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Multi-Causal Model Analysis of the Syrian Conflict

Info: 7009 words (28 pages) Dissertation
Published: 17th Jan 2022

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Tagged: HistoryInternational Relations

The Syrian End-Game: Sykes-Picot Redux or a Kurdish Free State?

The Syrian Conflict

Syria has been in a civil war since 2011. The uprising against regime of Bashar Al Assad grew from civil unrest and demonstrations that coincided with the broader “Arab Spring” into a full conflict within a matter of months. Communities quickly evolved from demonstrations to armed self-defense to forming brigades to actively oppose and eject Assad forces. The Syrian civil war has become what Magnus Lundgren calls “the most acute, politically significant, and complex among contemporary civil wars” (2016, 273). Initially seen as a pro-democracy movement, the conflict quickly evolved to include sectarian battle lines pitting the majority Sunni population into various camps opposing the Shia Alawite dominated regime. Stefan de Mistura, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria estimated in April 2016 that the death toll was more than 400,000 (Hudson 2016).  

The contest now includes Syrian Kurds, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, an Al Qaeda off-shoot currently known as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (the Front for the Conquest of the Levant) and previously as the Nusra Front, both the U.S. led coalition and Russians providing air support for various proxies, and the Islamic State (ISIS). Although ISIS had a late arrival onto the scene, they have seized significant territory in Syria and Iraq and imposed a harsh brand of Sharia that somehow blends public beheadings with strategic communications savvy.  The “#AlleyesonISIS” twitter campaign was launched to coincide with the fall of the Iraqi city of Mosul and established a digital front in the war (Singer, P.W. and Brooking, E).

Other actors in the operational space include the Iranians, who have shrugged off the bad feelings of their eight- year war and are supporting both the Iraqis and Assad in recouping territory and retaining power respectively.  The U.S. has several thousand troops in Iraq in advisory roles and others, not so secretly, in Syria assisting some of the anti-Assad factions.  The Russians have also committed forces into Syria in support of Assad. And both the U.S. and Russia are conducting air strikes against various belligerents. Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans sees distinct parallels between the current Mideast situation and pre-World War I Europe …”rival Islamic factions standing proxy for the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while an additional element of danger is provided by Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, and again Iran, with its persistent attempts to build one. China and Russia are lining up behind one side while NATO and the US line up behind the other”(Keating, 2014). 

In August 2016, Turkey sent forces across the border into Syria on an operation ostensibly supporting “Free Syrian Army” forces in clearing ISIS elements away from the border. This operation has been widely recognized as intended to prevent the Syrian Kurdish Group known as the PYD, from establishing a contiguous territory under Kurdish control along the Turkey’s southern border(Arango, Barnard, and Yeginsu, 2016) . 

Analysis through the Multi-Causal Model

The multi-causal model is an appropriate analytic tool for the Syria conflict because it allows for a more comprehensive integration of the “syndrome of factors” (Mason, Simon and Rychard, 2005)  that cause violence. Additionally, it is arguably the best fit in terms of the current development of the Syria conflict.

Other conflict analysis tools could be considered and some offer various approaches and perspectives that could be useful.  Of those with the most potential, Glasl’s escalation model may have offered insights that could have prepared mediators or a third-party intervention in 2011. Unfortunately, the rapid escalation of violence and seemingly endless expansion of belligerent groups, accelerated Syria through every analytic stage in the model. By late 2012, the Syria conflict was “fully into the abyss”(Mason, Simon and Rychard, 2005). Similarly, conflict mapping is always a useful tool for graphically simplifying and representing the conflict stakeholders and their interactions.  However, in the Syria case, the sheer volume of both actors, interactions, shifting alliances and the speed of change, make simplification a daunting task; Simply keeping the conflict map up to date and relevant could be a challenge.

Finally, needs-fear mapping, like Glasl’s model, may be inappropriate for the conflict context that has become the Syria conflict.  While it does acknowledge a third-party role, which many agree will be a necessary component, it implies a willingness to negotiate on the part of the belligerents.  In the current stage of conflict development, there is little indication of a willingness to negotiate absent a third party with sufficient power or status to force the function.


