In 2011, the Middle East became the theatre of one of the most remarkable political developments of this just-begun century: the Arab Spring. Started in the winter of 2010 in Tunisia with the desperate deed of Mohamed Bouazizi, the popular uprising against authoritarianism soon became a wave that reached other countries of the region – Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
In Syria, the Arab Spring began on 15th March 2011, when peaceful protesters took to the streets in Damascus asking for democratic reforms, freedom and end to corruption. It was only after the government’s harsh and heavy-handed reaction in early April that demonstrators began to call for Assad’s overthrow, and tensions dramatically increased. Throughout the summer of 2011, violence kept escalating all over the country and since then the war’s complexity has been constantly deepening, with more actors – Syrian, regional and international – entering the battlefield on one side or the other, and thus making of the Syrian conflict both a civil war and an international war. Among those fighting against the government there are Islamist groups such as Jabat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and ISIS; the Syrian National Coalition and other secular groups; Kurdish parties in northern Syria; Saudi Arabia; the United States; and Turkey. On the opposite front, Iran and Russia are Assad’s major allies.
Now entering its fifth year, the Syrian war is the worst humanitarian crisis the world has witnessed since 1945, with about 300,000 dead and above 4 million refugees. Confronted with such staggering data and with the reality of a conflict ever more complex and multifaceted, the present works aims to explain its beginning and development by looking at the actors involved, at the reasons that drove them to the battlefield and the reasons that keep them into it.
Recalling the famous metaphor that equates the theories of International Relations with lenses that enable to look at the same event from different perspectives, the Syrian conflict will be analyzed through the lenses of Realism and Constructivism. The former, regarded by the author as the most effective theory to explain inter-state conflicts where power calculations are at play, will be applied in the first part. The latter, considered particularly useful to shed light on elements proper of intra-state conflicts such as ideologies and identities, will be applied in the second part.
Realism and the Syrian conflict
In this first part, the Syrian conflict will be analyzed relying on the methods and theoretical assumptions offered by Realism. However, before embarking on this analytical effort, a brief introduction to Realism is necessary to understand how (namely, through which of the many Realist theoretical formulations) and to what extent we can resort to this theory to explain a conflict that is violently redrawing the map of Syria and spreading its effects across the broader region.
A complex and wide tradition of political thought, comprising more sub-schools and theories, Realism lies on three core assumptions: states are the central actors in the international arena (state-centrism); states are unitary and rational actors that, moved by egoism, act according to the self-interests (above which security) that they want to satisfy; the international system is anarchic.
Anarchy is the condition of a system made up of independent states that have no central authority above them (Mearsheimer, 2001: 30) and that can therefore guarantee their security and survival only by relying on self-help and their own material capabilities. This condition necessarily turns politics into a struggle for power in which the “shadow of war” is ever-present (Aron, 1970: 36), into a realm in which conflict is inevitable because of the states’ irreconcilable aspirations.
The centrality of conflict and of what Morgenthau (1948) calls “will-to-power” is amongst the most defining features of Realism’s lecture of inter-state affairs and the assumption behind the balance-of-power theory. According to this theory, due to the insecurity and competition inherent in an anarchic system, when confronted with other actors’ sudden concentrations of power states will consciously adopt a balancing response: they will either build up their own material capabilities (internal balancing) or aggregate their material capabilities with other states’ (external balancing). Therefore, for Realism alliances are not motivated by shared ideas and values but rather by national self-interests and raison d’état. Important to be noted is also the assumption that, as states are always looking to the future to anticipate possible threats, balancing may occur even before another state (or coalition of states) has gained clear power advantages, according to a pre-emptive logic.
These theoretical formulations of Realism will now be applied to the current conflict in Syria, a situation of inter-state conflict in which more actors are involved and contrasting self-interests are at play. In particular, we will empirically verify whether the Realist assumptions that states act to pursue material interests; that inter-state politics is a struggle for power; and that states respond to the others’ aggregations of power by balancing can help to shed light on the reality of the Syrian conflict.
