The Syrian War: How to Move from Chaos to Peace

It is five years as Syria is locked in a deadly conflict, which has cost to date hundreds of thousands killed and injured, millions of displaced persons and refugees, has ruined towns and physical infrastructure, and paralysed the delivery of even basic public services. It has been called the ‘biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II.’ [1] In spite of sustained efforts of a broad range of actors, the conflict has spiralled out of control over the years, with implications far beyond its physical borders. Something must be wrong here, and I think that it comes from the misconception of the Syrian war.

The Syrian kind of chaos

The Oxford Dictionary defines chaos as ‘complete disorder and confusion.’ A messy, anarchic situation is frequently referred to as chaos by politicians and journalists, in this meaning. The dictionary also gives the definition as applied to natural sciences: ‘The property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.’  This definition deserves a closer look. To start with, let’s take a snapshot of the current developments.

A ceasefire between the government and the opposition brokered by the American and Russian diplomats (which came into force on 27 February) scaled down an overall violence by 90 percent within first week; it also has given a whiff of fresh air allowing the humanitarian organisations to deliver so urgently needed aid to the millions of Syrian people. Airstrikes by foreign actors targeting ISIL continue though, with an outcry by opposition that their positions had been bombarded too, thus making ceasefire even more fragile. On the other hand, the preparations are on-going to resume the UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva, although the opposition keep failing to agree on the representation at the talks. This notwithstanding, protests in the opposition-held parts of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Daraa were held in force (but peacefully) demanding the resignation of al-Assad.[2] Hundreds of thousands of Syrians meanwhile make their way out of the country, to escape misery and suffering and to find shelter in Europe.

All this looks somewhat familiar: we have seen this many times in the recent years: back-and-force, in a vicious cycle that gets ever complicated. And every time there is a warning that this is the chance not to miss, otherwise the country and perhaps the region will slip into chaos. The UN Under-Secretary-General’s recent statement being typical: ‘This war has to end. … The international community and the parties to the conflict must seize the momentum created around the nationwide cessation of hostilities to bring a political solution to the crisis. I cannot stress enough that we must not let this opportunity pass.’ [3] But Syria is in the chaos already, right in the epicentre.

Have you heard about chaos theory? It appears that chaos, like the one that we witness in Syria, is not as a messy thing as we used to think of it. Explaining the behaviour of chaotic systems, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has noted that an iterative process that keeps repeating on its own output does not replicate itself but ‘becomes endlessly complicated, at each stage giving an entirely different picture. A chaotic system, far from being disorganised or non-organised, starts with one particular point and cranks in through a repeating process; the outcome is unpredictable if you don’t know the process – and it depends heavily on the starting point.’ [4]

This implies that exploring the origins of the conflict and the character of interaction between its actors is key to understanding the Syrian war. Political science offers the relevant analytical tools for such an inquiry.

To name the game

From the political analysis point of view, it is important first to establish what is the game about, and only then to identify the players, their interests, strengths and weaknesses, the arenas where they play, and what resources they rely upon and what are their alliances.

To start with, we must distinguish between the dimensions of the Syrian war (something that is frequently ignored by the decision makers and observers alike). The conflict underway in Syria has two distinct dimensions: one is the civil war that resulted from the armed confrontation between the opposition (whatever disorganised and disunited) and the government in power; while the other is an invasion by the militant Islamists (namely, ISIL) of the territories in Syria (and neighbouring Iraq) whereby they confront and fight both the opposition and the government forces (and at times, even the al-Qaeda offspring Jabhat al-Nusra). With these dimensions the Syrian war represents a problem that does not have a single, simple or quick solution. In order to find an answer to this puzzle we have to look at the issues underlying each dimension, identify the workable solutions, and only afterwards try to bridge them with an overarching approach.

We can trace the starting point of the Syrian war to the ‘Arab spring’, when events in Tunisia had triggered a chain of popular uprising across the region aimed at overthrowing the authoritarian (or dictatorial) regimes. Some of them were successful, while others failed; but that does not come as a surprise, after all. What is important is that all of them had one thing in common—this was a contestation over power; not the protests to demand wealth redistribution concessions, social reforms, fresh elections or the like, but to take the power and ultimately change the regime. This point is crucial for understanding the war in Syria, because of the centrality of the notion of power: following the Weberian definition, it is broadly accepted in social sciences that power is the essence of state, allowing it to exercise its ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force [violence] within a given territory.’ [5]

Therefore, by the very nature of the confrontation between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the broad range of opposition groups it was clear from the outset that for all the parties involved it was a zero-sum game—governed by coercive power that uses the methods of war with intention to dominate or suppress the opponent(s). This has been the kind of conflict that is ought to establish clear winners and losers in the end (which applies to both local actors and their foreign sponsors). It might have worked though for the uprising if only they were not so divided, disorganised, politically immature and supported by diverse range of external actors very different in their interests and methods. As a result, they managed to shaken the regime significantly, but failed to overthrow it. And this is where the process became chaotic—‘iterative, repeating on its own output’—because neither side has had enough strength to crash the other, and the confrontation goes by rounds simply repeating itself and the overall situation getting worse and worse.