Analysis using the Multi-causal model begins with an examination of the reasons, or root causes of the conflict. Even this aspect is made complex by the rapid escalation that occurred in Syria. The historical facts cite March 2011 when, riding the wave of the Arab-spring uprisings and sparked by the arrest and mistreatment of a group of teenagers who had painted anti-Assad slogans, pro-democracy demonstrations occurred in scattered locations around the country. Heavy handed responses on the part of Syrian security forces only served to escalate the conflict. By June of 2011, neighborhood militias were forming and arming to counter the Syrian Army tactics.

While the arrest of graffitists may be the actual spark, long established structural issues had plagued Syrian society. The Baath Political Party’s dominance of virtually every aspect of Syrian life set the conditions for an insider-outsider tension that simmered for decades. During the reign of Hafez Assad, the economy functioned along lines of what could be considered old money enterprises receiving some sort of advantage from the government, new money based on oil and defense services, and the state bureaucrats that controlled government contracts(Abboud, 2017). For the decade prior to the conflict outbreak, attempts at modernizing and marketization only served to create a greater economic disparity between haves and have-nots.

Similarly, political repression had a long history under the Baathists. In February of 1982 the Assad regime largely destroyed the city of Hama and killed between 20,00 to 40,000 of its own citizens to suppress an Islamist uprising. An additional feature of Syrian life under the Baathists is The Shu’bat al Mukhabarat al Askariyya, typically shortened to Mukhabarat, the Military Intelligence Directorate. In reality, the Mukhabarat functions as the regime’s secret police. Arrest without warrant, detention, torture and “disappearance”, have been a way of life.

Religion plays a role in the Baath – Assad power continuum. Sunni Muslims comprise the largest religious group in Syria with about 70% of the population. Shia and Druze Islamic sects are a significant minority each comprising about 3%. Christians represent approximately 11% of the population. Notably, the Assad family are Alawite Muslims, a group that comprises approximately 11% of the population. Some orthodox groups do not consider Alawites truly Muslim, while the Ayatollah Khomeini once loosely acknowledged a Shia – Alawite commonality.  A designation that has helped foster Syrian – Iranian relations.  While the religious tensions of a minority religion controlling the government seem self-evident, they are in fact compounded by the generally secularist approach of the Baath party. For a religious Sunni, a non-Sunni in control of the government is made worse by politicians in control of the government who only assume a degree of religiosity when necessary.


The targets of the various belligerents are diverse. Beginning with the center of the storm, the government of Syria would like nothing more than a return to status quo. They have repeatedly labeled the other parties to the conflict using terms like criminal elements, terrorists, and outsiders. By delegitimizing the opposition, they effectively portray that there was no true causation other than criminals and anarchists acting outside of the law. 

The opposition groups lack cohesiveness and are fighting for a variety of reasons but removal of Assad and the Baath Party is generally a common trait. Moderate groups such as the Free Syrian Army tend to cite broader democratization of a Syrian government and establishment of rule of law. The Free Syrian Army has broad appeal among western and regional supporters because it represents a centrist line that could be described as not too religious but not too secular.

Groups driven by more fundamentalist underpinnings include Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (hereafter referred to as Jabhat), and The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS. Jabhat finds its roots in Al Qaeda and similarly believes no Islamic state can exist without imposition of strict Sharia Law. Ousting Assad, eliminating the Baath Party and establishment of a religious state are their objectives. ISIS has a more extreme view than Jabhat. ISIS believes in imposition of Sharia, tolerates no variance from their strict interpretation, and ultimately believe their role is to set conditions for a final apocalyptic battle that will occur in or around the Syrian town of Raqqa.

Moving slightly away from the center of the storm, the Syrian Kurds have emerged as important actors in the Syria conflict. The Rojava Kurds (as they call themselves) are closely linked to the Kurdish PKK and follow the teachings of Abdullah Ocalan. For the Rojava Kurds, the conflict presents an opportunity. Ocalan’s brand of Marxist and utopian political views have provided the Rojava Kurds both the discipline and dogma to seek some form of Kurdish self-governance and control of territory as an outcome of the conflict. This objective, coupled with a long-term practice of utility maximization has afforded the Kurds a degree of situational flexibility that other belligerents have not enjoyed. In some areas, the Kurds co-exist with Syrian government troops and in others they are actively engaged in combat.(Enzinna, 2015)   

Groups that form the periphery of the Syria storm include the Iranians and their proxy force, Lebanon based Hezbollah. The Iranian’s objective in Syria supports the Syrian Governments objective – maintain Assad in power. Additionally, the Iranians see Syria as part of their axis of influence in the region. Loss of a friendly state impacts the perception of Iran as regional power and increases the difficulties in maintaining open lines with Hezbollah

In contrast, a coalition of predominantly Sunni states including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan all provide varying, albeit minimal, military support to the anti-Assad factions as part of the U.S. led coalition. The target for these regimes is Assad ousted from power and installation of a democratic, preferably Sunni, government.