On the side of Assad’s supporters the main players are Iran, with its allied militia-cum-party Hezbollah, and Russia. Since the earliest months of the conflict, Russia has been supporting Assad by suppling weapons and by sending military and technical advisers. On 30th September 2015, following a request for help coming from the Syrian government, Russia opted for a direct military intervention that, though allegedly aimed at fighting ISIS, is mainly targeting Assad’s opponents. Such intervention can be explained in terms of balance of power and of the material self-interests that Moscow has in the region and on whose function it makes its choices.
In order to understand the reasons lying behind Russia’s behavior in the Syrian war, it is to be considered that Assad’s Syria is the only country of the Middle East on which Russia can exercise a direct influence. The region, in fact, that during the Cold War was the battlefield of a struggle for power between the two blocs, since 1989 has increasingly shifted under the American influence to the detriment of Moscow. In order to reverse this tendency, Russia is now acting in the Middle East through a balance-of-power strategy aimed at countering the United States’ influence: in the framework of what Dunne and Schmidt (2008) define a “zero-sum competition for power”, balancing Washington’s sway is the only way for Russia to avoid being definitely excluded from the area. Consequently, the support to the only regional ally Moscow has becomes a key element of the Russian balancing strategy, since if Assad was to fall, Russia’s power in the region would follow the same course, with all the advantages going to the American rival. Moreover, dependent on Assad’s survival is also the capacity of Moscow of projecting its power in the Mediterranean, historically at the heart of Russia’s geopolitical interests and ambitions. Moscow, in fact, has in the Syrian port of Tartous its sole naval base capable of ensuring to the Russian fleet a direct access to the Mediterranean waters. The protection of Assad is therefore essential to protect the base and all the economic and commercial interests connected to it, as well as the military and political advantages it brings.
Assad’s other ally, Iran, since the beginning of the war has provided to the Syrian government financial, technical, and military support by sending its Iranian Revolutionary Guard or by backing the actions undertaken by the Lebanese militia-cum-party Hezbollah. Such involvement on part of Iran can be explained through considerations of balance of power. The major driver of Teheran’s intervention is indeed the necessity to counter-balance the influence exercised in the region by the Sunni Gulf States and their American ally – an influence that would grow ever more threatening with the ousting of Assad. Isolated and surrounded by enemies since 1979, Iran has in Assad’s Syria its only regional ally, whose support vis-à-vis Israel and the Gulf monarchies has always been crucial for the Islamic Republic. If Assad was overthrown, Teheran would find itself dangerously isolated and extremely weakened in its capacity of balancing in a credible and effective way the influence of its regional rivals. Moreover, losing its precious ally, it would also lose that “bridge” of direct connection with Hezbollah that Syria has always been thanks to its geographical position and, above all, to Assad’s foreign policy.
In light of what said thus far, it emerges how, with respect to Assad’s survival and to the countering of the United States’ power in the region, the interests of Teheran and Moscow coincide, and it is upon this commonality of interests that Realism relies to explain their alliance. Likewise, shared interests and common calculations of power are also the elements identified by Realism as the glue keeping together the anti-Assad alliance, of which the main actors are United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; and balance of power and material interests are again the elements through which Realism explains these latter states’ behavior.
The United States initially intervened by means of sanctions against the Assad’s government; CIA’s programs to arm and train Syrian allegedly moderate rebels; and supplies of arms to the SNC. In September 2014, then, the US put itself at the head of an international coalition to conduct airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, where one of the major concerns is to avoid any action that might benefit Assad by hitting his enemies. The logic behind such a strategy can be explained satisfactorily through Realism. As seen, in a Realist perspective national interests and Morgenthau’s “will-to-power” are the major drivers of a state’s action and the United States’ intervention in Syria does not make an exception. The support Washington gives to anti-Assad forces aims to exploit the room for action and the power vacuum created by the war in Syria in order to expand the American influence and strengthen the position of America’s regional allies. In an area of the Middle East of paramount importance from a geostrategic point of view, it is crucial for the United States to have allied governments in power and the intervention in Syria is coherent with this reasoning. By ousting Assad and favoring the establishment of a friendly government, Washington aims to widen the scope of maneuver, influence and power projection for itself and its regional partners, while at the same time minimizing the possible influence of traditional rivals such as Moscow and Teheran.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, the balance-of-power logic behind Iran’s intervention applies in a specular way to Riyadh. The conflict in Syria can indeed be read as a direct struggle for power and influence over the region between the Saudi kingdom and Iran, the fiercest enemies of the area. In the Saudis’ perspective, overthrowing Assad would mean upsetting the existent balance of power and creating a new one, based on the primacy of the Saudi monarchy vis-à-vis Iran. By hitting Iran’s only relevant and stable ally, Riyadh would see the scale of the bilateral confrontation lean in its favor, since it would have a new area over which to exert its political aspirations. In addition, it would render its long-time rival not only isolated but also ever weaker and marginal in the eyes of an international community that might thus abandon that recent rapprochement to Teheran that is a primary source of concern for Saudi Arabia.
