Narratives of transition in Syria
Ben O'Loughlin unpicks the narratives that must come together to find a solution to the Syria crisis.
What are the political conditions that will allow the end of conflict in Syria? The situation within Syria is one of stalemate and mutual exhaustion, while signs of ‘Syria fatigue’ are evident in the international community, especially as the Ukrainian situation absorbs diplomatic attention. As we move from the failure of the Geneva II talks to a possible Geneva III round, fighting continues and the humanitarian situation becomes ever more devastating. How, then, will any transition to peace happen? Apart from the differing visions of Syria’s future held by protagonists of the conflict within the country, regional and international powers arming those protagonists also have their preferred resolution. As I wrote in Global Policy a year ago, Syria is one of several conflicts that has taken on the character of pivots within the global order, tipping order one way or the other. The US, EU and their allies would like Syria to be treated as a matter of human rights, while Russia, China, and Iran talk of the importance of sovereignty. The unfortunate people of Syria become caught in a contest about the values underpinning the international system. In this light, the political conditions for peace in Syria must involve a resolution that is meaningful to those inside and outside the country. It must convince Syrians fighting to put down their weapons but also persuade the West and its adversaries to stop sending weapons and offer those young men a different path. How?
Ideas will matter a great deal in this process and here I want to point to the way narratives function in such situations*. This analytical move is necessary to see how a shared understanding and vision of Syria’s future can be stitched together. Narratives give a structure of meaning to the history we’re living through. They propose an initial equilibrium state, a disruption that forces characters to rise to overcome the problem, and then a final state of resolution. Narratives are unavoidable when we look at conflict and peacebuilding, but narratives of conflict are rooted within broader narratives of international relations. Get the broader IR narratives right, and it becomes possible to achieve greater buy-in for conflict resolution. The future of Syria demonstrates why this is the case.
In international relations there are three kinds of narrative. The first are system narratives, narratives about what kind of international system we live in: a system based on power balancing and empires in the Nineteenth Century, a bipolar, deadlocked system during the Cold War; a fluid system of emerging powers and overlapping governance we might inhabit now. Second, we find the projection of identity narratives. These are the narratives each actor tells about itself – states often project a kind of biography of their history, character and aspirations, for instance (Berenskoetter, 2012). Finally, we find policy narratives, the narratives actors project about shared policy problems like the global economy and climate change as well as about discrete crises like the situations in Syria and the Ukraine. In order for change to happen in international relations, actors must ensure these three levels of narrative mesh together to produce a compelling sense of where actors are heading together on an issue. Let us see how this works for Syria.
Most local, regional and international actors involved in the Syria conflict hold to a narrative of the international system as one made up of sovereign nation states. Those fighting for Assad want to maintain control of the existing Syrian state while some opposition fighters want an Islamic state. Saudi Arabia and Iran would like solid states that uphold their interests in the region. And one thing that the US, EU, Russia and China can agree on is that they would prefer the Syrian state not collapse, especially as that might open a greater vacuum for Al-Qaeda or forces more hard-line that Al-Qaeda. Even had Western powers decided to intervene military in Syria on R2P grounds, they would have sought to uphold human rights within a nation-state formation. Consequently, none of those involved desire an outcome that would disrupt a state-based system. A complication may arise when we look at what kind of state may emerge. Syria may become a federation or take some other form that allows peaceful coexistence between groups that have become organized on sectarian lines. But the international system already has varied forms of state without disrupting the overall order much. There is a reasonable convergence on system narratives, then.
At the level of identity narratives there is disagreement on the character Syria’s polity and society should take. The Assad regime would prefer the status quo, while many international backers have been talked of a coalition government, however fragile that might be. The idea of multisectoral governance also gets voiced at international meetings, referring to the idea of including NGOs and religious groups within any governance arrangement, given how important they have been in holding certain areas of Syria together on the ground during the crisis. At the same time, however, we see the post-colonial phenomenon of Islamist groups seeking an Islamic nation-state. Hence, there is division within Syria about the identity of the Syria to come.
