CSS at 2022 annual BRISMES Conference

Wednesday 20 July 2022


On July 4-6 the Institute of the Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies (MECACS) at the University of St Andrews hosted the 2022 annual British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) conference Exploring and Contesting the (Re)Production of Coloniality in the Middle East: Borders, Transnationalism, and Resistance.

Throughout three days of panels, the conference covered a variety of interesting topics that fall within and beyond the Conference’s focus on coloniality. The Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS) participated with two panels which included CSS students and fellows.

The First panel Syria in its External Environment: Manipulation, Accommodation, and Resistance organised by Kasia Durkan, University of St Andrews and Chaired by Dr. Fiona McCallum Guiney, University of St Andrews.

This panel assesses Syria’s relations with its main external and transnational influences. From its time under the Ottoman Empire and French Mandate to its tumultuous new independence, conflict with Israel and union with Egypt and Iraq under the United Arab Republic, to its experience with the Arab Uprisings and civil war in which transnational non-state and external state actors have played a key role, Syria has been shaped by its manipulation by, accommodation of, and resistance to its external environment. This panel specifically focuses on Syria’s trajectory since the Uprising and the role of external and transnational influences on this path. It particularly highlights the growing transnationality of the conflict actors, normalisation trends with the regime, and the way in which a pro-democracy movement initiated by the Syrian people has been transformed into a proxy war by the complex relations between external, local, and transnational forces. Since the Syrian Uprising, which had its beginnings in a political reform movement spanning the Middle East, the influence of global powers, such as the US, Russia, and China, regional powers, namely Turkey, Iran, and the Arab Gulf states, and transnational Islamist movements, most notably the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have influenced the trajectory of the Syrian conflict and the emerging post-conflict order. This panel assesses the main trends, patterns and relations between these local, external, and transnational forces and the impacts this has had on Syrian politics, economics, and society. 

Kasia Durkan (PhD candidate at School of International Relations, St Andrews University) presented a paper on Russia in the Syrian Conflict: An Imperial Power? Russia’s intervention in Syria brought the Asad regime from the precipice of collapse to near full control of the country. Consequently, Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict has had profound repercussions for Syria’s political development and future post-war sociopolitical and political economic structures. Moscow has consistently asserted the need for Syria to maintain its sovereignty and resist external intervention. All the while, Russia has entrenched itself within Syria’s military and economic infrastructure, with consequences for Syria’s governance, economy, and society. While Russia’s aims for intervening in Syria have been the subject of significant scholarly debate, this paper assesses the consequences on Syria, and whether these (re)produce or break colonial structures. Syria’s pre-war state-society relations were moulded by its colonial past and sowed the seeds for the current conflict and Damascus’ relationship with its wartime allies. The discourse in official Russian documents, and speeches, comments, and articles from Kremlin officials since the collapse of the USSR conveys Moscow’s perceived need to counter Western material and normative hegemony. To this end, the Kremlin has exploited the Syrian conflict by contributing to Syria’s, and Asad’s, international isolation, by eliminating any alternative to the regime and backing its violent campaign. In this way, Moscow secured exclusive influence over the strongest actor in Syria. Russia has subsequently reaped rewards. By assisting in the decimation of Syria’s industry and infrastructure, Moscow has gained near monopolies over the reconstruction and future operation of Syria’s most lucrative industry, hydrocarbons, inducing Damascus’ dependence on Russian technologies and operational expertise. Moscow has also gained a large stake in Syria’s security architecture; its permanent bases in Syria and the Russian-led 5th Corps of the Syrian Arab Army represent potential proxification tools within Syria’s security architecture, the lynch pin of Asad’s rule. Russia faces challenges to its immediate capitalisation on its political, military, and financial investments in Syria; Moscow, therefore, represents a latent, informal imperial power in Syria. 

At the same panel, Dan Wang (PhD candidate in the school of Government and International Affairs, Durham University) presented her research on China’s role in the Syrian Civil War: An honest broker or an indifferent role player?