Realist considerations on power struggle also apply to the Turkish role in the conflict. Intervened with allegedly anti-ISIS airstrikes in July 2015, Turkey’s interests are not only connected with the counter-balancing of long-time rivals such as Iran and Russia. The threat to the national security against which Erdogan’s Turkey is intervening, in fact, is mostly represented by the Syrian Kurds of the Rojava movement and, more specifically, of the YPG, the affiliate of the Turkish banned PKK. Therefore, if countering the projection of power of Iran and Russia at its doors is indisputably part of Turkish national interest, Turkey’s main driver is the need (perceived by the country’s élite as vital) to counter the growing power of the Syrian Kurds. Such aggregation of power is read by Ankara as a force capable of emboldening Turkey’s own Kurds and consequently capable of posing a direct threat to the country’s security environment and regional standing and, consequently, to the AK’s popularity and stability on power.
In light of the considerations made, it is possible to conclude that Realism is an indisputably useful theory to explain the intervention of external states in the Syrian scenario, thanks to its assumption that states in the international arena act according to self-interests they want to fulfil and thanks to the theory of the balance of power. Nevertheless, it is the author’s opinion that Realism cannot explain effectively all the aspects of the Syrian conflict. The state-centrist perspective of Realism, in fact, makes it difficult for it to give account of the war fought between Assad and his Alawiite entourage, on one side, and an extremely diverse civilian opposition on the other. It is true that, as a Realist lecture would maintain, Assad and those close to him are fighting for survival and the maintenance of power and that the opposition groups are fighting to reach as much control as possible of the state. However, this logic of the struggle for power appears too limited to explain in a comprehensive way the why and how of the civil conflict.
Looking at the conflict in terms of struggle of power can give account of only a part of the conflict. The reason why peaceful protests morphed into a civil war, the causes of Assad’s growing brutality, and the motivation of the opposition’s sectarian fragmentation are questions that Realism cannot answer satisfactorily. In the author’s opinion, a better answer to these questions can be provided relying on another theory of International Relations that, acknowledging the importance of immaterial elements that Realism fails to consider, applies more effectively to the explanation of civil conflicts: Constructivism.
Constructivism and the Syrian conflict
This second part of the work will bring forward the analysis of the Syrian war by replacing the lenses of Realism with those of Constructivism, in order to look at those elements of the conflict that Realism can explain only partially. Again, the analysis needs to be preceded by a brief overview of Constructivism, to highlight the elements that differentiate it from Realism and that make of it a useful theory for the present analytical task.
Inserting itself in the family of the reflectivist and post-modernist theories of International Relations, Constructivism emerged in the ‘80s as a direct challenger of Realism’s rationalism and positivism. While Realism aims to identify patterns of behavior in a world that is given and objectively observable, Constructivism rejects the idea of a given world and argues that, conversely, it is socially constructed and not objectively verifiable.
In open contrast with Realism, the most defining element of Constructivism is the emphasis it places upon identity and non-material factors, such as ideas, norms, and values (Barnett, 2011) to explain how the interests of states come into being and why states choose a certain behavior over another in the international system. As seen above, Realism argues that the interests of the states are exogenous and dependent on immutable material factors such as the desire for survival and the will to power. Conversely, Constructivism argues that the interests of the states are endogenous, continuously constructed through social interactions, and inclined to change as these social interactions change.
