A Potential Game Changer in Syrian ‘Perfect War’

‘When some systems are struck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. …  And ironically, the so-called chaotic systems, those experiencing a brand of variations called chaos, can be stabilised by adding randomness to them. … The magic is that such a change of regime from chaos to order did not take place by removing chaos, but by adding random, completely random but low intensity shocks.’ — Nasim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2014)

Looking Beyond the Events:

  • There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all have one thing in common—they are driven by political power and influence.
  • These wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, which no one can control and with no end in sight.
  • Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts, and implement sets of limited tasks to effectively address them, in order to progress toward the ultimate goal over time.

Syrian citizens prepare to evacuate from Daraya. Photo: Local Council of Daraya City via AP

There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all of them are about political power and influence. Today, Syria is a battleground for a number of wars. Each war has it its own contexts, underlying conflict drivers, prize at stake, and actors involved both directly and covertly. They are fought by a large group of local, regional, national, and transnational actors. Many are involved in more than one war and the aims they pursue (and alliances they make) in each war are different. Therefore the phrase Syrian War refers to conglomerate of wars closely related to and reinforcing each other (note: and not the ‘Syria’s war’ as sometimes referred to by observers—it is not, if ever has been, solely Syria’s internal conflict due to many external interests and interventions before and after the violent conflict erupted).

Conditionally, we can distinguish between two groups of wars by their aim: one is fought directly in the Syrian power contest and another group comprises various proxy wars which are about strategic positioning in Syria and in the region (among others, through the favourable to them outcome of the former group of wars).

Three wars are fought for direct power control in Syria. The difference is that two of them are internal Syrian political struggle by violent means, while the latter is the fight against an (originally) alien element.

One is a civil war. It started from the violent confrontation between the opposition-turned rebels and the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, back in 2011. Opposition, in turn, is not united and various rebel groups pursue their own agendas, driven by different ideologies and are supported by different set of external backers (who, in their turn, happen to be rivals in one proxy war but allies or neutrals in others). Both the government and the diverse opposition, however, share one feature—the resolve. The government does not intend to give up the power while the opposition wants to take it all, does not want to share it with Assad (the most recent proposal by opposition is yet another proof).

This winner-takes-all, zero sum game has a number of implications. More protracted it is, more resources it demands, more atrocities are committed, and fewer chances are left for its ultimate resolution. And under the resolution I mean not only a negotiated peace deal but also the post-war governance, stabilization, reconciliation, and rebuilding the country’s devastated physical and social infrastructure.

Another war is the one initiated by militant Islamist groups which took advantage of power vacuum and mess created by the civil war, to occupy territories in pursuit of their own goals. The goal of ISIL is to establish a self-ruled caliphate on Syrian soil. The goal of al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadist militants is to grab as much as possible of power, in order to control the Syrian state in the future. Originally they were alien to Syrian political context, but in the course of five-and-half years managed to become part of it, through military campaign and skilfully manoeuvring and taking advantage of uncompromising stands.

Initially in the shadow of these two but growing prominent over time and creating yet another set of proxy wars associated with it is the war of Syrian Kurds. The Kurds, too, aim at reshaping the power balance in Syria in their own favour—getting at least a recognised autonomous region, if not an independent state. By establishing de facto the territory of Rojava under their control in the north, they advanced their cause but further complicated the issues for external actors working to end the war (in firsthand the complication between two NATO members, Turkey and the US).

Proxy wars derive from those three wars and thus, are diverse and intricate on their own while also overlapping, confusing and conflicting with each other.  Take just a few examples: regime of Assad is supported by Russia and Iran, while the opposition is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia with other Persian Gulf Arab countries. On the other hand the US, Turkey, Russia and Iran fight against ISIL. Saudi Arabia also backs non-ISIL Islamist groups which in turn support Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It appears that Saudi Arabia and Turkey also are backing jihadist groups that fight to bring Assad down. The US strongly backs the Kurdish forces, but Turkey, with support of opposition groups backed by the Turkish Armed Forces, has drawn its troops to the north to counter them under premise of fighting ISIL, but actually seizing over twenty villages from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a coalition consisting of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition groups) south of Jarabulus. And the list goes on and on, with these and many other smaller players entering the game.

The wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, with no end in sight. The Syrian wars have one thing in common—all are about power and influence in Syria and for some, broader, in the Middle East region. Because of multiple overlaps, the wars which started with a distinct aim became increasingly integrated over time, thus developing toward single, rounded, all-encompassing ‘Perfect War’.

The wars overlap in their drivers, incentives, and aims. They also wars overlap geographically, with a number of epicentres (such as Aleppo) attracting interests of all parties. They overlap in terms of actors involved in each war (or dimension of it), who keep adapting to fast changing circumstances on the ground, at times pursuing their goals by multiple tactical means, switching sides, merging their campaigns with those actors whom they have seemingly irreconcilable differences at strategic level—and thus contributing to increased intertwining and integration of wars and actors.

The integration of wars is driven mostly through the moves of the actors on the ground. Broad variety of them, from government forces to various governments sponsored militia and paramilitaries, to mercenaries and terrorists are involved on almost all sides. Some of them fight in different fronts even within one war, while others are involved in multiple war endeavours. The uncompromising stand of both indigenous sides to the civil war (Syrian government and opposition) only strengthens the hand of those who want to proliferate from this situation (terrorist organisations such as ISIL and ever more, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham/former Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda), by offering them an opportunity to dig deeper into political process at the expense of Syrian moderate opposition groups.