On the very fringes of the Syrian conflict storm, but with outsized interest and influence, are the regional and global powers. These include Turkey, the European Union, Russia and the United States. Turkey sits in a unique positon as a border state with Syria. Early in the conflict Turkey strongly supported the removal of Assad; a position that has been tempered in recent months with more conciliatory language as the government of Recep Erdogan has worked to curry favor with Russia. Turkey also opposes any manner of a Kurdish controlled territory on their southern border.

The European Union represents the group of countries that are most significantly impacted by the flow of Syrian refugees. Many of the EU states also provide military support to the U.S. coalition fighting against ISIS. While there has been some equivocating on the details, the EU position seeks Assad ousted and a democratic government installed.

Russia is an ally to the Syrian government. They provide material support in the form of weapons and equipment as well as direct support in the form of airstrikes, advisers and direct combat by Russian Special Forces. The Russians are unique in their position of supporting a post conflict Syria with Bashar Al Assad still in power. In recent months that position has shifted slightly to allow negotiating room but still calls for a transition of power that would allow the Baath Party to retain control of the government.

The U.S. is regionally, the most active of the outside powers. The U.S. leads the anti-ISIS coalition, supports the Free Syrian Army, provides advisers and equipment to the Iraqis, and following the battle of Kobani, dramatically increased its support to the Rojava Kurds. The U.S. targets may be the most complex of any stakeholder and include a post conflict Syria with a democratically elected and generally moderate and stable government in Syria. The U.S. has consistently called for Assad’s ouster and even though a slight weakening of that position seemed imminent, Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons has strengthened U.S. resolve to remove him. The U.S. also wants a stable region with NATO ally Turkey firmly in the U.S. camp, ISIS defeated, the Iraqi government stabilized, Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony contained, and a new Syrian government that will accept a balance of power vis-à-vis Israel. 


An examination of the channels that form group identity in this conflict is challenging. Using a similar approach to the previous examination of targets, it begins in the center of the conflict storm with the supporters of the Syrian government. Politically, the Baath Party remains the anchor of group identity. It is also the dominant actor in any discussion of greed and grievance concepts in Syria. The Baath not only controlled politics, they dominated every aspect of Syrian life. If you wanted a business license or favorable tax rate, being a Baathist was in your best interest. Similarly, if you needed an expedited passport or access to a hospital for your children, the same held true. If you were an Alawite or a career military or intelligence official, you were most likely a Baathist. This nexus of political, economic, social, and security controls, form the cleavage that separates government supporters from the rest. And while channels do not necessarily tie directly to conflict causation, this grouping may be an exception.

The opposition groups are significantly fragmented. A 2013 BBC report estimated that there may be as many as 1,000 separate groups[1]. No single opposition group holds a monopoly on the characteristics that define the cleavages. There are feminist sub-groups active within Islamist dominated groups and there are Islamist sub-groups active within the Rojava Kurdish construct. The sheer complexity begs some sort of artificial construct as an analytic point of departure.

In that spirit, in broad terms, they can be considered in terms of national, political and religious identities as a framework for forming group identity. The Kurds have cross-regional presence that moved to the forefront of their identity when they were ignored in the post-World War I colonial map drafting exercise that still defines most middle-east borders. Traditional Kurdish lands run from northern Iran in the east to the eastern provinces of Syria with significant presence in Iraq and Turkey. In Syria, the Kurds are dominated by the PYD political party with strong socialist and communist roots. For this group, Kurdish nationalism, Marxist-socialist dogma, and the cult-like authority of Abdullah Ocalan, form the cleavage that defines this group.(Tax, 2016) 

Political identity, writ very broadly, is the dominant factor in the supporters of the Free Syrian Army – a moniker that provides the umbrella for a collective group of loosely affiliated Brigades and Fronts. Their supporters capture the grievance side of the greed and grievance discourse and range from political outcasts such as pro-democracy parties, to gender focused grass roots women’s rights organizations that were, and continue to be, routinely marginalized and excluded from Syrian political life (Davis, 2016).