The interactions between agents (individuals, non-state actors, states) take place in a social, historical and cultural context that Constructivism calls structure, and the relationship between agents and structure is one of co-constitution: the actions of the agents influence the structure and the structure in turn (re)defines identities and interests of the agents. Once constructed, identities and interests shape the agents’ actions thus making of international politics the result of a continuous process of social interaction. As famously stated by Onuf, we live in a “world of our making” (Onuf, 1989: 341), where nothing is given nor objectively existent but built by us every time we inter-act with others.
Similarly, Wendt argues that “anarchy is what stats make of it”, meaning that the anarchic nature of the international system does not necessarily leads to conflict, as Realists maintained, but that conflict depends on the expectations we have of the others and on the meaning we give to the others when socially inter-acting with them. When socially inter-acting, in fact, each actor constructs a “self” and an “other”, that can be perceived as a friend, a rival, or an enemy. Depending on these social identities, the agents will adopt a certain behavior ranging from alliance to war. Therefore, in anarchy it is possible to have alliances between states that regard each other as friends because of shared values and ideas, as it is possible to have war when the other is deemed an enemy. In Wendt’s model, international politics, rather than being a politics of power and conflict driven by exclusive rational and self-interested calculations, is a politics of identity, ideology and social construction.
After the brief overview of Constructivism and of its differences with Realism proposed above, it is now possible to apply the theory to the analysis of the Syrian conflict and see how its focus on non-material factors and the importance it reckons to history, ideas, and identity can explain those aspects of the conflict that for Realism are more challenging.
As seen, the Syrian conflict broke out in the context of the Arab Spring, which was a phenomenon inspired by the ideas of democracy, freedom, and political participation that spread across the people of the region as a result of the social interaction (largely favored by the media) with the Western world and its socio-political model. Such interaction contributed to shaping a new identity among the people of those Arab countries who, after embracing the ideas of democracy and freedom, began to regard themselves as marginalized and subordinated citizens vis-à-vis regimes perceived as authoritarian and oppressive. This new perception of the “self” and the “other” shaped the people’s behavior, which in turn deeply influenced the surrounding structure. In other words, the demands for full citizenship and for the recognition of individual political rights were the unifying and inspiring theme during the Arab Spring and the way in which they shaped the actors’ collective identities brought about a structural change.
In the specificity of the Syrian case, people took to the street asking for democracy and political inclusion. As in the other countries of the Arab Spring, the interaction with the Western political, social and economic model led the Syrian people to construct a new “self” and a new perception of the “other”. What brought people to the streets was thus the awareness of a new collective national identity irreconcilable with the identity of the oppressive “other”. This new identity shaped a new behavior that took the form of peaceful demonstrations aimed at changing a domestic structure in which the power was in the hands of Assad and those close to him, with the rest of the population excluded from political participation.
Understanding the subsequent evolution of those early protests requires understanding Assad’s reaction to them. Confronted with a changing structure in which people were moved by new ideas, Assad also built a new self-identity – that of a legitimate ruler determined to stay in power against the threat posed by an “other” regarded as a group of dissidents, terrorists and state enemies. This new construction of identity on the side of Assad inevitably drove his behavior: he reacted harshly and heavy-handedly to protests, and his brutal repression influenced the structure in which the interaction with the opposition was taking place, making it ever more conflictual.
This new structure, characterized by the government’s brutal repression influenced the protestors’ identities and ideas. The new structure led indeed protestors to construct subnational identities through which to confront the growing internal chaos more effectively, thanks to the high degree of cohesion and coordination that subnational groupings allow. The national identity the Syrian people had constructed at the beginning of the protests, when they were calling for a new national order, left thus the place to identities that became ever more sectarian along religious and ethnic lines, and that explain the increasing fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. The anti-Assad faction was no longer constituted by a united people, but rather by a growing number of groups that perceived themselves as either “Sunni”, “Islamists”, or “Kurds”, and regarded the “other” – respectively – as an “Alawiite”, “Kafir”, or “Arab” enemy to overthrow. Moved by these new sub-national identities, that often posed the different opposition groups one against the other, people entered new inter-subjective relationships that contributed to the collapse of the structure into a civil war ever more sectarian and ever more based on the Sunni-Shia, secular-Islamist, and Arab-Kurd cleavages.
