The rulebook has been thrown out of the window in Syria. How should the West respond?

It is October 2016 and the conflict in Syria has been waging for over five years. Aleppo has been reduced to piles of rubble by constant airstrikes. The United Nations (UN) has estimated that the death toll is over 400,000. Many are questioning whether negotiations will ever put the jigsaw puzzle of a nation back together; the failure of the international community to seriously engage with continuous humanitarian crises and the growing pool of refugees mean that a weary pessimism has descended upon those who consider the so-called ‘Syria question.’

Four identifiable parties exist in Syria; the ‘original state’ of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime; the Kurds; the so-called caliphate of Islamic State; and the opposition forces of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council.

A major problem with the media’s representation of the Syria conflict has been the oversimplification of the multi-faceted interest groups; speaking of ‘regime’ versus ‘opposition’ ignores the reality on the ground. Beyond the major entities listed above, areas under the control of Assad’s regime include influential actors and assistance from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Furthermore, the opposition is fragmented; one of the most successful groups is the Al-Qaeda franchise, al-Nusra Front. On a local scale, warlords with varying and fluid affiliations operate armed checkpoints across Syria use low-level violence to maintain their position as resident top dog. To speak of the country of Syria today is to speak of a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces that are becoming harder and harder to fit together.

IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation

Image courtesy of IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, © 2013, some rights reserved.

It is reasonable to ask whether the Syrian crisis could mark the end of the nation-state in the Middle East as we know it. The Syrian war has to be understood in the context of the failed of the Arab Spring and the collapse of the state across the Middle East in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These four countries have not for the past decade sustained a single government with sustained power from border to border. In Iraq, for example, the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein begot fragmented power to the so-called Islamic State, to the feeble government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, and to the Kurdish entity in the north.

The nation state is a thoroughly European concept borne of the Enlightenment, and is a hallmark of ‘modernity’. The legacy of Europe in the Middle East has been thoroughly related to this; the national borders established by the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 are still in place, demarcating Syria as a geographical entity. The dramatic spread of the so-called Islamic State from Syria to Iraq and their subsequent proclamation of a caliphate in 2013 were widely interpreted as a threat and a challenge to these national borders and the old order.

Assad hopes the rhetoric of the nation-state will be acknowledged by the international community and has often demanded international recognition of his regime’s sovereignty. In July, he told interviewers that he hopes history will look back on him as the one who protected his country and ‘saved its sovereignty.’ He also told a Danish interviewer: ‘We are a sovereign country; we are independent. We have the right to tackle our problems.’

Assad’s rhetoric is increasingly unconvincing. The war is characterised by the involvement of a wide range of non-Syrian players and furthermore, Assad’s regime, alongside groups such as so-called Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham and Fateh al-Sham rely heavily on a pool of foreign combatants to maintain their aggression. The Syrian war is far beyond explanation as a state vs. opposition conflict. Rather, the conflict is unprecedented in its diversity of actors and the influx of international movements and people to the causes.

As such, it could be suggested that the collapse in the ‘peace process’ is a result of the failure of Syria to slot neatly into the existing notions of international rights, responsibilities and norms. The ambiguity of Middle Eastern statehood in today’s world is linked to the ambiguity of power structures on a national level. Constitutional frameworks have been constantly tinkered with; Egypt, one of the ‘strong’ states of the Middle East, has seen three constitutional referendums and five constitutional declarations since 2011. The Palestinian Authority has been in constitutional paralysis since 2007; Lebanon has experienced the same since 2014. In Libya and Yemen, attempts to create new constitutional frameworks have collapsed since 2014.

Though specifics vary greatly between these instances, this highlights the wider trend of the crumbling nation-state via the disregard for stable power structures across the Middle East. In order to maintain and legitimise their political power, leaders constantly remould structures to breaking point. Without a stable state, the door has opened for sectarian, ethnic, regional and tribal tensions to become increasingly fraught over access to economic and social resources, ushering in a new factional politics. The multitude of sparring interest groups in Syria is testament to this reality.

The crisis in Syria cannot be solved with formulaic solutions or past blueprints. The unravelling nation-state has not yet run its course, but the international community needs to respond more robustly. It is particularly difficult for the non-expert observer of the crisis to get a grip on the messy and often contradictory relationships between the various interest groups, and this has affected the response from the publics of countries such as the US and the UK. This in turn affects the extent to which Syria negotiations are prioritised by governments. However as the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said optimistically of the British public this week, ‘Most people are now changing their minds this week, and they’re thinking, we can’t let this go on.’ Let us hope he is right.

It was welcome news to hear that the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council published findings arguing Russia’s involvement in Syria may amount to war crimes. However the existence of international courts seems to have been forgotten, alongside the fact that there exists a global commitment to preventing war crimes, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Since the inception of the International Criminal Court in 2002, all cases have been from Africa; all cases have been on a more limited scale than actions in Syria. Not only do European governments fail to act on the war crimes in Syria, but seem to have further forgotten the commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention as they witness boatloads of refugees suffer or even die in the Mediterranean and keep the gates firmly closed.

As the concept of the nation-state collapses before our eyes across the Middle East, there is no easy solution or obvious way forward for the international powers because of the way the situation has ‘broken the rules’. There is no precedent for the war in Syria; understandably, the multi-layered and factional nature of the crisis prevents governments from choosing a clear-cut path of action. All that is obvious, however, is that the suffering of Syria has reached a cacophonous crescendo – and we should all be listening.