by the regional and international contexts, which entangled Syria in a regional conflict complex and led to indirect and direct external intervention.  As Christopher Phillips has documented, this intervention magnified intra-Syrian divisions, internationalised the war, and prolonged the conflict – but without leading to a conclusive outcome.

This was the hand dealt to a succession of experienced international mediators, what Hinnebusch and Zartman described as a “self-serving stalemate”.  Even when Annan, Brahimi and then Eliasson devoted much of their efforts to the international level, seeking to build international consensus and increase their leverage over the Syrians, they had few levers and had to rely on persuasion and patience.  Any tactical missteps on the part of the mediators were inconsequential relative to the hands they were dealt.  When combinations of states – chiefly the USA and Russia – perceived an overlap of interests, some tentative progress could be made.  These breakthroughs were short-lived, however, as the overlap of interests tended to be limited, other interstate rivalries persisted, and the Syrian parties themselves remained resistant to compromise.  Even local-level conflict resolution efforts which led to deals tended to be piecemeal, insufficient to impact on the national picture of violence, and unlikely to be enduring.

These factors combined into a complex interplay which rendered the Syria conflict highly intractable, and even subsequent negotiations such as those in Astana have been up against the same over-arching obstacles.  Moreover, even if the Syrian parties and their foreign backers were to commit to a serious negotiation process tomorrow, peace talks are generally slow and offer no guarantee of success, implementation of an agreement is precarious and might fail to tackle local conflict drivers or external influences (or even exacerbate them), and significant international assistance would be required.  Syria is likely to see conflict for many years to come.

Not only is that a bleak prognosis for the people of Syria – the brutalised civilian population, the millions of displaced, and even those bearing arms – but it carries a warning for the world more generally.  The Syria uprising coincided with the publication of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which claimed that global violence is in decline.  But Syria’s suffering might suggest that the current international context places fewer checks on conflict: growing multi-polar competition, the divergent positions of UN Security Council members, Responsibility to Protect doctrine challenged, and constraints on international law which, as Chinkin and Kaldor posit, lead to greater recourse to “violent solutions”.  Dynamics within fragile states also favour conflict, and Barbara Walter suggests we will see more “new new civil wars”.

Where does that leave those working to resolve conflict in Syria and elsewhere?  First, leaders and policymakers alike should reflect on situations elsewhere which resemble “a pressure cooker, where the heat is mounting and the safety valves have been destroyed”, to borrow the late Sadiq al-Azm’s description of pre-conflict Syria, and increase investment in preventive activities.  Mediators are most likely to make progress if they attempt what Ramsbotham calls “cosmopolitan conflict resolution”, engaging at multiple levels simultaneously, but even then, the task may be daunting – as successive diplomats holding the Syria file found.  And those working on Syria are obliged to be realistic, planning for many years of violence in one form or another, but also adopting a pragmatic view of success, in which even temporary reductions in violence, localised efforts and containment might be legitimate, indeed worthy, objectives.

Image: Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria, 21 August 2012, via Wikimedia.

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