This new structure, on its side, reinforced Assad’s construction and promotion of a self-identity and self-image of legitimately elected President, regional champion of the Arab and Shia identity resisting the fight taken up against him by “terrorists”, “extremist Islamists” and “Sunni radical groups” with the support of Western and Gulf enemies.
Conflicting ideas, identities and mutual perceptions are therefore Constructivism’s successful tools to explain the civil war between Assad and the various opposition groups. In addition, it is interesting to note how Constructivism can also provide a different interpretation of the intervention of external states. From a Constructivist perspective, the contraposition between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on one side, and Iran, Hezbollah and Assad, on the other, can be read as a Sunni-Shia confrontation that finds its roots in historic conflictual perceptions of Islam’s religious sub-identities. The contraposition between Washington and Moscow can also be read by relying on history and ideologies. On one side, the US perceives itself as defender of peace, democracy and liberalism vis-à-vis the illiberalism embodied by Assad, Russia and Iran; on the other side Russia maintains a self-constructed identity of world power that defends national sovereignty and international law, vis-à-vis an America that does not refrain from blatant interventions abroad.
Nevertheless, while looking at the conflict fought between Assad and the opposition through the lenses of Constructivism gives reason of many elements poorly justified by Realism, explaining the intervention of external actors through ideologies and identities fails to give proper weight to undeniably crucial elements such as the actors’ material calculations and power ambitions.
The Syrian war broke out in 2011 in the framework of the Arab Spring and, since the earliest months, it has been deeply influencing the regional and international political dynamics. It has provoked a new struggle for power in the Middle East with both regional and external powers getting involved; it has exasperated internal rivalries along religious and ethnic lines; it has contributed to creating a fertile soil for the ascent of a group like ISIS that is redrawing the map of the Levant; it has caused a massive flow of refugees that is now causing social and political tensions in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon and putting under pressure the European Union.
With the war about to enter its fifth year and no hope of resolution on the horizon, the present work attempted to explain such complex and multi-dimensional conflict through two theories of International Relations – Realism and Constructivism – whose ontological and epistemological differences make it possible to emphasize and explain different aspects of the Syrian war.
As argued in the introduction to the present work, the Syrian conflict has a double nature, as it is both a civil war fought between Assad and the Syrian opposition, and an international war fought by the external states that have intervened supporting one side or the other. In light of the analysis conducted in the first part, it is the author’s opinion that Realism can be employed to explain the international dimension of the war, as it emphasizes those material interests that reasonably give account of the intervention of actors such as United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Conversely, the civil dimension of the war poses a series of challenges to Realism, as its exclusive focus on material factors is not enough to explain how the civil war broke out and why it has become increasingly sectarian.
To address these issues, Constructivism has proved more appropriate, as its reliance on the role of ideology and identity and its model of a co-constitutive relationship between agents and structure manages to explain how ideas and identities influenced each actor’s behavior, how protests evolved into a civil war, and how the war has turned sectarian along religious and ethnic lines.
In conclusion, it is possible to argue that the Syrian conflict is too complex to be fully explained by one single theory. Realism and Constructivism can attempt to explain both the civil and the international dimensions of the war by relying respectively on the “struggle for power” assumption and the “centrality of identity” one. However, each theory has some limits in its explanatory capability. Both of them are therefore required to have a deeper understanding of the various dimensions and dynamics of the Syrian war, and it is the discipline’s responsibility to encourage the analytical effort further (especially with respect to sui generis actors such as ISIS) to help politicians in their understanding of one of the harshest wars of our time.
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 The role of ISIS in the Syrian war is not object of analysis here. ISIS’s presence in Syria is a peculiar case, since the group’s involvement in the country is part of a broader and pre-existent plan, drafted by Haji Bakr as early as 2010, to found a Caliphate in the area of Iraq and al-Sham. For its complexity and peculiarity, explaining ISIS’s role in the Syrian war would require a separate study that it is not possible to conduct here due to space constraints.
 The data presented are those released by UNHCR (http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php#_ga=1.81777938.423611803.1452587482)
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