The Roots of Conflict In Syria


Syria represents an interesting opportunity for International Relations because of the nature of the conflict representing two conflicting ideologies, namely realism and revolutionism. The need for intervention by the international community is clear, with peace negotiations consistently failing. This paper investigates the nature of the conflict as resulting from a complex set of socio-economic factors, compounded by authoritarian rule by the state. International relations can be used as a theoretical explanation to determine the role thereof in aiding the peaceful resolution of the conflict.


The world currently appears to be in a constant state of conflict with ongoing wars worldwide, some garnering more media attention than others. John F. Kennedy was famously quoted as saying that “[t]here is another kind of war – new in its intensity, ancient in its origin – carried out by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents and assassins, …in which we try to achieve victory and eroding the enemy instead of challenging him. It leverages the discontent.” Syria is an example of this kind of war, where conflict began years ago, eventually transforming into a civil war. The opposition fought against the corrupted government army leading to large numbers of civilian casualties. Various theories of international relations (IR) are applicable to the conflict in order to understand the nature of the war between rebels and the national authoritarian system. This essay aims to apply IR theory to the Syrian conflict to gain a deeper understanding of the theoretical aspects and the conflict respectively. The proposed theoretical application includes interventionism and the three traditions theory. The underlying cause of the conflict is a complex set of factors, including political repression, an uneven economy, corruption and a severe drought, and for the purposes of IR, certain countries have an interest in ensuring that the situation in Syria remains contained with support being given to both sides of the conflict. Through application of the theory to the totality of the conflict, the relevance thereof will be clear.

History and Background of the Conflict

The ruling political system in Syria began in the 1970’s with the Bashar family, who has historically ruled through pressure and extreme authoritarianism. The current leader, Bashar al-Assad acceded leadership in 2000 relying on armed oppression and intelligence apparatus provided by the Baath Party as well as leading business families (Manfreda, 2012). With the ruling government controlling the media and therefore controlling the information available, the opposition demanded the downfall of the ruling party and a new beginning for Syria contained in the Damascus Declaration of 2005 (Efrat, 2012). The conflict in Syria began in 2000 where there was a growing expectation of political and social change following the death of Hafez al-Assad. “The authorities’ monopoly of everything has established an authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish regime that has led to a lack of politics in society, an economic collapse and exacerbating crises of every kind” (Efrat, 2012).The expectation of the people was that this authoritarian rule would end with Hafez’s death. However, ruling power remained concentrated in the Bashar family, compounding the already corrupt political repression of Syria.

Living conditions continued to worsen and despite widespread objection to the state, many civilians accepted the regime for fear of further violent oppression. This social situation was exacerbated by a persistent drought, which all but destroyed the agricultural sector with particularly bad conditions in northern Syria. This in turn saw a significant reduction in the GDP of the country and widespread migration to cities away from rural industry (Efrat, 2012). With the deteriorating prevailing socio-economic conditions, civilians began using new media as a means of organizing themselves politically in order to have their opinions heard, demanding real reforms (Efrat, 2012). The combination of economic, political and natural resources factors in Syria is not favourable for a positive societal outcome. A risk assessment for the country is classified CC for Sovereign risk, currency risk, banking-sector risk, economic structure and D for political risk (EIU, 2012). With the rising intensity of the civil war, more extensive international sanctions put pressure on public finances and sanctions on the Central Bank of Syria continue to depreciate the currency even further (EIU, 2012). Further economic decline is experienced through the reliance on oil exports which has led to a partial crash of financial markets, as the E.U has imposed an embargo on oil exports from Syria which has led to a resultant minimizing of oil production. Previously, Europe has purchased over 95% of the total oil exports in Syria and therefore this embargo has had a significantly negative effect on the economy. This has led to a decline in investment in the country as companies investing in oil exports in Syria face legal consequences (Blas, 2012). Stocks have seen massive decline in recent years with over half the value being lost this year along (Legget, et al., 2009).

The conflict has seen several phases over the years and is constantly evolving. However, these changes have effectively seen a concentration of wealth in the ruling family, and their cronies and allies, effectively further disenfranchising the population. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that ideological differences have resulted in a constant violence with no clear diplomatic solution which has led to an increased involvement by the international community.