This also was the point when conditions became conducive for the third group of actors—the militant Islamists—to enter the game forcefully. In comparison with the civil war, this dimension of the Syrian war has multiple losers and only one winner. Losers are Syrians—individually and collectively, as a nation. Neighbours are suffering from the war’s burden (especially considering their limited financial abilities these days, due to the record-low oil prices) and are themselves under the increasing threat from the extremists. Americans, Europeans, and Russians are under the strain of keeping up high cost of military operations. European countries are increasingly being pressured by the burden of attempts at handling the refugee crisis (and all of this amid their own numerous economic and social problems).

In turn, the Islamist extremists are benefitting on all fronts—they control substantial territories and their vast resources. Most importantly, they gain ideologically from running the self-proclaimed caliphate and from getting additional boost to their propaganda from being subject to airstrikes by ‘infidels’. The evidence of their growing popularity is found in the growing number of foreign fighters and supporters: according to the United Nations ‘ISIL succeeded in attracting a global pool of around 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 states.’ [6] On the other hand, the number of boys (teenagers but some as young as five-six years of age) joining as fighters and of women and girls travelling to Syria as ‘jihadi brides’ is rising. [7]

These young people, if survived, return back home to poison our societies—to preach, instruct, and organise terrorist attacks. In this way, considering the multiplying effect, it becomes a cancerous decease of global impact. The geography and varied methods of attacks perpetrated just in the last half-a-year indicates that this process is gaining momentum, while everyone is occupied with refugees and other burning problems caused by the Syrian war and other conflicts.

There is only one way to escape the endless downfall into abyss of disorder and destruction by following this chaotic process—and that is by changing the rules of the game. For that, we first have to explore why the current approach is ineffective.

Axioms don’t work in politics

In her recent article in British press, the Newsweek’s Middle East editor, Janine di Giovanni, who had spent considerable time in the field (including with the UN special envoy’s team) put forward the current approach to negotiations as follows: ‘Assad is all we have at the moment. To remove him would have a dangerous power vacuum which could, in all probability, be filled by IS. … If guarantees are given that he will remain in transitional government until the time is right for him to step down – in his own way, with dignity – then he has to contain the mass killing of civilians.’ [8] Sounds reasonable, does it not? The question is who is going to give those assurances—in such an authoritative manner that al-Assad (and anyone else) takes them seriously and relies on them and respects them in the future.

The record of negotiated transition is mixed—there have been many successful and failed attempts in the recent decades. Theoretical background has been set as an ‘axiom’ by the prominent political scientist Robert Dahl, in his Polyarchy: ’The lower the costs of toleration, the greater the security of the government. The greater the costs of suppression, the greater the security of the opposition. Hence conditions that provide a high degree of mutual security for the government and oppositions would tend to generate and to preserve wider opportunities for oppositions to contest the conduct of the government.’ [9] This sounded so logical and convincing that some social scientists (especially those who based their projections on mathematical models of rational choice) predicted this to be the main method of transition from the communist regimes to democracy in Eastern Europe. In some cases (the Polish round table negotiations of 1989 being an example) it worked like in the book; in others it utterly failed. The problem is that there is no such thing as an axiom in politics: everything depends on political culture and tradition, and a combination of a large number of external and internal factors which tend to behave wildly—at any given point in time—so that it makes the correlation between variables complicated and unpredictable, and the information for analysis fragmented, unknown or even unknowable.

My point here is that al-Assad is not going to accept an invitation to a provisional government, because, first, the opposition (and it is broadly acknowledged that those at the negotiation table do not represent the forces on the ground) is not in position to legitimately offer it, and second, the offer by definition being short term and temporary he is concerned with what happens with him and his aides once he steps down.

The latter is particularly tricky. It is known in the literature as a ‘torturer problem’ (as coined by Samuel Huntington):’How should the democratic government respond to charges of gross violations of human rights—murder, kidnapping, torture, rape, imprisonment without trial—committed by the officials of the authoritarian regimes? Was the appropriate course to prosecute and punish or to forget and forgive?’ [10] Once there are free and fair elections and a popular government is sworn in, the question will be immediately raised to keep al-Assad to account, for all what he and his regime have done both before and especially after the spring of 2011. The general advice so wisely communicated in the literature has been mostly ‘to forgive but not forget’. As you can imagine, it is easy said than done. A huge reconciliation work shall be conducted and sustained for quite a time, in order to forgive those even at the middle ranks of the former regime.[11] But al-Assad remaining safely in Syria after leaving the politics in a year or two, once the transitional government accomplishes its mandate? No one would believe that; and neither does he. That is why the government representative dismissed in categorical terms the proposal aired by Staffan di Mistura to hold presidential elections in the eighteen-month period.

