Just as the Arab Spring showcased the political possibilities of new forms of communication—empowering political dissenters by allowing them to rapidly share developments and warnings with each other and the world, and breaking the dominance the state had enjoyed over the control of information–the Syrian War showcases the dark side of these developments. Yes, new technologies have allowed courageous individuals to document the inhumane suffering endured by Syrians at the hands of their own government, opposition militias, religious extremists and even human traffickers. But the way events in Syrian communities play for world audiences has also changed the calculations for intervention. The only way to really understand the unprecedented level of foreign involvement on every side of the Syrian Civil War is to see it not as merely a war on the ground in Syria, but a war before and for the eyes of the world. Syria has become a tragic stage for a new kind of power play.
Russia Playing to the World
The involvement of some of the big players in the Syrian War began in an earlier era of more traditional strategic gambits, but these have been also transformed by the new opportunities. Start with Russian involvement. Of course Putin wanted to keep access to the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean (in Tartus, Syria), but that doesn’t really explain the level of military aid and diplomatic muscle that Russia has thrown into supporting Bashir Al Assad’s regime. Russia could probably have worked out a quiet deal with the opposition, and kept both the naval base and a finger in negotiations over future gas and oil pathways. But what Russia could not have done with a low profile deal is showcase Russia’s return to superpower status. Syria is Russia’s trade show for its new military and arms industry. Bombing the Syrian countryside is a way of eliminating a few pesky Syrian opposition fighters, but more importantly it’s a relatively cheap way (in terms of Russian money and manpower, not Syrian lives) of signalling Russian non-compliance with the West’s plans for the world. The Russians are playing for the world, not just for a naval base on the Mediterranean, and they don’t need Assad – just an opportunity to send a message to NATO, the Ukraine, and anyone else watching, including the Russian people themselves.
Iranian support for Assad has followed a similar trajectory from conventional to existential goals. In the pre-2003 Middle East, Iran supported Assad as a way to help contain the perennial threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. There was some lip service paid to a heritage of shared Shia religious networks between the states, but Iran’s support for the stridently secular Syrian state was really about geopolitics. Iraq as a failed state after 2003 has upended the entire region, and fueled new competition between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and Iran for influence in the region. This competition has played out in competition for investment, in oil markets, in the local politics of individual states, in Yemen, and in international arenas like the UN.
For Iran, shoring up the Syrian state makes a lot of sense. Iran is already sandwiched between failed states to the East (Afghanistan) and to the West (Iraq). No matter how much they distrusted Saddam and hated U.S. expansion in the region, no one wants to live, or invest, in a neighborhood where all the houses are burning down. Both the Saudis and Iran are pursuing strategies that they see as means to establish networks in a world that has fallen apart in the last 15 years. Iran and Saudi involvement in Syria — Iran in support of Assad, and the Saudis and Gulf neighbors Bahrain, Qatar and the U.A.E. in support of the opposition — is partly about securing a friendly neighbor for the future, and partly about sending a message to influence other regional competitions. And from their viewpoint, this has been a tremendous success. The increased willingness of Middle Eastern states to use the militaries they have built in the last three decades has certainly been noticed by the U.S., Europe and others.
Like the Russian intervention, moreover, Iranian, Saudi and Gulf activity in Syria is also calculated to send a message to the folks back home. For regimes that claim political legitimacy through religion — and are faced with increasingly unhappy subjects — foreign activism is a way to either win over or intimidate the public. Saudi and Gulf support for Islamic groups among the opposition bolsters claims of religious authority by regimes that hope to avoid any expansion of the Arab Spring in their backyards.
Before we indulge in any condescending dismissals of the motives of the Gulf states in the Syria catastrophe, we should also reexamine our own houses. At some level the U.S., U.K., French, Turkish, Israeli, Canadian, Australian and Jordanian air strikes in Syria are also about sending messages—not just to ISIS, or whoever is intentionally or unintentionally on the receiving end of the strikes — but to domestic and international audiences. The efficacy of bomb strikes might be officially measured in body counts, but the incalculable PR effects are also part of the equation. While the air strikes satisfy public demands to do something about the terrorist threat, unfortunately they do little to resolve the underlying conditions that led to the Syrian War, or to the extremism it has sheltered.
There is a second way that changes in communication technologies have altered the dynamics of war, and it’s perhaps even more destabilizing than using Syria to showcase political testosterone. So far we have referred only to regimes and “the opposition,” as if the state or its opponent were the critical unit. But the same technology that liberated individuals from reliance on limited and controlled sources of information prior to the Arab Spring is also liberating sub-state actors. Individual factions within the Syrian opposition can easily become individual militias by developing their own foreign policies. If the U.S. has concerns about their political pedigree, they can seek arms and funding from another state, or even a non-state actor that might have a political, economic, or religious axe to grind. And if some of their followers don’t like the new arrangement, they can branch off and seek their own links. It’s as if all the baseball players in the major leagues became free agents not just every year, or every game, but every single play—and the uniform didn’t always tell you which team they were on.
From “State Sponsors of Terrorism” to “Free Agent Terrorism”
For years the United States decried “state sponsors of terrorism,” but compared to “free agent terrorism” the old system was charmingly predictable. It was difficult to gain arms, money, or to communicate before the internet, and non-state organizations were dependent on the whims of their state sponsors. The U.S. exploited this power imbalance using funding and arms to push variegated opposition alliances in Nicaragua and Afghanistan into apparently united fronts. That wouldn’t be possible today. Not only are there more guns available (thanks to thirty years of proxy warfare in the Middle East and elsewhere, and an insanely expansive arms market), but discontented factions can find and strike their own deals with would-be supporters. These micro-contracts splinter communities further by encouraging differentiation as a marketing strategy for foreign aid. We see the tragic consequences of this in the ethnic and religious schisms that have opened up in a once-united Syria.
Second in a series
Janice Lee Jayes, Ph.D. teaches Modern Middle East history at Illinois State University. She has worked in Morocco, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, and was a Fulbright scholar in Egypt.
The Hell of Syria’s Field Hospitals
New England Journal of Medicine June 9, 2016