Religious identity helps to define the most significant characteristic driving the cleavage for a large portion of the opposition. These groups could be further divided into very moderate (there is at least one sub-group in the Free Syrian Army that identifies as Islamist), Islamists focused on establishing a religious state, and Jihadist groups such as ISIS that take Islamic orthodoxy to a violent and uncompromising extreme. Their objective is purely religious and focused on establishment of a caliphate.


Catalysts for increasing violence in Syria have run the gamut. In the earliest days of the unrest when there was still a chance of preventing full scale revolution, the rough handling of a group of teenage detainees was clearly an escalatory trigger.  All the more surprising given that the Syrian police had probably done the same thing dozens, if not hundreds of times in the past and elicited no response.

Similarly, the 2012 detonation of a bomb at the Syrian Ministry of Security killed Bashar al Assad’s brother in law and a senior Syrian General. This trigger prompted an immediate security crackdown in Damascus and eliminated any willingness to negotiate on the part of the Syrian Government. Coincidentally, the Syrian General was also the highest-ranking Christian in the Syrian Armed forces and his death largely galvanized the Christian Minority in their support for the Assad regime.

Other high profile potential triggers included the 2013 use of chemical weapons against largely civilian targets by the Assad regime. While this attack prompted significant international outcry and diplomatic maneuvering between the Russians and the U.S., the internal response between belligerents was limited to increased entrenchment. By this point all the parties had staked out their positions. Consistent with the unpredictability of triggers, a much smaller scale chemical attack in 2017 prompted a swift and targeted U.S. response noteworthy for its message value rather than any lasting damage to the Syrian military.


In terms of influencing the rate, duration, and intensity of the Syrian conflict, the preponderance of catalysts are generated by outside actors. These catalysts come from neorealist influenced state actors and through the informal network of foreign fighters and Jihadis that flow in and out of the region.

The Battle for Kobani is the exception that provides the backdrop for a confluence of internal and external factors that changed the conflict dynamic. This battle placed Syrian Kurds besieged by ISIS fighters in a border town with all safe ingress and egress controlled by the Turks. As a no-quarter battle raged, the Turks allowed some refugees to evacuate but prohibited Kurdish reinforcements or supplies from crossing Turkish territory. The U.S., in a diplomatic conundrum, carefully exerted pressure on Turkey and quietly provided air support to the Kurds. In the end, against all odds and predictions, the Kurds prevailed and emerged as one of the more effective anti-ISIS groups in the battle space. Given the marketing savvy of the Kurds, they would likely have benefitted regardless of the battle’s outcome; Kobani was going to be portrayed as either the Rojava Kurd’s Masada, or Stalingrad.

A significant catalyst to the conflict came with the 2015 deployment of Russian military forces into Syria. The introduction of advanced Russian ground attack aircraft and special operations units had a telling effect on the battlefield.  These forces provided sufficient impetus for the Assad regime to seize the initiative and go on the offensive in many areas. The Syrian governments 2016 recapture of the city of Aleppo is indicative of the shifting fortunes in the battlespace. An event unlikely to guarantee victory or defeat to either side, but certain to increase the governments reticence to negotiate.

Foreign fighters entering the battlespace are symptomatic of an increasing Islamization among the rebel groups. This is a catalyst that could transform the reasons for fighting from a what was sparked by democratization movements to a move toward an Islamic government.  While the impact of foreign fighters is negligible, the symbolism of brothers joining the fight is powerful and serves to internationalize the cause.

Potential Interventions and Outcomes

Theoretical Foundations

Two theoretical approaches offer frameworks that address immediate and long term conflict resolution in Syria. Neorealism and human needs theory offer balanced, if not sometimes dichotomous, theoretical foundations for shaping a comprehensive approach to intervention and possible transformation.   Other theories have some merit but fall short in ways that justify, at least in the immediate term, placing them on a back burner.

The English school could be considered because it features a more inclusive and comprehensive approach. The English school sees the world through a macro level lens because of its willingness to synthesize other theories and models to achieve understanding. While this seems like a logical and frankly, grown-up way to interpret phenomena, it creates an inherent ambiguity with respect to the borders of the English school; if anything can be used to explain anything, is there any real utility?  There is also a heavy leaning on the part of English school scholars to attribute causation to the elites in a society(Dunne, 2013) . While this may be valid in some cases, it falls short in deciphering the community based anomie at the root of Syria’s conflict.