Redefining the power game

As we can see, the current approach to the Syrian power game does not offer any answer sufficient enough to fundamentally change the course of events. This brings us back to definitions. In political science theory, among various kinds of power formulated by scholars there is one which I particularly favour, because it places the elements of the equation (peace, conflict, democracy, government) in their right place. Political scientist Mark Haugaard defines it as concerted power, one which ‘springs up whenever people get together and act in concert’. This is how he puts it: ‘Peace is an end in itself, and democratic government through concerted power is one of the means to that end. Furthermore … peace is not absence of conflict, but is rather its reinscription in the rules of concerted power. The coercive power of war, where there are only winners and losers, becomes transformed into the concerted power of politics, where conflict is no longer zero-sum, all or nothing, and thus no longer domination.’ [12] This is a totally different philosophy, and it has practical implications for both dimensions of the Syrian war.

Civil war

In practical terms, this would mean signing a peace agreement between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition, to be accompanied with amendments to the constitution to introduce quotas (or similar mechanism) that would ensure a proportional representation of key polity groups in the legislative, executive branches and the independent judiciary—at all levels. And in order to ensure the implementation, along with new rules of procedure for the government, to give a special mandate to the UN envoy with extraordinary executive powers. This is not my invention—I simply borrowed the idea from the Dayton Peace Accords (formally, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina) of 1995 and the peace implementation process ever since. I believe that it offers precisely the model to work on, provided that all the lessons learnt over the years are taken into account. The oversized bureaucratic apparatus, frequently stalled decision making, inefficient spending, slow economic growth—all this has long been criticized by the country’s citizens and the foreign practitioners and observers. However, there is something no one can deny—that is, for twenty years Bosnia and Herzegovina is a peaceful country where, even not without systemic problems, its state and society perform their functions tolerably well by the standards of young democracy.

It may sound as truism, but the conclusion from what has been witnessed even in the historically short span of a few decades (approximately from the end of WWII) is obvious: Peace is more important than government, and weak government is still better than no government at all. In practical terms, it calls for concessions from all sides to the Syrian civil war, to enable the benefits of power sharing and toleration to overweight the costs of confrontation and coercion. And I believe that once peace is guaranteed (through an agreement, special envoy for civilian issues, and an international military/stabilization force on the ground), democracy will start slowly but surely developing. It will take time, but this is what such transitional processes are about; it is an evolutionary development which does not happen overnight, and there will be numerous small and big problems along the way, which would require a continued commitment, political will, resources, and ongoing technical assistance and political support—of all parties, domestic, regional, and global.

“Peace is more important than government, and weak government is better than no government. This calls for concessions from all sides to the Syrian war, in order for the benefits of power sharing to overweight the costs of confrontation.”

To stress the point about the importance of establishing a balance of power for peace and prosperity in Syria, I will paraphrase the vision of Barak Obama for the Middle East expressed in an interview of 2014, that it would be profoundly in the interest of the Syrian citizens if they start unwinding some of the distrust among the political groups and thus create a new equilibrium. I am not picturing an idyllic view of such a settlement—there will and shall be, certain volatility and conflict in political system, but these shall be governed under the rule of law and channelled through the democratic processes. In the same interview, the US President went on to conclude that, ‘each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained.’ [13]

Military invasion

The second dimension of the Syrian war—the invasion of the territories by ISIL—is full of misconceptions and inconsistencies of its own. The approach to fighting ISIL in the occupied territories of Syria and Iraq has been confusing from the outset. If Russians offered their military support to the governments in both Damascus and Baghdad, the Americans and their coalition partners did not. Take for example the statement of the US Secretary of State John Kerry after the recent deal on the cessation of hostilities: ‘Make no mistake. The answer to the Syrian civil war will not be found in any military alliance with Assad.’ [14]

There are two confusing messages here. First is that, fighting ISIL is not a civil war—they are alien element that took advantage of the civil war and the lack (or absence) of power and order on the ground. Therefore, if the military alliance is not a solution for resolving the civil war, it is the only solution to fighting the Islamist militants’ invasion, in both Syria and Iraq.* And here is the second confusion—while fully cooperating with Iraqi government, he denies any cooperation with Damascus. This inconsistency has its operational consequences—the most obvious being that airstrikes do not decide the outcome of the war, it is regular armies that take and hold positions on the ground. The former is only in supporting role to the latter. With ‘foot-on-the-ground’ not being an option for foreign allies (at least at the present set-up)**, there is only one choice left—that is to jointly fight with the Syrian and Iraqi armies—full-scale, including intelligence sharing, arms supply, training the armed forces, and helping strengthen security sector and putting it under democratic control.