China’s role in the Syrian conflict has been understudied due to its limited involvement compared to the US, Russia, and regional countries. Since the outbreak of the conflict, China has branded itself as an impartial, patient, objective, and responsible power that genuinely mediates between different parties to push for a political resolution. Indeed, China has initiated mediation diplomacy and appointed its first-ever special envoy for the Syrian issue to mark its effort for achieving a political solution. Nevertheless, it is important to consider to what extent such mediation diplomacy is effective. Wang’s research delves into the gap by examining China’s mediation diplomacy in the Syrian conflict through the theoretical framework of quasi-mediation proposed by Degang Sun and Zoubir in their paper analyzing China’s participation in conflict resolution in the Middle East and North Africa and relies on both Chinese and English primary and secondary sources. It is argued that China’s mediation in the Syrian conflict is not genuine mediation with substantial resources invested aiming to make change of the situation of the Syrian conflict. But rather a cautious and calculated low-level quasi-mediation in which China devoted insignificant diplomatic resources, mainly expounded its general position and principles in addressing the Syrian issue without laying down concrete plans, participated lightly in the context of mediation directed by other actors such as the Arab League and the United Nations, and carried out the facilitation between various parties at a very modest level. The explaining factors that account for China’s diplomatic decisions is that to fulfil a national image of a responsible great power in both the domestic and international arena and to defend its political interests, China adopted the neutral, peaceful and safe approach of mediation. However, due to its limited national interests in Syria, the high level of the intractability of resolving the Syrian conflict, and the lack of knowledge, experience, and capacity of China in dealing with both the Syrian government and the opposition forces, China has refrained itself from playing a significant role and investing substantial resources in its mediation in the resolution of the Syrian conflict.

In this light, Mohamad AlAshmar (PhD candidate at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews) looked at Russia’s Soft Power and Networks of Influence In the wake of the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, Moscow has developed a networking strategy that integrates tools drawn from humanitarian and relief assistance, development, and religious support, through the facilitation and support of the Russian NGOs in Syria. In line with the Hmeimim-based Russian Reconciliation Centre (RRC) operations and activities in Syria, Russian Muslim communities, Caucasian states (former-Soviet Islamic states), the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Imperial Palestinian Orthodox Society, with many other Kremlin-backed missions, associations, and charities from the Russia federation have started to operate in Syria. These missions and associations include Moscow-based NGOs, which have been accompanied by several Russian-backed initiatives and faith-based charities from Chechnya, Caucuses, Ingushetia, Armenia, and Belarus. This research focuses on types and patterns of Russia networking and soft power efforts through several supported organizations and missions in Syria. It looks in-depth on Russian-supported figures, actors, NGOs, and local partners used by Russia to implement projects, programmes and deliver assistance to the Syrian population by giving a brief about what kind of actors and linkages exists, and how they have been regularly operating from Syria since around 2015. The research focuses on Russian-supported Islamic charities, faith-based NGOs and member-based associations affiliated with the Kadyrov Foundation (a Chechen state-linked charitable organization), the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian political parties and groups, including local partners and their scope of operations. It argues that this strategy and complex array of NGOs and approaches applied by the Russia is to support the extension of its hard power in Syria. In other words, a reflection of Russia’s new policy of soft power, by maintaining and building its own grid of local elites, and religious and political groups, along with networking and planning to use these communities and leaders for the current and future scenarios of Syria. With Russia’s growing upper hand in key regions of Syria and in many sectors, the involvement of these broad ranges of Russian-supported players in humanitarian, religious, cultural and reconstruction actions have become larger and more significant. When it comes to comparing the Russian outreach to Muslim and Christian communities, both are approached through the diffuse and broad socialization within the loops of diverse local and national actors. With the Syrian Muslim communities, Russian-supported efforts and outreaches to Syrian Muslims and Syrian Islamic institutions are tied to Moscow’s clientelism approach within its overall para-diplomacy with the Islamic world. While within Christian communities, as a productive source of Russian power in Syria, the important difference is the historical role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Russian foreign diplomacy, and in Syria for decades. As a result, Russian efforts are based on patronage relationships with Syrian Christians and influencing and mobilizing ROC Syria specific thoughts and actions for Russian interests and values, that are functioning to create enabling environments for long-term plans in Syria.

Sharing the same, panel Zafer Nahhas (Syrian Centre for Policy Research) presented his research on the Forced displacement policies as a weapon: how did immigration policies in Turkey become drivers of conflict and instability in Syria.

