The Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War has become a very violent and complicated conflict that has consumed the nation of Syria as well as the involvement of its neighboring states. This war began through a nonviolent, peaceful protest in 2011. Since then, the conflict has escalated into what it is today, a complete warfare (Marks, 1). The state’s core struggle is captivated between the forces that are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels who oppose his leadership. The main disagreement is over whether Mr. Assad’s government should remain in power. As this debate has progressed, numerous states, rebel assemblies, and terrorist parties have become engaged in the cause. In addition to the various groups and parties, this continuous war has pulled in a number of foreign powers including the United States and Russia. Based on the severity of this conflict and its ability to capture the attention of these greater world powers, I have chosen to assess this event under the lens of a realist’s perspective.
Historical Background: The Syrian Civil War began due to many reasons; however, the Arab Spring is the most notable event, and in many ways, is seen as the spark for this devastating war (Marks, 1). The Arab Spring began in Egypt and Tunisia at the beginning of 2011, with a sequence of several political and economic protests. The civilians of these two countries protested peacefully against their authoritarian governments in favor of replacing their leadership with a democracy. This resulted in success, and inspired activists in Syria to do the same. Unfortunately, Syria’s outcome has not produced similar results.
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It began with the arrest and torment of 15 Syrian schoolchildren, who were caught writing graffiti that was motivated by the Arab Spring in early March of that year (Marks, 1). This tragic event broke into rallies from citizens all across Syria for the demand and freedom of the children and the demand for more liberty to the people. President Bashar al-Assad and his government responded to these demonstrations through acts of violence, resulting in the death of many civilians. The people of Syria were horrified and astounded by Assad’s actions and commanded for his resignation. With little to no power, the people of Syria could not force him to step down, and with Assad and his government refusing to resign, the creation of a Civil War was inevitable. Fighting broke out across the entire country of Syria, with the rebels on one side and Assad and his followers on the other.
Assad and his government are considered the minority group, but they have strong support from the military and security services, allowing them to easily turn towards violence (Fisher, 1). The fighting only worsened when numerous external factors came into play, specifically the United States and Russia. The networking of these foreign interventions continues to perpetuate the war, with each side having a different agenda.
Realist Analysis: The realist school of thought ultimately revolves around the concept of power. The Greek Philosopher Thucydides interoperates this theory best by explaining how a state is much like human nature in the sense that it is greedy for power (Thucydides, Melian Dialogue). Realists like Thucydides, believe that states are rational, individual, actors who prefer more power to less and view international politics as a ceaseless and unlimited struggle for power. Realists see this power as the most valuable commodity, and, according to Thomas Hobbes, the only way to assure and preserve relative power is through military or weapons (Hobbes, Leviathan). Hobbes and many other realists believe that the only reason that war occurs is based on the fact that there will always be a never-ending struggle for power.
The Syrian Civil War is a continuing conflict over who has the most power and who will be able to maintain it. With both the US and Russia intervening with different agendas, the ultimate goal between the two actors is the acquisition of relative power. The US intervened in Syria’s Civil War after Assad’s second attack and usage of chemical weapons on his own civilians (Manfreda, 1). Chemical weapons have been banned by international conventions for many years (the Geneva Convention), and after Assad’s second attack on his own people, the US stepped in to hold him accountable.
Not only does this show the power of the US military, but it shows how the US holds a greater responsibility internationally. One may argue that these acts of international engagement express the ideals of a realist. Because we live in a world of anarchy, larger and more resource-abundant states, such as the US, display their power and global presence by dictating the internal affairs of smaller states, like Syria. The US intervened in Syria in order to remind the world how powerful of a state the US is and how the state of Syria needs to be held accountable when it breaks international law. However, the US had other motivations for entering into a conflict with Syria.
The US has insisted that Assad’s regime step down to ensure the decline of Iran’s power. The outcome of these motives would provide the US with an upper hand on the region, and a larger influence globally. With Syria being the only Arab state allied closely to Iran’s affairs, the US finds it crucial to use preventative action and cut ties between the two powers. Iran is a potential developing hegemon of the Middle East (Gerschwer, 1), with this looming threat, a realist would enforce the US to act and ensure global dominance. Before, the US’s foreign policy has requested there to be a stability of power between Iran and Iraq, and both of those states have allowed the US to back them through military spending and the selling of weapons.
Now that Iraq is no longer a regional influence, Iran has had the opportunity to become the regional superpower. So, in order to keep Iran from continuing its effects on more Middle Eastern states or even beyond the Middle East, the US stresses for the hindrance of the military of Iran and Russia in order to stop the state from affecting other states and non-state actors (Lammon & Eishen, 1). This is important for the US because Iran is dependent on Syria to gain support from the Hezbollah; thus, if Syria’s government changes, it will impact Iran and its power to provoke Israel, Europe, and the US with its disposed delegation. Meaning, if Assad steps down, a new regime in Syria may not back the Hezbollah, which would then affect Iran’s power (Gerschwer, 2). But, when looking at a realist point of view, the US needs to be aware of the effects of destabilization in Syria.
