POMED Notes: The New Struggle for Syria
The Elliott School of International Affairs hosted a panel discussion on Monday (9/10) entitled “The New Struggle for Syria,” to discuss the regional dimensions of the Syrian conflict. The panel sought to investigate the intervention of external forces into the country and to provide commentary for how these actions are shaping internal politics, as well as influencing regional relationships. The panel was moderated by Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, and included Gregory Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont; Daniel L. Byman, Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy; and Curt Ryan, associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Gregory Gause began by arguing that the sectarian conflict in Syria is not the proper framework with which to analyze what is happening in Syria. The current situation harkens back to the Middle East of the 1950s, in that “regional power struggles are being played out in the domestic politics of weak states where local forces seek out external allies.” This development reinforces the trend of a rollback of decades of institutional buildup in authoritarian states, and will perhaps lead to the collapse the Syrian state, he suggested. The proxies throughout the region are largely aligned based upon sectarian divisions, and he clarified by using the Hamas/Iran relationship to illustrate that the idea of a monolithic structure of sectarianism is not entirely true. Further, he argued that conventional military power is not a deciding factor in these regional power struggles. Israel, despite its military capability, is not able to affect regional developments because it lacks regional allies. He concluded that Iranian achievement of nuclear capability cannot affect the internal balance of power in the surrounding states.
Curt Ryan reinforced the notion of a new cold war taking place in the Middle East. He found irony in the fact that states led by leaders who had once described their military coups as revolutions, have experienced real revolutions in the last 18 months. Additionally, he highlighted the fact that domestic political battles are increasingly being affected by refugee inflows, such as the Syrian refugees who have been streaming into Jordan. He touched on the issue of identity politics which continue to mutate and also shape movements throughout the region. Ryan also made the point that international relations academia has struggled to explain these events in the traditional lenses of realism, idealism, constructivism, etc. Finally, he suggested that three different levels of struggle are affecting Syria: locally, actors are in competition over domestic politics; regionally, the GCC is at odds with opponents like Iran and Hezbollah; and globally, Western leaders have come to a stalemate over Syria with their Eastern counterparts at the U.N. Security Council. Ryan assured the audience that he was not predicting World War III, but in his opinion the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s may be the historically analogous to Syria.
Daniel L. Byman focused on the spillover effects of conflicts like Syria. He attributed these effects in the Middle East to factors like porous borders, sectarian linkages, and so on. He brought up five patterns which characterize spillover effects in surrounding countries: 1) refugee flows, 2) terrorism, 3) issues of succession, 4) regional radicalization, and 5) intervention by external actors. Byman expressed concern that these effects have not been properly analyzed or given enough attention in the discussion on Syria. He concluded by arguing that removal of Assad will not solve the pressing problems of economics, refugees, or violence. His assessment was that the best case scenario in Syria would be the status quo with no great increase in killings or refugee flows.
To conclude the panel, Marc Lynch stated that “lawyers, guns, and money” are what really matter now in the Middle East, and rhetorically asked about the limits before all-out war. With regards to a Syrian intervention, he referenced a CSS poll in Jordan, which found the public to be split on the importance of the Arab Uprisings, in addition to a positive outlook on the removal of Assad. Byman wondered if peaceful revolution in Syria is dead, reasoning that there are now more dead than there are protestors and that there is no reason to think that a peace movement will ensue there. Ryan commented on the effect that Syria is having on Jordan. He said that all of Jordan’s borders are unstable, the country is weak in all areas, and that the conflict in Syria gives strength to the monarchy. While the regime paints the conflict as a self-fulfilling prophecy and an example for putting on the brakes, the reform movement argues that it is precisely the reason that democratic efforts in Jordan should move forward now. Gause criticized the Anne Marie Slaughter/John McCain position on intervention in Syria as a “naïve understanding of the use of force.” To clarify his point, he said that “intervention inevitably means fighting the Syrian army, and that given the poor U.S. track record of intervention in the Middle East, this would be a very unwise decision.”