How to end Syria'€™s 'new war'

The Syrian conflict is more complex than wars of yore and requires a different approach

November 13, 2013 8:00AM ET
Opposition fighters hold a position behind burning tires in the Syrian city of Aleppo in October.
Tarek Abu al-Fahem/AFP/Getty Images

The much-delayed Geneva II talks, meant to discuss an end to the war in Syria and scheduled to take place last week, have been postponed once again, with no new date set. Meanwhile, in Syria there will be more deaths, more hardship and disease, more people forced to leave their homes, more kidnappings and rapes, more trauma.

Even if the talks do take place soon, can such top-level negotiations — those that involve the Assad government, outside government powers and, putatively, representatives of the opposition — end the violence? Commentators and policymakers tend to see the Syrian crisis through the lens of past wars; we assume that what is going on is a contest of wills between two organized sides that both represent parts of the population. In this reading, all we need to do is to bring the parties to the negotiating table and reach an agreement. But the war in Syria is much more complex than that. And we must understand its character if we are serious about seeking peace.  

A ‘new war’

Syria’s conflict is typical of what I call a "new war." New wars are fought not by regular armed forces but by transnational networks of state and nonstate actors. The rebels are a motley group that includes individuals who took up arms to defend their families, defectors from the Syrian army, Islamist groups (including groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and recruits from all over the world), Kurdish militias and criminal gangs (many of whom were released from prison by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad early in the conflict) as well as those who see themselves as championing democracy through the use of force. On the government side are militias like the shabiha as well as transnational nonstate groups like Hezbollah.

New wars are usually fought in the name of exclusive political identities (ethnic or religious). The violence in Syria began when the Assad regime started to shell and shoot at peaceful protesters who were calling for democracy and the removal of the regime. But Assad’s narrative — of terrorism, jihadism and sectarianism — risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: It has begun to transform what was a melting pot of multicultural tolerance into increasingly bitter Alawite and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, Kurd and Arab divisions. Moreover, these sectarian rifts can deepen as geopolitical divisions between Russia and the U.S. or Iran and Saudi Arabia latch onto them in the interest of those countries' own geopolitical rivalries.

In new wars, battles are rare, and violence is primarily directed against civilians. The Assad regime pursues a scorched-earth policy against rebel-held areas — reminiscent of ethnic cleansing during the war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, which in many ways is the archetypal example of a new war. Shelling by regular forces is augmented by forced detention and atrocities (including torture and sexual abuse) undertaken by government-supported militias. For their part, some rebels also violate human rights and use violence against civilians as a way of controlling territory.

And finally, in new wars, unlike old wars, the formal economy tends to collapse, and a transnational, informal and predatory war economy is established. In Syria this means that outside money and arms are channeled into illicit activities such as looting, kidnapping, “taxation” at checkpoints and smuggling of various types — as well as the unlicensed extraction and transportation of oil. There are many reported examples of collusion between government forces and rebel groups involving the exchange of arms, oil and prisoners for money and for control of supply routes.

An international agreement on Syria should aim to delegitimize violence and legitimize civil-society work.

Whereas old wars tended to be contests of wills between organized warring parties that could be solved through outright victory or through political talks, new wars, by contrast, are complex mutual enterprises in which the various parties benefit from the ongoing conflict itself rather than from winning. The sectarian divisions that drive the politics of many of these groups are being constructed — and perpetuated — through violence. The war economy allows these groups to raise revenue that funds the violence for its own sake. This is why new wars are so difficult to end. They tend to persist because this is the only way the opposing parties are able to hold on to their political and economic gains. New wars tend to spread because they foster sectarian ideologies and because the resultant war economy leads to increased interdependence. Adding to the instability are refugees and displaced people as well as new smuggling networks (for weapons, oil and a range of goods and people). The losers are often those who care about the public interest — the civil society that is targeted by all sides.

Supporting local efforts

So how can new wars like Syria’s be resolved? Complex situations require complex solutions. The solutions must be both top-down and bottom-up; high-level talks in Geneva must respond to developments on the ground, while local efforts to improve everyday security must be able to access what is happening in the international arena. At the top level, there must be talks focused on the humanitarian crisis. Even if a political agreement between Assad and the rebels were possible, such an agreement would have little to do with democracy; it would legitimize those with guns and serve only to entrench the newly emerging politics of identity espoused by the various groups. Rather, international efforts should be aimed at supporting bottom-up efforts to stop the violence, such as those by civil-society groups and local administrative councils that try to negotiate local cease-fires and provide humanitarian services. For example, a cease-fire was organized by civil-society groups in Ras al-Ain; local cease-fires have also been negotiated in several suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus.

These civil groups would be best supported if outside powers were to agree to stop the flow of arms and money to armed groups on all sides and put pressure on their allies to stop killing civilians. Outside powers could also strengthen local cease-fires by deploying international monitors or mediators, establishing safe havens, increasing humanitarian access and assistance, and arresting, when possible, war criminals. At present, unlike with many new wars, the international community’s presence in Syria is minimal. While there are many Islamist nongovernmental organizations, the main international NGOs in Syria are Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross (although some other groups like Save the Children and the Norwegian Refugee Council are undertaking small projects). An international humanitarian presence is important to offer support and reassurance to ordinary people. The aim of the international agreement should thus be to delegitimize violence and to legitimize civil-society work, creating a framework in which the political future of Syria may be discussed without fear.

Some have argued that the recent chemical weapons agreement — the decision by Assad to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and dismantle chemical stocks under international supervision — is a setback. The prohibition of chemical weapons may seem to legitimize other forms of violence and strengthen Assad. On the other hand, the fact that countries like Iran and Russia joined the international condemnation of the horrific chemical attacks in Ghouta may betoken the possibility that some kind of international agreement might be reached on humanitarian grounds. Perhaps the Geneva II talks could focus on an international agreement that excludes the warring parties and includes only those nonviolent civil-society groups trying to stop violence at local levels. An international agreement that refuses to allow sectarian divisions to be reproduced at a geopolitical level and aims to weaken the new war economy could serve as a model of how to end new wars.

Mary Kaldor is a professor of global governance and the director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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