“Under the international mandate, the military alliance with the Syrian government is possible. Moreover, it is imperative for defeating the Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.”

This is where the way out of the current impasse offers itself. The change of the game suggested for the civil war dimension (that is, an international mandate and coalition government) makes the government in Damascus no more the government of Bashar al-Assad (who becomes only an equal partner in the coalition government, under the new arrangements). In this way the military alliance is possible. Moreover, it is imperative. It also shall be made clear to everyone that even there is a broad military and diplomatic alliance, and there is a controlled transition to peace, the military campaign to defeat ISIL in Syria and Iraq will take many years (let along much more ambiguous and longer term target of defeating ISIL/extremist Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa). Therefore it demands a vision, patience, and long term commitment of all the parties involved. Disengagement at any point along the path will mean an immediate return to square one, thus the incarnation of chaos (just take Libya or South Sudan as examples). And I would take the freedom to generalize here by suggesting that this is as true for Syria as for any other conflict-torn country in the Middle East and North Africa region.

[*This is how the things stand today, due to numerous mistakes made in Syria and in the broader region before and after the 2011 uprising]

[**I will not consider the Iranian and Hezbollah militias in this picture, for the sake of merely keeping the argument focused]

From theory to practice

The solution to the Syrian war offered herein is rather foundational; it is an application of Public Policy 2.0 approach—the one that allows the departure from the established methods when they prove ineffective, embraces the notion that there is ‘no stability without volatility’  (to borrow from Nassim Taleb) [15], and encourages experimentation in adapting to the evolving environment, and making uncertainty work for its cause and not against it—what the art and craft of policy-making in the twenty-first century is about.

“Establishing a lasting peace will take decades and will demand a shared vision, patience, and long-term political commitment and resources. Disengagement at any point will mean an immediate return to square one, thus the reincarnation of chaos. This is equally true for Syria and any other conflict-torn country in the region.”

In the next post I will outline, in very broad terms, an international technical assistance programme for Syria and Iraq, aimed at translating this vision into practice. It is built on a premise that the assistance to Syria and Iraq in the middle-term shall be devised as combining both directions—military and civilian.


*The picture is of a mathematical object known as the Mandelbrot set (frequently used to illustrate the chaotic systems)—endlessly reapplies itself and generates pictures of ever increasing complexity.

[1] Oxfam International President Raymond Offenheiser, as quoted in Mariama Diallo, ‘Humanitarian Groups Call for Sustained Cease-fire in Syria,’, 03 March 2016, at

[2] Laura Pitel, ‘Peace shaken by anti-Assad protests,’ Independent, 5 March 2016

[3] UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination, Stephen O’Brien, providing the Security Council with an update on 24 February 2016: ‘Everyone is losing’ in the Syrian conflict, UN relief chief tells Security Council, at

[4] Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson, The (mis)Behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin, and Reward (New York: Basic Books, 2004), p. 294

[5] Max Weber, ‘Politics as Vocation,’ A speech at Munich University (1918) in H.H. Gerth and M.C. Wright (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 78

[6] United Nations, ‘Special meeting of the Counter-Terrorism Committee with Member States and relevant international and regional organizations on “Preventing Terrorists from Exploiting the Internet and Social Media to Recruit Terrorists and Incite Terrorist Acts, while Respecting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”’, Concept note, New York, 17 December 2015  

[7] Richard Ford, ‘Number of British girls travelling to Syria jumps,’ The Times, 12 January 2016

[8] Janine di Giovanni, ‘Assad: a monster and dictator but he’s the best option for peace,’ Evening Standard, 29 February 2016

[9] Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971), pp.15-16

[10] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Oklahoma: Oklahoma University Press, 1993), p.211

[11] There is plenty of works written by practitioners and scholars. One of my favorites is the Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman’s insightful personal account: ‘Whose memory? Whose justice? A meditation on how and when and if to reconcile,’ The Eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture address by Ariel Dorfman, 31 July 2010, at

[12] Mark Haugaard, ‘Concerted Power Over,’ Constellations, 22/1 (2015), p. 147-158 at 148

[13] David Remnick, ‘Going the Distance: On and off the road with Barack Obama’, New Yorker, 27 January 2014

[14] Patrick Wintour,”’Provisional’ Syria ceasefire plan called into question as bombs kill 120,” The Guardian, 21 February 2016

[15] Nassim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile: How to Live in the World We Don’t Understand (London: Allen Lane, 2012), p. 107

3 thoughts on “The Syrian War: How to Move from Chaos to Peace

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