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To reconstruct Syria and Iraq, first revisit the script


The civil wars in Syria and Iraq are coming to an end, or so it is believed. In line with common international practice and frames, the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and the de-facto victory of the Assad regime in Syria over most opposition forces will likely soon be seen as preludes to a new chapter for both countries, as well as starting points for European policy seeking to reestablish the core functions of the two governments. After all, what better way to build peace and consolidate the end of civil war than the reconciliation of communities and the reconstruction of their nation?

However, viewing Syria and Iraq as civil wars that are coming to an end is inaccurate and, if left unquestioned, risks informing inadequate policy decisions. Not merely because neither country can be considered ‘post-conflict’, but also because the label of civil war falls short of encompassing the respective conflict dynamics.

The cases of Syria and Iraq do correspond with our understanding of civil war when it comes to the societal trauma and scale of violence in civil wars, which ‘scythes through families, shatters communities, shapes nations [and] can scar imaginations for centuries to come.’[1] However, in at least three crucial ways common understandings of civil war do not fit the reality of Iraq or Syria.

First, civil wars are seen as primarily driven by internal dynamics rather than external ones. Their drivers are intra-community differences rather than foreign intervention. However, in Syria after 2011 and Iraq after 2014 - the generally recognised starting points of both civil wars - both conflict arenas have become hosts of proxy interests and foreign invasions, to an extent that it is difficult to distinguish between local and external developments. This is made all the more difficult because some foreign interventions were welcomed by specific groups, and rejected by others.

These external interventions triggered or fueled dynamics that may have otherwise taken a radically different shape. It is almost impossible to imagine what the Syrian opposition would have looked like today in the absence of Saudi Arabian and other external support.

Therefore, resolving the conflict dynamics in Syria and Iraq requires more than the reconciliation of communities inside these countries. Since much of this external meddling is informed by ‘existential’ paradigms where trust runs scarce – such as Saudi-Iranian competition or Russian-American rivalry – this is unlikely to happen anytime soon or with any degree of ease. Even though European policy cannot bridge these divides, it cannot afford to ignore them either.

Second, visible physical violence on a large intercommunal scale is the accepted indicator of the onset and duration of a civil war. And the absence of such violence is an accepted indicator of the end of civil war. However, this fails to account for the formal and informal lifelines of conflict in Iraq and Syria, which have not been dismantled or redirected, and which could easily lead to a resurgence in violence in the medium- to long-term.

This ties into the third aspect, which is that solutions to civil wars are generally sought in the restoration of central authority and governance as both a means and an end in the maintenance of peace. However, on a formal institutional level authoritarianism is still rampant in both Iraq and Syria. And although the history of authoritarianism is different in Iraq than in Syria, authoritarian government practices, crony capitalism, corruption, classism and nepotism maintain significant socio-economic grievances in both societies. These are the same grievances that played a role in the (violent) mobilization of individuals and communities in various waves in the past decades. To invest trust and resources in the same structures while hoping for a different societal impact would all but literally be Einstein’s definition of madness.

Informal lifelines of conflict also remain in place in Iraq and Syria. For example, non-state armed groups are able to survive economically in both countries through access to informal financial networks. ISIS, for example, has bounced back from its loss of territory and maintains financial revenues through the use of third party businessmen in Iraq. These non-ideological businessmen have no previous links with ISIS, and are therefore not on any blacklists. For a stake in the profit, they help ISIS reinvest the approximated $400 million it smuggled out of Iraq and Syria in official and informal businesses.[2] These same informal or semi-formal financial networks provide a crucial lifeline for many regular citizens, so there is no simple answer to dismantling or redirecting them without harming other Iraqis, not even in the teachings of good governance reform.

It is not a mere matter of semantics to problematize the framing of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts as civil wars. Understanding that the nature and status of both conflicts is profoundly ‘hybrid’ in terms of both their current status and the possibilities for their resolution should inform policy approaches that are responsive to this reality. A first approach informed by this understanding is to let go of centrally-oriented security sector reform and good governance solutions, and to accept that in both Iraq and Syria it is both unlikely and undesirable to reinstate a strong central authority in the short-term and under current conditions.

A second approach can be sought closer to home, in the absence of European support for reconstruction in Syria: investment in the Syrian diaspora. Diaspora communities can play a huge role in the future of their nation upon return, if they 1) are given the opportunities needed to develop on their own terms in their host nations and 2) are indeed able to return to their country of origin. By working closely with Syrian communities in various countries opportunities can be created that are responsive first and foremost to what Syrians deem necessary for their and their country’s development.

The creativity and pioneering these kind of approaches will require is unlikely to come from the US under the current Trump administration. Will it come from the Europeans instead?

This op-ed was written as part of the Conflict Research Unit’s workshop Syria Under Assad: Challenges for European Policy held on 6 February 2018. This workshop was organised by the Levant Programme with the generous support of the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law. The author is grateful to Erwin van Veen (Clingendael) for his patient feedback.

[1] Armitage, D. (2017), Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, London: Yale University Press, p. 11.

[2] Mansour, R. & Al-Hashmi, H. (2018), ISIS Inc., Foreign Policy. Online: (Accessed 12-03-2018).

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