Syrian opposition movement has not been homogeneous from the outset. However, certain categorisation of them, in terms of ideologies and the means they employed was still possible. Today, and for quite some time already it is very difficult to distinguish between ‘moderate’ rebels and ‘extremists’ as the former are increasingly radicalised and, in desperation, many of them join forces with jihadist groups.

On the other hand, Islamist militants and terrorists gradually become part of the civil war, mix with rebels and thus pose a risk of highjacking the (whatever violent) Syrian internal political contest. This enormously complicates the otherwise ‘wicked problem’ faced by the original parties to the conflict (and those external actors interested in the outcome), as in terms of fighting the war (for example targeting the localities for air strikes) so with regards to agreeing a deal and power sharing in the future political set-up.

The result of this integration is that, by compensating each other’s limitations, the Syrian wars evolve into one self-sustaining conflict—the Perfect War—that is fought for its own sake, is self-sufficient in terms of attracting resources and satisfying its needs, and can last permanently. Some of these currently semi-integrated wars already show indications of being fought for the sake of the fight itself—they became an end in itself for their participants who either don’t have any clear ideological agenda and affiliation or are simply benefitting from the war economically, politically, ideologically, and even psychologically.

Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts and develop and implement a series of limited tasks to address them. The situation in Syria is out of control. There is no such power in the world—individual or collective—that controls or can control it. Before the full integration of Syrian wars happens (and everything indicates that situation evolves exactly in this direction) a fundamentally new approach to finding solution must be employed. One such approach is breaking down the overall task (of ending the conflict and putting the country on the route of stabilization) into smaller tasks that can be managed flexibly and adaptively and can produce results.

In complex environments and systems a failure (whatever small) in one element may unintentionally trigger a chain of uncontrollable failures of large magnitude all around the system and thus lead to disastrous outcomes. This is especially characteristic of systems with interactive, tightly correlated dimensions and elements. The Syrian war definitely belongs to such systems, and we have seen numerous implications of one seemingly small failure complicating and paralysing the entire progress toward resolution.

The general rule is that if there is high uncertainty, many alternatives, and small information available (and thus, high risk) the decision making shall be simple and tactical. For that, an overarching objective shall be broken down into small manageable tasks and sub-tasks adapted to environment and the structure of information and dynamics it offers, and then act upon them carrying out multiple moves, simultaneously and/or subsequently, in various places and directions with an achievable goal set for each. Another condition is that the tasks shall be decoupled (although well coordinated) to extent possible so that to isolate their failures from affecting other tasks. This is where Less becomes More, in terms of the outcome.

Decoupling of processes and system elements has long been recognised as powerful risk management technique. In business, especially when corporations endeavour in a new, risky market  or set a new business line they establish affiliate companies to protect the mother company from damages (financial and image related) from the new project’s failure.

Interestingly enough, this approach is already being undertaken in the Syrian war framework. Take, for example, the attempts of US and Russia to establish a ceasefire in Aleppo, to allow delivering humanitarian aid (in spite of principal differences in stands with regard to the future of Assad). Or consider the recent deal between the Syrian government and the rebels, on surrendering the Damascus suburb Daraya (note: not the surrender of rebels who along with other civilian population were evacuated with weapons, but the locality or whatever ruins remain of it)—an example that small-scale, localised tasks are manageable. Another possible limited task (conditional on the success of ceasefire attempt) is to share the US intelligence in order to enable Russian forces to target Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—something that certain narrow-thinking observers failed to comprehend and appreciate as a demonstration of flexibility and adaptation to circumstances.

The adversaries have been ahead of the game in terms of decoupling, though. Their recent manoeuvring with rebranding Jabhat al-Nusra into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (thus pretending to dissociate from al-Qaeda) and a subsequent ‘defection’ of a fraction from the former, to create their own group—all clearly demonstrate that. The algorithm is simple. Jabhat al-Nusra decouples from al-Qaeda to undertake a new project, to portray itself as and to become solely Syrian actor in order to partner with rebels and eventually influence the political opposition movement. This is a new business, that is why it formally announces the change of name (although does not claim that it cuts ties with the mother organisation thus decouples, dissociates from its global branding while creating new image, localised and tailored to the limited task). But that’s not all. There is more to do for al-Qaeda in Syria, for example attracting other jihadist groups and taking them under own umbrella or continue fighting foreigners, the role left vacant after demolishing the Khorassan group by the US airstrikes. Therefore, another decoupling move follows—this time, creation of a fraction under premise of deflection from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. This new group most probably will deal with Nusra’s traditional business but formally won’t be linked to it, in order not to harm the mainstream activity.

Redefining the strategies and tactics. The goal of establishing a lasting peace in Syria and setting the country and its political system on the route of stabilisation can be achieved by redefining the engagement strategy. Large scale military campaigns can be accepted as only one of a means to an end: pulling out ISIL form occupied territories and decapitating radical militant groups are necessary but not sufficient for achieving the ultimate goal. Neither are high-level (presumably representative and all-inclusive) peace talks with (unrealistic as of this day) agenda of installing new or transitional central government. The daily job of progressing toward the desirable end-state in Syria is through numerous, random, tactical interventions aimed at searching for, understanding, and strengthening the existing opportunities for peace and strengthening local resilient capacity. The way to stabilisation in Syrian lies through those seemingly low-intensity positive shocks that have a potential to end the chaos.


About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.

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