Seven lessons from Syria
28 Nov 2019|

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has outlasted the country. For the foreseeable future, Assad will be trying to restore central government control and manoeuvring between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the future of Idlib province and northeastern Syria. He will aim to deal with Arab tribal leaders in the Euphrates valley who are now bitterly opposed to Damascus but also potentially at odds with the YPG Kurds. Kurdish–Arab tribal frictions in Deir ez-Zor and Kurdish resistance to ethnic cleansing and Turkish proxy occupation will grow.

Now it’s time for external parties to learn the lessons of Syria since 2011. Here are seven suggestions.

Lesson 1: Aim to avoid further, prolonged urban campaigns

Mosul, and Raqqa, demonstrated that if jihadists become entrenched again in cities they won’t be defeated without prolonged, substantial external kinetic, training, logistic, intelligence and other support. Inadequate support risks unsustainably high attrition rates among largely conscript armies (the attrition rate among well-trained elite forces in Mosul was 50–60%).

Lesson 2: Local actors will be constrained by limited access to external air support

All local actors, except Turkey, will have to rely on airpower support for both offensive and defensive purposes. Only external parties can supply—or deny— enough of it to shape the battle space.

Lesson 3: Expect complexity

Other regional conflicts (Yemen; West and sub-Saharan Africa, especially Mali) will follow the Syrian pattern: multiple interconnected fights sharing the same space and time. Some (such as the north–south separatist contest in Yemen and the al-Qaeda derivative in Mali exploiting farmer–herder tensions) won’t be directly related to the war on terror.

Expect combinations of coercion, co-option and subversion; transactional, situation-specific alliances; vicious turf battles and unstable deals; and an absence of transitional justice.

Lesson 4: Keep it real and keep it local

Being an effective external actor in such conflicts requires more than the possession of kinetic capability. It requires language and cultural skills, and a sophisticated appreciation of the micro-political dynamics, sensitivities, interests, personalities and ambitions at the local level. It demands flexibility, but it’s not helped by mixed messages. It also demands high levels of personal authenticity, credibility and skill in building a sense of solidarity of purpose.

Those attributes are beyond the capacity of most external players.

The US, Saudi and Qatari track record in deciphering the political-military operating environment in Syria is haphazard, at best. It contrasts with the Russian approach, which is devoid of illusions about remaking the regime and the region, and backed by an intimate understanding of Syrian political culture and trends.

Lesson 5: No one else is coming to the front lines

Significant new force deployments to the region are unlikely. Capable Western governments and political audiences are (correctly) risk-averse or (incorrectly) uninterested in Syria. Moreover, there’s rarely likely to be a peace to keep, even when conflict abates, because of centre–periphery contests, regional dynamics, insurgency risks and, eventually, intra-regime division-of-spoils contests. UN Security Council legal frameworks to legitimise formal force deployments are also unlikely.

Lesson 6: International humanitarian law and R2P are so last century

It remains to be seen what the Jackson Pollock school of diplomacy, otherwise known as the Donald Trump administration, will produce as its erratic approach to Syria continues.

But we are unlikely to see a return to values of the pre-Trump global order. Collective punishment, sieges, clear-felling of populated urban areas and the use of chemical weapons have continued because such practices work better at the tactical and regime-survival levels than high-intensity urban warfare. They have also proven to be cost-free for those who use them. And all parties have become adept at ignoring or contesting the narratives surrounding blatant breaches of international humanitarian law.

Lesson 7: Don’t aim too high

One may ask how Western countries can hope to have the values they advocate respected in the region if they aren’t prepared to act in support of those values. It’s also obvious that programmatic and durable reform is unlikely to be possible in the absence of security.

History demonstrates, however, that external military interventions in the Middle East can stabilise Arab regimes. But they will neither bring about reform, nor protect and promote the values we wish to be respected.

Those interventions that served Western interests (for example, UK/US intervention in Jordan and Lebanon, 1958; UK/Kuwait, 1961; UK/Oman/Yemen in the 1970s; and US/UK/Kuwait, 1990–91) had aims limited to securing the morale and capability of regimes seeking Western support and sharing or benefiting Western strategic interests. Most had a light military footprint. Some, such as Oman, had a special operations character. All had clear, limited political objectives directed towards supporting the status quo.

Interventions that arguably failed to serve Western interests (Suez, 1956; US/UK/Iraq, 2003; Libya, 2011; US/Syria since 2011) were aimed at, or evolved into, attempts at regime removal or were undertaken in pursuit of illusionary goals, mostly driven or promoted by domestic political agendas. Some were also driven, initially, by political/principled concerns, such as not to witness a repeat of Srebrenica in Benghazi.

Adding to the capability of Middle East regimes to defend themselves may widen the space for reform, in theory. In practice, however, it will probably decrease their willingness and capacity to address underlying structural issues of state dysfunctionality (corruption, inequality of opportunity, human rights abuses, disempowerment) that lie at the core of legitimate opposition. Those shortcomings also provide ongoing opportunities for non-state armed groups to recruit and grow.

Syria is a tragedy, but it is also a symptom of much deeper concerns relating to governance and security beyond the reach of external parties. It is now highlighting the operational, tactical, humanitarian, ethical, political, diplomatic, narrative and strategic challenges of asymmetric warfare. And those concerns are likely to endure, long after the conflict subsides, or is contained, and the caliphs and the kings depart.