Largely based on the political dogma of the Rojava Kurds, it could be tempting to consider Marxism, or possibly a variant of neo-Marxism as a theoretical lens. However, the impact of Marxism on the Kurds, heavily influenced by the late American socialist Murray Bookchin(Tax, 2016), is an anomaly that carries little weight across the continuum of belligerents in Syria. 

Neorealism may offer the appropriate triage capabilities for a conflict that has evolved to the point of Syria’s civil war. A state centric solution imposed by regional and global powers, motivated by potential economic and power based gains, is a reasonable immediate course of action.  Notably, this approach to solving Syria, at least temporarily, takes Syria’s agency out of the equation.  Neorealism in this case provides the foundation for the formation of stakeholder states with both convergent interests in a return to stability in Syria, and competing interests in the resultant power and influence distribution. This is consistent with Waltz’s description of alliances that exist between states with some, but not all interest in common (Waltz, 1979).

Essentially, competing powers acting in their own interests, must recognize first, that no interests are served with Syria in perpetual conflict or effectively destroyed as a state. Secondly, restoring stability to Syria must take priority over competing for its ruins. Finally, a stable Syria is the foundation that allows a return to a more predictable and safe balance of power competition; access to Syrian oil, arms sales, favorable trade agreements, basing rights and pipeline ventures all come back into play.

In contrast to neoliberalism’s macro and structural world view, human needs theory focuses on the individual as a member of a collective or community. John Burton, a leading voice in the human needs approach identifies the need for “identity, recognition, security and personal development” as the key factors in protracted social conflicts(Rubenstein, 2001). This matches nicely with the long simmering pre-conflict conditions in Syria.

Rubinstein goes on to cite three important advantages to human needs theory: the first, and most important with respect to Syria, is the ability to distinguish between conflicts where traditional approaches will suffice. Secondly, recognizing the necessity of designing conflict resolution approaches that address the underlying, or causal, sources of conflict. Finally, human needs theory separates individual and community needs and action from the theories of elite manipulation or clashing culture notions (2001).

Sources of Conflict Causality

Neorealism has been a long-term influence in the modern state of Syria. The persistent conflict with Israel and the U.S. / Soviet cold war initially made Syria a fertile competition ground. Once firmly in the Soviet camp, with all the benefits of military hardware and advisors, Syria enjoyed an elevated status in the region that was exemplified by their intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976 and maintaining a military presence there until 2005.  This prestige and regional adventurism came at a cost. The Syrian economy, particularly the informal economy driven by connections and corruption, became entwined with the Lebanese economy and fomented a mutual dependence that has had a negative effect on the average Syrian(Yacoubian, 2006).  

Syria’s role as a proxy to the Soviets, and standard bearer for the persistent conflict with Israel has also set conditions for conflict causation. Over time, the perpetual state of war with Israel has not only eroded the economy, it has also contributed to a level of paranoia bordering on a police-state. Seeing Israeli and American spies in every shadow allowed any indication of less than full support to the regime to be cause for arrest. The government was not shy about making an example; the story of Hama’s destruction is well known inside of Syria.    

Human needs theory offers a different approach.  While much of the post-colonial behavior of the Syrian government and elites set conditions, it was what occurred under those conditions that ultimately proved to be causative. Economic disenfranchisement, structural bias, corruption, and lack of personal security all simmered in the background, while a centrally controlled state bureaucracy gave the outward impression of quiet control. 

Addressing Causality

Causation in the Syria case, like seemingly everything in Syria, is complicated. Without the conditions established by overarching state behavior that are best explained through a neorealist lens, the human needs issue probably never rises to the level of causing conflict escalation. This is not a unique phenomenon.

Consider the post-World War I conditions that the allies levied on Germany.  State actors functioning in an acutely neorealist manner to formalize the post conflict power relationships, set conditions for a perpetual domestic human needs crisis in the Weimar Republic. Correspondingly, the post-World War II Marshall Plan, was also an example of state actors, functioning in a neorealist approach, setting domestic conditions in the former axis states to prevent another cycle of human needs deprivation. And, to complete the full cycle, ultimately return those states to being good actors in the state centric model of the world.