If Assad and his regime end up backing down, who will take his role as a leader? This matters for a realist because the interests of the US may or may not be better served with a new regime. That is why this war is very crucial to the US. Along with the US, Russia is also very involved in the Syrian Civil War. Russia, being an ally to Syria, wants to maintain its influence as a great power without the intervention of the US. Russia has sold many weapons to Assad and his government and has also continued to offer Syria diplomatic protection through the United Nations. Since Syria is one of Russia’s few allies, Russia has been able to uphold a military base on their land. This is essential to Russia because it is one of the only military bases that is not located in their state (Max, 2).
This is important because it gives Russia power in the Middle East. The reason for Russia wanting power through Syria in the Middle East is because of its geostrategic influence. Syria is close to Iran which matters to Russia because if Syria’s current regime falls, then the US will have a chance to help Syria gain a democratic institution. If this happens, Iran will be isolated which is the main concern for Russia, and if that occurs, then Russia will have no influence in the Middle East, and the US will be seen as the main power state for that region (Gershwer, 3). Russia considers the US as a superpower, even though this concept does not hold validity when it comes to the international system (Gershwer, 4).
However, Russia continues its conflict with the US over the interest of this title. In a realist perspective, Russia is competing for this power because of the state’s perception of the zero-sum rule. Meaning, if one actor has more power, the other actor has less. Russia wants to preserve its power and influence over Syria in order to secure more power over the US. That is why it is crucial to Russia that Syria remains its ally in order to prevent the US from influencing the Middle East. Counter Argument: While I believe realism to be the main cause and determinant of this continuing war, some may argue that this Civil War can also be viewed with a neorealist perspective. Neorealist individuals, such as Waltz, would look at this Civil War as a war for survival and security, not just power alone. Power is still important to the means of survival; however, security is the reasoning behind it, which is different than what realists believe. Neorealism also argues that state security can be influenced through the helping of a states’ allies.
This, through the lens of a neorealist, impacts the Syrian Civil War because it brings the attention to international anarchy in the sense that the US and Russia only intervened based on their need for relative security. A neorealist could argue that the US became involved in Syria’s conflict in order to make sure that Russia has no control over Syria’s security problems or political and economic stability (Gershwer, 2). Which then, in turn, relates to the US and its states’ security due to Russia being allied with Syria. If Russia can maintain and hold influence over Syria, then Syria, with its influence on Iran, can have the ability to hold threats on the US with the backing of Russia. This is also relevant to Russia and its security if the US were able to help Syria become a democratic institution, leaving Iran isolated, and Russia with no influence in the Middle East.
This would lead to Russia’s security being at risk with no allies in the Middle East, and the US holding major influence in the region. However, these states in the Middle East are considered small when compared to Russia and the US. The risk of them attacking the US or Russia is very unlikely. Also, when looking at the neorealist perspective on the security dilemma, it does not hold influence over the US and Russia because those two states provide Syria with military weapons. Therefore, if Syria wanted to have an arms race with either country, it would not hold a great enough threat to either countries’ security. That is why the neorealist perspective does not hold validity over the realist perspective. Survival and security are not the main reasons why these two great states became involved, but rather the need to maintain their power internationally. Conclusion: The never-ending struggle for power in the Syrian Civil War is comprised of two major world powers.
The US, who backs the Syrian rebel groups and Russia, which supports the Assad regime. The realist school of thought explains how the US demands an end to Assad’s regime in order to diminish the potential power of Iran. If the US is able to carefully change Syria’s regime, Iran will no longer be able to cause problems in the Middle East or the rest of the world. Russia is also the main actor in this war as the state is an important ally to Syria. This allows Russia to have an influence in the Middle East with the hope of maintaining its power and undermining the US. Through realist notions, the Syrian Civil War can be seen as self-interested with different state actors determined for power in the Middle East.
Fisher, Max. Straightforward Answers to Basic Questions About Syria’s War.The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Jan. 2018, Internet resource. Gerschwer, Scott. The Realist Looks at Syria.Academia.edu – Share Research, Hobbes, Thomas, and J C. A. Gaskin. Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Internet resource. Lammon, Adam, and Jacob Eishen. A Realist Approach to Syria.The National Interest, The Center for the National Interest, 9 July 2018, Internet resource. Manfreda, Primoz. What Is the US Role in Syria Now?Thoughtco., Dotdash, 3 Dec. 2017, Internet resource. Marks, Julie. Why Is There a Civil War in Syria?History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Sept. 2018, Internet resource. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. London: Penguin, 1954. Voinea, Emanuela. Realism Today.E-International Relations, 1 Mar. 2013, Internet resource.