The State of Syria

WFP Operations in Homs

When the world stood divided by the Manichean ontology of the two superpowers, the Syrian state, like most Middle Eastern states, could play a divisive game internationally and avoid imploding into civil war. A rear occurrence during the Cold War, such events now shape Western understanding of Middle East politics – Syria joins the legion of other nations in the region, fast becoming a violent arena where other states’ international agendas will compete with the plans of those caught in internal power struggles.

It is difficult to predict to what extent the involvement of other powers in the region can help the issue at hand without a UN resolution ratifying and legitimising action. Even if UN legitimisation itself can be called into question, it is surely better than no legitimisation at all bar state self-interest. Look at such success stories as Iraq and Afghanistan for an example. Oh, wait. That didn’t quite work out, did it?

I also disagree with the justification American citizens are provided with for US involvement. Judging by events so far, America’s security would be better served by inaction. If Obama has a different motive for initiating the attack, then he ought to make that clearer. It is shameful that fear for one’s own safety is once again the excuse.

In order to understand the extent to which the near-collapse of the Syrian state can be blamed on its politicians, an in depth analysis is required of the nature of the state and the state system in Syria. There is a shared assumption in the West that politicians can be either fully blamed for the disintegration of Syria’s civil society, but I think the situation is a complex one, and simplistic interpretations or sweeping generalisations ought to be avoided and challenged.

While Syria’s government did not respond appropriately to the ‘red flags’ that announced collapse, I believe there is little that they could do while working within the system to salvage the state. There are both internal and external, regional factors to consider.

In part, this collapse of the state’s infrastructural power in Syria occurred because of in-built self-destruction mechanisms. Its lack of flexibility and inability to find a political solution for the nascent conflict is one cause. The changing socio-political-scape in the region, and the emergence of a politicised class, with little or no stake in the system and a desire for reform, are two others. Finally, the flux of de-territorialised peoples in the region may have also resulted in challenges to Syria’s relative stability.

To achieve conflict resolution, Syria’s government ought to have fully reformed the system – a schema difficult to achieve, but not impossible for farsighted politicians, had there been any. Instead they prolonged the tension, and in the absence of reform, considering internal and external circumstances, civil war was inevitable.

Politicians’ actions are usually shaped by events to a higher degree than they can shape the events themselves. The rigid balance of power within Syrian society prevented them from both institutionalising a healthier, more participatory system, and from modifying that system when challenged by socio-economic and political change.

I sympathise with the plight of the Syrian people, and do not condone the actions of the Syrian government. Yet I cannot but feel unsettled by the possibility of so many civilian casualties as a result of external military action being added to the internal.