While history never totally duplicates conditions, there are some valid lessons that can be derived from the Marshall plan. What these theories suggest is a that a comprehensive approach that addresses the strategic factors and the sub-state factors, must be applied. Strategic factors are best explained as those under the purview of state actors whose ultimate objectives are defined by national interests and power relationships. The sub-state factors, typically manifesting as domestically driven demonstrations of grievance, are best defined by Burton’s framework of identity, participation, recognition and security (Demmers, 2016).

Strengths / Limitations

Where neorealism falls short in the Syria framework, is explaining or offering solutions to conflict causation. The triage by outside states can stop the hemorrhaging and impose conditions that are immediate, but in so doing may also increase the likelihood of conflict reemergence. Where neorealism offers structural solutions at a more macro-level, its explanatory power diminishes almost entirely at the sub-state level.

This is consistent with an underlying assumption of neorealism, the view of the state as the principal. An additional assumption of neorealism, is the recognition of structural influence in world affairs, but only through the structures that are deemed to matter.  In contrast, human needs theory assumes that humans are social and want to belong, rather than compete. This is the focus on identity and community that is such a stark contrast to the assumptions of neorealism. This concept of belonging ties into another assumption of human needs in that individuals will act out or rebel, based on a desire to maintain the connection to their identity(Demmers, 2016).

There are weaknesses in human needs theory. In the Syria case, the train has left the station; developing in-depth hindsight of the deep-seated causes of the conflict offers little value in stopping the ongoing carnage.  In general, human needs theory is also challenged by the definition of needs and separating them from desires. Burton’s concise approach has been expanded by others like Galtung who interpret human need with a more inclusive paradigm that opens the door to ambiguity and reduces clarity(Rubenstein, 2001) .  Does access to the internet sit on par with access to clean drinking water? What about shelter versus self-actualization? Is security from gender based violence more important than security from hurtful words? Without assigning value to any of these points of distinction, the obfuscation of something intended to simplify an issue is apparent.  

A final weakness of human needs theory worth noting, is the need to understand the identity of the actors and how that identity influences other factors. In Syria, this is complicated by the sheer volume of player on the field. The challenge for an outsider is to sort through the various religious, social, ethnic and nationalist identities and then determine which measures have the most effect. And, to be prepared for the fallout when many are not satisfied. 

Intervention Proposal

Interventions in the Syria conflict should be designed fully informed by the reality of a conflict that meets every potential worse-case scenario. There have been significant civilian casualties, use of chemical weapons, a massive refugee crisis, internal displacement, human rights abuses, and continued fighting with little or no indication that belligerents are willing to negotiate a resolution. In view of this, a two-stage intervention and resolution/transformation plan offers both an immediate and long term approach to resolving the Syria conflict.

This plan is only possible with the consent and active participation of the state actors who have vested interests in a stable region. As Lundgren noted, collaboration among state actors has shown promise in earlier attempts at mediation in Syria, but only when there is consensus on expectations going into the process (2016).  An agreement between the stakeholder states must be established as a pre-condition to intervention and should include an establishment of neutrality, or impartial enforcement for the interested states. This idea of neutrality is critical given the preexisting relationships and alliances among the various actors and can be facilitated by terrain and spatial management that separates former sponsors from former proxies. In practice this might be implemented with the U.S. providing local governance in the Damascus area, the Russians in control of Kurdish areas and the Turks securing the Syrian side of the Golan.

Two contentious aspects, among many in this agreement, will be achieving consensus on the treatment of certain belligerent groups such as ISIS and Jabhat. At face value, unanimity on these widely acknowledged terrorist groups should be straight forward. However, the Rojava Kurds affiliation with the PKK may prompt Turkey to demand their inclusion among the groups designated as terrorists.  An additional challenge is the immediate handling of Bashar Al Assad and other senior Baath Party officials. While much of the world sees Assad as a criminal, his long-time relationship with the Russians may complicate his status.

As preconditions are established, a massive and empowered international response offers the only viable option as a first step towards peace-making.  Despite the risks and certainty of casualties, the initial stages of a Syrian conflict resolution must resemble a Bosnia or Somalia type intervention model. This includes imposition of a cease-fire, establishment of a no-fly zone, freezing all belligerent forces in place, seizure of WMDs, and a dusk to dawn curfew. Enforcement must be swift and decisive. While this appears heavy handed, it will, in very short order, put an end to the conflict.  

