Syria: To The Finish – Analysis


The Spanish and Greek Civil Wars, and the experience in the Balkans, all suggest outside powers will act with more regard for how events affect their own interests than for how to mitigate the physical and social damage done by the fighting.

By David B. Kanin

One problem with the overused term “reconciliation” is with the “re” part.  There often is an unspoken assumption that peoples involved in a conflict once had a conciliatory relationship before hostilities commenced, and that – with human rights offenders jailed, other troublemakers reined in, and international mediation accomplished – inter-communal relations can “re”turn to their normal, constructive condition.  The conventional wisdom regarding Bosnia, Kosova/o, and the rest of the Balkans places blame for the onset of conflict on prominent local miscreants, and for failure to resolve it on the mistakes of made by international actors struggling to perform their Olympian peacemaking roles.


There will be no “re”conciliation in Syria.  This is a no-holds-barred civil war, with a brutal regime facing off against fragmented opponents increasingly willing to match the government killing for killing as the fighting builds.  There will be no chance for any meaningful international effort to ameliorate local conditions unless the regime collapses (or is about to and seeks a last-gasp way out), or – as in Bosnia in 1995 – the fighting reaches a point where a critical mass of participants is ready for it to end.  (The Serbs had been beaten in the field in Bosnia and Croatia, Croatia had destroyed the Serbian Krajina, and so Bosnia’s Croats had to be satisfied with having prevented the Bosnjaks from linking Bihac to Bosnjak-controlled sections of Central Bosnia, and a divided Bosnjak leadership decided they had no choice but to accept the less-than functional quasi-state pressed on them by the Americans.)

As with Bosnia, in, say, 1993, it is too early to know what kind of politics post-conflict Syria will produce, or who will control what parts of it.  Meanwhile, its immediate future might begin to look something like the Spanish or Greek civil wars of the 1930s and 1940s.  Those multi-year struggles also were brutal, involved cleavages that lasted long after the fighting ended, and were colored by international factors.

Of course, the particulars in each case were – and are – different.  The Spanish and Greek conflagrations were fanned by the ideological context of the mid-20th Century, a time during which Democracy hardly held the pride of place it does now.  Vibrant and enticing Fascist and Communist alternatives looked stronger and were more decisive than dithering governments in the West (and their corrupt, personalist copies in central and eastern Europe).  In contrast, the sectarian and religious protagonists that have been front and center in the contemporary Balkans and Middle East (no matter fashionable denials that they are important) have looked back, beyond the era of World Wars and Cold War to 19th Century nation and state formation conflicts.

Differences also mark international contributions to the disasters.  In the 1930s and 1940s, Fascist and Communist rulers made Spain into a testing ground for weapons and a venue for sectarian purges. There was no illusion about mediation between the sides; Germany and Italy backed Franco to victory, while the Soviet Union used the fighting to carry out its global policy of killing off anyone on the left not completely loyal to Stalin.  A decade later (consider all that had happened during the short time between these civil wars), British and American money, advice, and force faced off against a disciplined Communist insurgency backed by Stalin through Tito.  The Communists might well have won if the Tito-Stalin split had not significantly reduced Greece’s importance to both dictators.  In any case, there was as little serious possibility of a mediated settlement in Greece as between Communist and non-Communist actors in the emerging “Peoples Democracies” in Eastern Europe.

Still, the way in which irreconcilable combatants played out the Spanish and Greek conflicts in the context of larger international developments may presage the brutal and open-ended process involved in the existential fighting in Syria.  Its spillover into Lebanon suggests the dynamic involved in this conflict is likely as well to mark a new chapter in the struggles that have plagued that country since the breakdown of the 1943 demographic/confessional arrangement.

Systemic Considerations

The international contribution to Syria’s horrors is unfolding as the current great power structure proves it is only a weaker variant of the arrangement in place after the Congress of Vienna.  Current international institutions have less in common with the collapsing post-Versailles condition of the 1930s or the chaotic state of Europe between 1944 and 1948 (for an excellent analysis of the latter period, see “Savage Continent,” a recent study by Keith Lowe) than with the post-Napoleonic settlement.   The UN Security Council was set up to function like the old concert of Europe – the so-called “Permanent Members” were to run the world.  In the earlier case, the principle of unanimity regarding the great powers’ votes did not develop until after the revolutions of 1848 – initially, any one of the Powers could legally deputize itself to put down rebellions it found threatening anywhere it decided (and could) send its forces.  Even after the norm was established requiring agreement by all the Powers to such changes as, for example, the annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary in 1908, force majeure by a single actor (as in that case) often carried the day.

One of the major problems regarding Syria is that none of the contemporary Great Powers are strong enough to enforce either the post-1815 or post-1945 version of the Great Power system in the absence of great power unanimity.  Fortunately, all lack the brutal sense of purpose that might permit them to behave as did Hitler and Stalin (and Tito) during the Spanish or Greek Civil Wars.  The much easier Libyan imbroglio (closer to Europe, farther from Russia, weaker forces on all sides) was about all NATO – and especially its self-important British and French components – could handle.   The US threatens to act if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, but is unlikely to risk military engagement at least until after its election.  Russia makes a lot of noise (as it does in support of its Serbian client), but protecting its naval access to Tartus and providing weapons to the regime is about all it can do.  China is very far away.

