Panel 5C

Local and International Dimensions of the Syrian Civil War

11.30 – 13.30
Chair: Nikolay Kozhanov, European University at St. Petersburg

The International Origins of the Syrian Civil War

Christopher Phillips, Queen Mary, University of London

The Syrian civil war has been the source of one of the greatest mass migrations in modern middle Eastern history, leading to over half the pre-war population to be displaced. Scholarship on the conflict published thus far has been dominated by studies of Syria’s pre-war domestic situation, with studiess centred on local and national structural changes, ethnic identities, economic disparities and climate change. The role of international actors is usually relegated to being a secondary factor, sucked into the conflict once it broke out. This paper challenges this interpretation, arguing instead that Syria’s international environment on the eve of conflict was a crucial factor in explaining its transformation from domestic protest movement into a civil war. Using a combination of International Relations and civil war studies, it suggests that changes to the regional and international environment played a major role in escalating the conflict. These changes include the retreat of the United States in response to failures in the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath, the rise of ambitious regional actors such as Qatar, Turkey and Iran, and the emboldening of non-state actors such as al-Qaeda and Kurdish nationalist forces.

Hizbullah and the Syrian Civil War: A Two Level Game Analysis

Ozlem Tur, Middle East Technical University, Dept of International Relations and Nail Elhan, Middle East Technical University, Dept of International Relations

This paper aims to analyze the role of Hizbullah in the Syrian conflict within the context of Robert Putnam’s theory of ‘two-level games’. In addition to looking at what Hizbullah’s role in Syria means for its ideology and identity, the paper aims to go beyond the widely discussed Lebanonization/regionalization dichotomy and examines the international and domestic bargaining processes that the organization exercises since the  beginning of the Syrian Uprising. Putnam, in his model, asserts two levels of politics, one of which refers to the international politics, or Level I, and the other to the national one, or Level II. He emphasizes the influence of domestic over negotiation processes and the position of negotiating states over each other. In this context, international negotiations are products of overlaps among national and international interests, or two levels. Decisions taken in negotiations in Level I should be voted and ratified in Level II. In other words, in order to accept decisions, decision-makers should seek to ‘sell’ the decisions taken in Level I to the domestic audience in Level II. We argue that Putnam’s model, designed for states can be used to understand decision-making processes by non-state actors and we test this assumption through Hizbullah’s decision to fight along the Syrian regime. We try to understand the negotiations, decision-making processes, the interaction between Level I and Level II and the “win-sets” for Hizbullah in this case. Our paper is based on interviews conducted during two fieldwork trips in Lebanon, in 2014 and 2016.

The Marriage of Convenience: The Nature of Russian-Iranian Cooperation in Syria

Nikolay Kozhanov, European University at St. Petersburg

Russian military engagement in the Syrian conflict had the direct impact on Moscow’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries. The main interest of political analysts is drawn to the development of the interaction between Tehran and Moscow. Officially, the Iranian authorities supported Putin’s decision to deploy Russian air forces at the Khmeimim airbase. The majority of the Iranian politicians praised Moscow efforts aimed at the support of the Syrian regime whereas the main media outlets of the Islamic Republic such as IRNA, ILNA, ISNA and Mehr covered the activities of the Russian army in Syria completely in the line with the Russian propaganda approaches. Moreover, when characterizing the development of the dialogue between Russia and Iran on Syria some political analysts and policymakers started to use word “cooperation” and even “alliance”. Nevertheless, the international expert community was and still is far from being unanimous regarding the nature of the Russian-Iranian dialogue on Syria. While some researchers argue about the emergence of a strong regional alliance between Moscow and Tehran the others insist that the cooperation between the two countries remain extremely fragile and predict the nearest end of the Russian-Iranian collaboration. Both the opponents and supporters of the theory about the emergence of the Russo-Iranian alliance refer to the solid and real facts when proving their position. However, neither of the sides is correct in its conclusions. The devil, as always, is in the details. For sure, the Russian-Iranian interaction on Syria will have a long-lasting positive dynamics. However, there are factors that will not allow this dialogue to reach the level of a full-fledged military and political alliance.

Iran and the Syrian Turmoil: The Dynamics of Revolution and Realpolitik in Iran’s Syria Policy

Gülriz Sen, TOBB University of Economics and Technology

In the multi-actor mayhem of the Syrian turmoil, Iran has been a major actor with its essential strategic, military, economic and logistical support for the survival of the Assad regime. During more than five years of the conflict, Iran framed its involvement by integrating its traditional rhetoric of ‘resistance against the West and Zionism’ with its novel emphasis on fight against ‘takfiri terrorism’, and it consequently incorporated protection of Iran’s own national security. Framing the conflict as such, Iran organized and commanded over Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran as well as dispatching its IRGC commanders and military commandoes. Iran bore the financial and human costs of the conflict and faced mounting criticism for fomenting sectarian flames in the region. Iran’s growing reliance on pan-Shiite rhetoric for recruitment of militias to serve as scarce manpower in the war and its transnational involvement revived discussions on the traditional dichotomy of revolution and realpolitik in Iran’s foreign policy. This paper aims to assess Iran’s Syria policy during the Arab Uprisings by tracing the ideological (revolutionary) and realpolitik elements in its agency. The paper will demonstrate how Iran utilizes different ideological themes to fullfill realpolitik goals, that is preserving its strategic depth in the Levant. However, the paper will also argue that Iran’s mostly realpolitik moves in the region end up re-revolutionizing the domestic politics in terms of discourse and mobilization, albeit not necessarily as strong as the revolutionary 1980s.