As effective as overwhelming force can be, it is a high-risk approach that must be managed carefully.  It is true that a robust military presence can overstay its utility but, it is also true that it can be withdrawn prematurely and allowing the situation to deteriorate. A reasonable metric for judging the military presence is the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process and how fighters transition back into society. The DDR process is also an example of a bridging activity between phase I, led by a largely military presence supervising the disarmament and demobilization and phase II, with international organizations and civil society taking the lead on reintegration.

Even in this military heavy phase, military governance must be replaced as quickly as possible by some manner of international civilian authority; this is the where the U.N. can provide extraordinary value added by demonstrating leadership and signaling that the intervention is not simply a western land grab.  Soldiers on the street must be replaced by civilian police and critical services must be reestablished. As simple as it sounds, the preceding three paragraphs describe broad objectives that would probably require a 6 to 18-month window to achieve. 

Phase II represents the shift from a neorealist approach to a human needs approach focused on resolution and potentially transformation. Phase II is not triggered by some definitive end-state or decision point in Phase I. Rather, it can and should overlap with many activities occurring simultaneously; there is no rule that says you can’t have peacebuilding workshops occur while food convoys are still escorted by intervention forces.

This phase also represents a long-term commitment on the part of sub-state actors to achieve a full conflict resolution. This may take a generation before lingering conflict memories are no longer personal. In a nut-shell, this will require a strategic approach. As Lederach has argued in delineating the differences between resolution and transformation, “we need a strategic vision in order to assess and develop specific plans and responses”(Lederach, 2015). His recognition of the constantly evolving nature of transformation is also particularly germane to the Syria conflict.

In practicality, resolution and transformation of the Syria conflict, will be a bee hive of activity. On the governmental end of the spectrum, establishment of governance from the local to federal level, restoration of basic services, elections, constitutions, new legislation, and infrastructure restoration are just a few of the tasks facing a new government. Simultaneously, the internal and external stakeholders should go through the processes necessary to start healing Syrian society, reconciliation commissions, transitional justice activities, and reparations are all steps that begin to redress the deprivations at the core of conflict causation.   

The final and most important aspect of resolution / transformation in Syria, is passing ownership of the processes to the Syrians. Abu-Nimer highlights some basic assumptions about middle eastern resolution processes that are salient in this case.  Among them, the importance of social norms and customs in shaping conflict resolution and, the future and future relationships are critical considerations for the participants.(Abu-Nimer, 1996)


The Syria conflict signifies complexity at many levels. The conflict itself has maintained a level of dynamism rarely seen in modern conflict. There has been no stabilization of lines or significant lulls in battle that could crack the door for negotiation or mediation. The destruction of infrastructure and property has been immense. Cities like Aleppo and Kobani closely resemble Berlin in 1945. The human suffering is even more profound. Some estimates range as high as 500,000 dead. Syrian refugees are stacked up in refugee centers in Turkey and are streaming into Europe as fast as the EU countries can absorb them.

 Possibly more complex than the battle space are the various stakeholders that have an interest in how Syria emerges from this conflict. This paper has done only partial justice in comprehensively portraying the full spectrum of states and other parties that have a vested interest in influencing the outcome. Without question, those with equities, or perceived equities, will demand acknowledgement and inclusion. 

Analyzing this conflict though the lens of the multi-causal model proved useful in cataloging and simplifying to some degree, the catalysts, motivations, and actors that either set conditions for, or were directly causative in the conflict. This model also proved instrumental in highlighting the value of neorealism and human needs theory in providing depth of understanding and potential resolutions. While not arguing for exclusive primacy of either theory in the Syria case, reasonable efficacy became evident as the theories strengths, weaknesses and assumptions were compared to the data teased out in the multi-causal model.

Finally, this paper offered a macro scale approach to intervention, informed by neorealism and human needs theory. While acknowledging the “hand waving across a big map” nature of the plan, it does provide a reasonable strategy for moving forward. Clearly the devil is in the details and significant governmental and diplomatic energy is still required before any sort of plan could be implemented.  The scope and cost of the effort is also self-evident but is easily tempered by the scope and cost of the conflict to this point.


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[1] From a 2013 BBC report by  Lina Sinjab available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24403003

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