Meanwhile, identity narratives explain why the great powers like the US and Russia and regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to try to exert influence on Syria. They will behave this way because, within their understanding of the current state-based system, this is what great powers and regional powers do, and they see themselves as great and regional powers. This is their conception of what these roles mean, and they identify themselves with those roles. They must live up to these identities by acting and project narratives that suggest they are doing so. This is why Obama confuses some when talking about ‘leading from behind’ – that is not what great powers do. They must reassure their domestic constituencies that they are living up to the expectations of a great or regional power, while at the same time demonstrating this to their international rivals. As long as these powers feel they must act ‘like a great power’, then their attempts to influence the outcome in Syria must be accounted for.
It is at the level of policy narratives that most difficulties arise. Is there an achievable goal that actors on all sides inside and outside Syria can agree to try to meet? Is there a linchpin or discrete issue that, if they can start to solve that, other problems will seem solvable? A year ago, the removal of Assad seemed the cornerstone to be dislodged: once he went, the edifice of the old Syrian order would crumble and a new coalition government could form. Assad’s military strength and international alliances have made this impossible. Today, the critical absence of food, water and healthcare might be on issue everyone could gather around. The humanitarian crisis does not help the Assad regime or opponent groups, nor the regional and international powers. But calls for the regime to allow humanitarian corridors to allow aid to reach those suffering inside Syria have not been met (see e.g. Denselow, 2014). Given that all sides have seemingly ignored international law, R2P and other such notions, why would protagonists suddenly agree to cooperate on any specific policy goal like humanitarian aid when the meaning and future of the conflict is unresolved?
The challenge for creating a political solution in Syria will involve aligning system, identity and policy narratives. This will take skill; it reminds us that political leadership is a craft. It will have to come from Syrian leaders to have authenticity. Guiding this transition will require taking into account the narratives each side holds to inside and outside the country, seeking points of reconciliation and common understanding, and then the technical ability to translate these overlaps into the form of a constitution within Syria and international agreements to support that.
One of the greatest obstacles to the formation of a new Syrian narrative is the proliferation of online digital content emerging from Syria. It might seem a positive that the conflict is perhaps the most well-documented of any in history. However, since any militant group can film and upload a video, we have thousands of such videos and little common conversation. These videos on YouTube and elsewhere allow self-legitimation, not social legitimation. They are the conflict equivalent of filter bubbles. And with so many war crimes and their justifications uploaded, archived and permanently accessible, it will be difficult for Syrians to conduct a peace and reconciliation process when any parent can access online footage of their child being killed and their killers celebrating this. Traditional media are in no position to offer narratives of reconciliation either. The absence of a trusted, independent national media and the physical danger to journalists on the ground also inhibits the exchange of views across sectarian lines. As such, the conditions for narrative formation are fragmented and seem to fuel division both now and for future generations coming to terms with the conflict.
A moment will come when protagonists in the Syria will have to find a new basis for moving forward together. There will be a new national story that integrates enough of the truth of the conflict for all sides to feel their suffering has been recognized. The argument here is that this new narrative will also have to mesh with broader narratives about how international relations works, how the international system functions, and allow all the great and regional powers to feel they did what they had to. Eventually a leader will emerge with the skill to craft these narratives together. And it is important this happens soon. Syria’s neighbours Lebanon and Jordan have held together remarkably well given that massive influx of refugees they have welcomed but tensions and conflict could spread. Reconciliation and post-conflict transition in Syria could become a template or model for other societies that find themselves disjointed with the new order of impatient youth, fragmenting identities and scarce resources.
* This framework is drawn from Miskimmon, A., O’Loughlin, B. and Roselle, L. (2013) Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order, New York: Routledge.
Berenskoetter, F. (2012) ‘Parameters of a National Biography’, European Journal of International Relations, Online First Version, 16 October.
Denselow, J. (2014) ‘Syria: From Corridor Diplomacy to Humanitarian Corridors’, openDemocracy, 4 February. Available at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/james-denselow/syria-from-corridor-diplomacy-to-humanitarian-corridors