Shifting alliances in an anarchical system: the case of the Syrian conflict

Tuesday 19 November 2019
Ola Rifai

The Syrian conflict presents an excellent case study for students of international relations theories, in particular to those interested in realpolitik and the power of alliances. According to Hans Morgenthau -the distinguished theorist of classical realism- “the historically most important manifestation of balance of power… Is to be found … In the relations between one nation and another alliance ” (Morgenthau 1959:189). Undoubtedly, alliances are central for state formation as well as for state survival. However, Alliances are more ephemeral than durable especially in war time. Well, history is full of examples.

As regards the Syrian case, the shifting alliances seem to play a paradoxical role while aiming to balance power, they reproduce chaotic situations which in turn swing the balance of power.

Throughout the course of the conflict, alliances have shifted rapidly and drastically and henceforth redrawing the road map accordingly.

Indeed, there are five alliances which play key roles in the Syrian drama and which are responsible for what Syrian map looks like today.

First, is the historical alliance between the regime and Iran that has pursued the survival of both state actors. The Syrian regime’s very existence is essential to Tehran and parallels its national security; and has not changed since the days of Hafiz al-Asad and Khomeini until today. Throughout the conflict, this alliance has been vital to help the Assad regime in retaining power. However, the most lethal implication of it was the sectarianization of the conflict that in turn has triggered a Sunni reaction. Regardless of the shift in power during all stages of the conflict, this alliance remains the only durable one, developments might twist it but have not weakened it so far.

The Second is a short-term alliance that lasted mainly in the first three years of the uprising (which turned into a conflict); it is the one between some factions of the Syrian opposition and Gulf States, namely; Saudi and Qatar. Although both countries are rivals, they both allied themselves with different factions of the Syrian opposition supplying them with insufficient funds and arms, which were only good enough to challenge the regime and to prolong the conflict without imposing a radical change to the balance of power on the ground. Moreover, it resulted in the militarisation of the conflict. Hitherto, this alliance between state and non-state actors has shifted power on the ground on the short term as the roles of Gulf states in the Syrian drama has been marginalised due to internal conflict between Qatar and Saudi, the Saudi war on Yemen and the change within the political elite in the Kingdom.

The third alliance is that between the United States and the Syrian Kurds; the main objective for the US is to eliminate the Islamic State (IS) and to this end the Americans supplied the Kurdish militias with advanced arms and funds. No doubt that this alliance changed the balance of power since the Kurds emerged as a strong actor securing their enclaves, and they did succeed in ending the presence of IS in Northeastern Syria. Nevertheless, Mr. Trump decided to shift this alliance last month when he declared intentions to withdraw troops from Syria, and later announced that he might keep 200 soldiers to guard the oil resources bordering Iraq, rather than guarding his friends the Kurds. Mr. Trump did not protect the loyal Kurdish ally in facing a vehement military operation carried out by Turkey. And henceforth, he lost leverage not only over the Kurds, but in Syria and the region. This would absolutely result in a dangerous vacuum on the ground provoking more chaos.

The fourth alliance is that between Russia and the Syrian regime that been in place since September 2015. This alliance changed the power balance radically, and as many observers believe, it safeguarded the Syrian regime from a very close ‘end’ back then. In turn, the alliance yielded Russia a golden throne in the region for decades to come. Although, it served the self-interests for both sides, the big winner from this alliance seems to be the Russians, as they have the upper hand and therefore, they can shift alliances and swing the power whenever it serves their end, which they did by joining Turkey and other rival powers in the following alliance.

The last one is that between Turkey and some factions of the Syrian opposition; namely the Arab Sunni fighters who once fought under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. From the onset, Turkey played a crucial role and fluctuated stances with every stage of the Syrian conflict. The main objective of this alliance is to contain the Kurdish threat as well as securing power in Syria. The Turkish Prime Minster, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, supplied limited funding to various militias and supported political figures while welcoming more than 3 million refugees into Turkish territories. Also, Erdogan turned a blind eye to the influx of Jihadis coming from all over the world into Syria through the Turkish southern borders, which radicalised the conflict and created a Jihadi zone neighbouring the Kurdish areas. Driven by a Machiavellian logic, Erdogan succeeded in uniting rival powers and crafting an alliance with Russia and Iran whom he ideologically and politically is at the odds with. In Sept 2019 Erdogan, the President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani smiled at cameras while indulging in Turkish sweets after their ‘productive’ summit in Ankara. The picture seemed impossible a couple of years ago. Yet, alliances shift and so does the power balance, hence Mr. Trump did not oppose the Turkish military operation against the Kurds and decided to withdraw his soldiers. Nor did the Syrian regime’s tanks which are parked a couple of kilometres away engage against the invasion. The Turkish -backed Syrian National Army – umbrella group consisting of many militias with a majority of Arab Sunni fighters some of them were fighting with FSA while the others were fighting with Salafi militias -was shadowing Turkish troops and has been accused of war crimes. This offensive which was labelled by Erdogan ‘Operation Peace Spring’ occurred from October 9th to 17th and aimed to establish a buffer zone, 32 kilometres in depth, in Northern Syria with the towns of Ras al Ayn and Tal Abyad coming under Turkish control. Turkey pursues to eliminate the military capacity of the Kurdish military forces (YPJ) and to resettle 2 million refugees there. Certainly, the implications of this operation are lethal for Syria’s future, because in the first place it is drawing visible boundaries between identity groups that are already struggling for power. And because it is dangerously changing the demography in northern Syria. This so-called ‘Spring of Peace Operation’ would catalyse a spring of blood for many generations, a spring that would flood beyond borders. Erdogan’s alliance that he crafted with Arab Sunni fighters continues to escalate identity clashes and hinder state building.

Therefore, as argued earlier, alliances formed during the Syrian conflict are shifting to parallel national interests of each actor. Yet they swing the balance of power and destabilise the already chaotic situation. They are crafted to achieve short-term goals, and this has fatal outcomes for all players in such an anarchic system.

Lastly, there might be some lessons that should be drawn;

For Kurds, the long-standing dream of establishing an independent state is neither realistic nor achievable. It lacks the necessary geographical and demographical factors and lacks the resources. The only rational choice is to achieve a sort of autonomous power within the Syrian body. A form of decentralisation.

For Arabs, the dark pre-2011 status for Kurds is gone forever. They have legitimate rights that should be acknowledged.

For all Syrians, state and non-state entrepreneurs engaged in the Syrian drama are manipulating Syrians for their own ends. Survival lies in compromise and unity, building a state that is based on democracy and citizenship rights.

Alas, more blood might be shed before such lessons would be heard. However, pictures streaming from neighbours in Lebanon and Iraq, who for the first time in history have been driven by socio-economic factors to depart their identity boxes, might trigger Syrians as well to march one step toward state building.

*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.


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