With the influx of millions of forcibly displaced people from various Syrian regions to, and through Turkey, and to or through areas of Turkish influence in Syria, Turkey has emerged as a final safe haven, a temporary refuge, or a transit route for those fleeing the war. The government’s adoption of the new immigration and asylum system, the first of its kind, coincided with the largest refugee crisis in recent decades. Whereas Turkish policies in the issue of forcibly displaced persons can be viewed within three aspects. The first relates to dealing with external migration movements, primary (transit) or secondary; The second is related to the policies regulating the lives of Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey, and the third is related to the Syrians in the areas of Turkish influence inside Syria. Nahhas research discusses the aspects of using and investing in the Turkish immigration and asylum policies in managing the issues of Syrian refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers. these aspects include controlling crossings and borders, policies of recognition and support, Turkish-European agreements, and Turkish influence over the opposition, among others. He argues that Turkish policies, by politicising and securitising the issues of refugees, displaced persons, and asylum seekers in favour of a greater role and greater effectiveness for Turkey in the conflict; led to the manipulation of immigration decisions, and paradoxically strengthening push and pull factors, which increases instability and forms new drivers of conflict and increases social rift among Syrians

The second panel Entangled in a transnationalised quagmire: The global context of the Syrian conflict’s late period organised by Dr. Ferdinand Arslanian (University of St Andrews) and chaired by Dr. Jasmine Gani, (University of St Andrews). Owing to the multitude of global actors involved, the Syrian conflict represents a ‘paradigmatic’ case of globalised conflicts. More specifically, the conflict’s late stage (from 2017 onwards), which is associated with the demarcation of the country into spheres of influence, offers intriguing and insufficiently explored mechanisms related to the influence of transnational actors over the Syrian conflict in relation to their direct role in shaping its military dynamics and in managing its local affairs in addition to the influence of international humanitarian organisations, the impact of US extra-territorial sanctions on third parties’ economic engagement with the Syrian regime, the potential for refugees’ return and the fate of foreign fighters.

Speakers included Dr. Francesco Belcastro (Lecturer at the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences, University of Derby) who looked at domestic-international nexus in the Syrian Conflict.

In his presentation Are civil wars ever ‘civil’? The domestic-international nexus and the case of Syria Belcastro examines the relation between ‘domestic’ civil wars and ‘international’ conflict. Inter and intra state conflict are often treated as distinct and even mutually exclusive phenomena, however several recent conflicts defined as civil wars show significant areas of overlapping between domestic and international dimensions. His research explores the theoretical intersection between these two concepts, an understudied yet extremely important area. It does so by carrying out an in-depth analysis of the Syrian conflict. This war, defined as “civil” by observers, presents a complex interaction between domestic and international trajectories that place it simultaneously inside and outside of most definitions of civil war. The Syrian conflict started with a wave of peaceful protests within the context of the so called “Arab Spring”. As confirmed by recent studies (Philipps, 2016), regional and international powers attempted to influence the outcome of the conflict from its early stages, and the Syrian conflict gradually became an international as well as a domestic one.  By carrying out an analysis of the complex interaction between different dimensions present in the Syrian cases, this research seeks to contribute to a rethinking of the rigid separation between inter and intra state conflict.

At the same panel Dr. Haian Dukhan (St Andrews University) studies the manipulation of sectarian identity in Eastern Syria. In his presentation Sectarianism in Eastern Syria: how Historical Sociology and Instrumentalism Explain the Extant Political Dynamics.
Dukhan traces the rise of sectarianism in the governorates of Deir Ezzor and al-Hasakah aiming to answer two main questions: ‘what factors made sectarianism prevalent in eastern Syria in the decade preceding the civil war?’ and ‘in what way did the Syrian regime attempt to use the sectarian issue to mobilise people in eastern Syria?’ The primordial framework that considers sectarianism to be a consequence of ancient hatred between religious sects is firmly rejected in this paper. This paper shows that a better understanding of sectarianism can be found through a synthesis of historical sociology and instrumentalism. The historical sociology framework provides an understanding of how adverse socioeconomic conditions in Deir Ezzor and security threats in al-Hasakah have led to the rise of sectarianism in both governorates whilst instrumentalism explains how the regime, Iran, and the Islamists used sectarian identities to retain control over the population of Deir Ezzor and al-Hasakah.