  • There is a small chance of a deal at the Security Council if Washington stops lecturing Moscow and instead approaches the Russians quietly to exchange ideas on how to mitigate the Syrian disaster.  Russia is less opposed to regime change in Syria than it is to the Americans getting credit for it.   China, by itself, would be much less likely to stand in the way of a formula that gives pride of place to Moscow’s sensitivity about its Great Power status while enabling international diplomatic and/or military action.

Iran and its Hezbollah arm in Lebanon have much to lose if Assad falls, but – for all their rhetoric – likely do not want to provoke the Americans and Israelis into a punishing military exchange.  Some in Tehran might like to play a role in Syria akin to that of Germany or the Soviet Union in Spain or the US and UK in Greece, but Iran does not have the power to do so.  On the other hand, the hopes of some local activists and Westerners that the string of Arab upheavals that started in Tunisia and now convulse Syria will inundate the Iranian clerical state any time soon largely amounts to wishful thinking.

Iran’s approach to Syria is affected by its calculation of the prospect of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities.  Israel’s rhetoric reflects its desire to sucker the US into doing its bombing for it.  In my view, Israel will be more likely to attack before the US election if its government comes to believe President Obama will be re-elected.  The Israelis know the current Administration is much less trigger-happy than would be a Republican successor; they would have ample time to convince a President Romney to play the role of attack dog.

Turkey, perhaps the most interesting among the outsiders, has overreached.  Ankara is hampered by its miscalculations that the insurgents would win soon and that it could help organize a cohesive and kinetic Western response to Assad’s assault on his own country.  As this conflict develops, it is increasingly affecting Turkish domestic security.

The Kurds are the “Albanians” of this story (as always, such analogies are very far from perfect).  They are a population that spills across several state borders and – unlike the Albanians – possess no state of their own.  Expressed or potential Kurdish political movements worry every state in which they reside. Syria’s Kurds have been slow to choose sides or otherwise decide how to organize themselves to survive or even prosper from the fighting.  This caution has been wise, considering the dangers involved for a stateless minority in a case of growing violence with an uncertain outcome.   The collapse of Syria into civil war, however, is forcing the Kurds into choosing among what may seem to them to be equally unpalatable choices.

Turkish frustration, desire by some Kurdish insurgents in the PKK in Turkey and northern Iraq to spread their wings into Syria, and the financial and social pressures created by the growing numbers of Syrians fleeing to the no-man’s land between Syria and Turkey are combining to turn what initially may have seemed to be an opportunity to display Turkey’s new-found sense of power into a danger to Turkey’s own internal security.  Ankara does not enjoy the relatively cost-free access to the Middle East it enjoys in the Balkans, that other former Ottoman periphery.  President Gul’s public warning that Turkey could intervene in Syria in response to the “Kurdish threat,” and his claim that reports Assad is supplying weapons to the PKK “very likely” is true should be taken as signs Ankara believes things are getting worse.

The Sectarian Context

The concern expressed by many that Syria’s conflict would deteriorate into a war of the ruling Allawite minority against everyone else gradually is coming to pass.  Whether the Allawites can reestablish their control over the whole country, eventually will focus on protecting their stronghold around Latakia (like those Bosnian Croats who want to concentrate their residual Bosnian presence in Herzegovina?), or will lose the Civil War outright and face the threat of an awful retribution remains to be seen.  In the last case, it is possible the Allawites eventually would seek some sort of international protection, perhaps with an eye on the US effort to reengage Iraq’s Sunni minority in an Iraq altered by Washington’s decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Like the other Arab risings since January 2011, Syria’s conflict should not be mistaken as part of a seamless process of democratization under the misleading term “Arab Spring.”  The Middle East and North Africa region certainly is in the midst of a general unraveling of the settlement of World War I and the overthrow of a generation of dictators, but the coming to center stage of disputing flavors of Islam is leading this region to something very different from the civic politics Western rhetoric still imagines is its natural future.  Sunni-Shi’a cleavages matter – however oversimplified this concept is, there is no denying the fact of sectarian assaults based on this divide in Afghanistan, Pakistan (to include a Baluchistan divided between Pakistani and Iranian influence), Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.  Allawite-Sunni fighting in Syria and tension between Muslims and Christians in Egypt (and in Syria and Iraq?) also mark what likely is only the opening stage in overlapping struggles for pride of place in an area no longer under the wraps of a fading Western hegemony.

Looking Ahead

The complex local, regional, and international aspects of the Syrian Civil War make it very difficult for any government, NGO, or private interest to game out a strategic approach to conflict management, local settlement, or post-fighting reconstruction.  The Spanish and Greek Civil Wars and the experience in the Balkans all suggest outside powers will act with more regard for how events affect their own interests (as filtered through self-images concerning how they each believes it stands in the Great Power pecking order) than for how to mitigate the physical and social damage done by the fighting.  The scorpions’ dance between a weakening Assad and divided opposition will make it very difficult for the Powers to know who to choose as local clients (even Russia will not be certain that Assad – assuming he survives – will remain the strongman in a deeply shattered regime).  My guess is that players closer to the action – Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and the factions in Lebanon – eventually will get a better handle on Syria’s future than will powers farther afield.  But your guess is as good as mine.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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