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This assignment aims to delineate and elucidate the Syrian conflict through the theories of constructivism and realism. Particular attention will be paid to the origin of the Syrian Civil War, along with the major actors involved in this regional, and now international, conflict.
Syrian Civil War
Pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Daraa city on March 2011 following the arrest and subsequent torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on the wall of a local school (Diehl, 2012). The deadly aggression used by the government to oppose dissent led to protests across the country calling for the president to resign. Violence soon escalated as the government battled hundreds of rebel brigades (Thompson, 2016). Regional and international intervention has proven to be a key factor in the power struggle as the government and opposition have received financial, political, and military support. This has directly intensified the fighting and allowed it to continue; Syria is effectively being used as a proxy battleground (Wimmen and Asseburg, 2012).
This section will analyze the Syrian conflict using the framework of realism. The theory of realism will first be briefly introduced and then it will be applied to the Syrian conflict that is reshaping the region.
3. 1 Definition and Conception of Realism
Realism uses an explanatory, as opposed to a normative, approach to studying International Relations. Three core assumptions are made: (1) the international system is an anarchic one and it does not have an overarching authority; (2) states are the key players in the international field; (3) states function as isolated, rational actors that are moved by their self-interests and egoism (Ikenberry and Parsi, 2014). These assumptions lead realism to assume, at a core level, a pessimistic outlook wary of constant threat and danger. State actors are thought to be driven by motivations to survive and dominate, aiming to gain favorable positions of power and reduce the potential for their demise (Gellman, 1988). This outlook necessitates that politics is viewed as a struggle for power with the “shadow of war” ever-present (Aron, 1970: 36). Power-seeking, mutual mistrust, selfishness, and survival-securing are thus thought to produce anarchical structures amongst polities, along with security dilemmas, ‘international’ self-help systems, ever-present threats of war, and the unrestricted politics of national interests.
3. 2 The Syrian Conflict from a Realist Standpoint
The Syrian Civil War can be viewed as a power struggle between foreign states that are involved in the conflict and have disputing interests. The al-Assad government’s support from Russia, China, and Iran (along with ‘Hezbollah’, its allied militia-cum-party) can be viewed as an effort to limit the United States’ power in the international system. These policies aim to effectively prevent the US from gaining power in North Africa and the Middle East by forming alliances with Syria and vetoing any involvement of the United Nations Security Council (Yan, 2013). Thus, the interests of Russia, China, and Iran coincide with respects to countering the US and protecting the al-Assad regime. On the other side, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all working to remove al-Assad from power. Washington’s support for anti-Assad forces is an effort to create a power vacuum that can be exploited to increase US influence in the area and strengthen the US’ strategic allies in delineated region. Washington also hopes to minimize the risk of influence by its traditional opponents, such as Russia and Iran (Abdo, 2011).
However, viewing the Syrian Civil War purely from a power-struggle perspective can only provide an account of one section of the conflict. The reasons behind Assad’s brutality, the causes behind the peaceful protests turning into a civil war, and the fragmented rebel forces’ motivations are not answered satisfactorily through the realism theory and so another perspective is needed.
This section will discuss the Syrian Civil War as seen through the lens of constructivism.
4. 1 Definition and Conception of Constructivism
Constructivism, a normative theory of international relations, aims to understand the significance of the actions of a society and to extrapolate meanings from it (Alder, 1997). The international structure is viewed by constructivists as being a “social structure infused with ideational factors to include norms, rules and law” (Viotti and Kauppi, 2010: 277). Different actors sharing an understanding of these norms is what gives meaning to the international order (Jackson and Sørensen, 2007). The emphasis placed on identity and non-material factors (e.g. values, norms, and ideas) to explain state interests and choices is the primary defining feature of constructivism (Barnett, 2011).
Various features of the Syrian Civil War can be explained through this viewpoint, taking into account social constructs, such as ideologies, perceptions, identities, and norms. The constructivist theory places emphasis on the effects of these immaterial forces and their roles in international affairs.
The Syrian Conflict from a Constructivist Standpoint
The Syrian protesters who peacefully demonstrated publicly for democracy were brought to the streets through the awareness of a new collective national identity. They became aware of the ‘self’ and its irreconcilability with the oppressive ‘other’. Assad forged a new ‘self-identity’ in response to the changing political climate, an identity of a legitimate ruler aiming to hold power despite the efforts of the ‘other’ (i.e. terrorists and dissidents). This led him to the brutal repression of protests. However, the new national identity constructed by the Syrian people is far more sectarian, with divisions along ethnic and religious lines. This explains the fragmentations amongst the opposition forces.
Additionally, the alliances between Iran, Hezbollah and Assad on one side, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other, can be seen as a Sunni-Shia divide with roots in Islamic theological disputes. Similarly, the opposition of the USA and Russia can also be viewed with a reliance on ideologies and history.
The dual-natured Syrian conflict is both a civil war between Assad and the Syrian rebel forces, and an international war fought through proxies by external states supporting one or another of these sides. Realism can be used to explain the war’s international dimension as it highlights the material interests that account for the intervention of external actors. Constructivism focuses more on the effects of identity and ideology on behavior, as well as how the protests turned into a civil war with religious and ethnic divides and how the war morphed into an international struggle. However, each theory remains limited in the scope of what it can explain.
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