International Relations

Arguably, there are a number of theoretical concerns in IR that are applicable to the conflict in Syria. These are applicable as a means of deepening the current understanding of the conflict, which may lead to the development of an equitable solution. As the world moves towards globalization, IR becomes more important and one can argue that these represent the need to have firm principles to regulate and balance competing interests between nations, as well as competing interests within a particular nation, such as Syria. IR however plays a broader global role in ensuring that relations between countries are kept at a diplomatic level for the greater good of all countries in the international community (Goldstein, 2007).

The three traditions theory is of obvious relevance to the Syrian conflict because of the duality between realism and revolutionism in the conflict. Wight (1991) argues that all leading ideologies in IR fall within the three traditions of realism, rationalism or revolutionism. Realism includes ideologies such as anarchy, power politics, conflict, warfare and pessimism, whilst diametrically opposed to this is revolutionism which includes perspectives of humanity, revolutionary change, anti-state beliefs and utopianism. Rationalism falls between these two extremes and essentially for the purposes of IR, these theories are to an extent co-dependent as they are incomplete in isolation and are complimentary as traditions rather than exclusive (Dunne, 1993). Arguably therefore, there is a need for a balance of these traditions, and a society which is based on either extreme is one that will necessarily breed conflict.

The three traditions theory sees application in the Syrian context, particularly when recalling the conflict of ideology between the ruling regime and the opposition. Realism as the dominant ideology of the Bashar regime is the disciplining factor in Syria with the opposition representing the revolutionary tradition. The state arguably represents an extreme realist perspective, with complete ignorance of the international community and the assertion that they exist as a sovereign state in isolation refusing to acknowledge accountability in the international community. Realists emphasize elements of anarchy, power politics and warfare (Wight, 1991), pessimistic of human nature and exploitative of the less powerful. This is a growing trend in the Syrian conflict, with an increasing disregard for the welfare of the people in Syria for financial advantage of the ruling family (Taylor, 2012). Opposition forces contradict the realist tradition by the propulsion of revolutionist ideology, setting goals for the freedom and fulfillment of humans. Revolutionists argue that in order to do this, the class system needs to be overthrown with a classless society established (Marx, 1967). By abolishing a classless society, humans would again be united and there would be no need for states or international relations. To an extreme, revolutionist ideas see humankind at the center, claiming a world society inclusive of everyone. The existence of these two ideological extremes represents the greatest roadblock in the resolution of the Syrian conflict, which necessitates the need for international intervention, because of a lack of willingness to compromise between the state and the opposition. Again, this represents the applicability of the three traditions theory, as arguably the presence of the international community in the resolution of the conflict represents the rational tradition presence. This means that there will be a compromise between the controllers of the state resources, i.e. the state on the one hand, and domestic society on the other, as represented by the opposition.

The consequence of a dominant realist ideology is that the state will not participate in IR unless it represents a substantial investment in state outcomes, essentially meaning that the Syrian government will not engage in treaties that are not specifically to their advantage. A shift in favour of the domestic population removing state power arguably is not in the interests of a realist ideology and therefore will not be respected for the purposes of IR. Syria can be described as a “weak post-colonial state”, categorized by a defective economy, a lack of coherent national economy and lack of sustaining basic levels of welfare and resources provided to the population (Saul, 1974). The Syrian people in rural areas have an extremely low standard of living, concentrated on traditional, yet defective agriculture and significant dependence on world markets and external economic interests. There is little state legitimacy as a result of inefficient and corrupt administration with a lack of concern for public opinion about the government and no significant efforts made to increase the perception of state legitimacy. Post-colonial states have often shown vulnerability towards violent conflicts as a result of corrupt state institutions, authoritarian rule and the use of natural resources as a means of funding the economy without engagement of the national population and as a result, spiraling socio-economic conditions with no clear agenda for improvement thereof. This has plagued developing nations globally and is referred to as the resource curse. The presence of IR in these conflicts essentially forms a middle ground for the establishment of legitimate state institutions in order to mediate the extremes of realist and revolutionist ideological differences.

In addition to the three traditions theory, interventionism also adds depth to the conflict. Interactions with Saudi Arabia, Russia, USA, France and Britain have arguably been aimed at the manipulation of the economy, society or affairs of another nature in Syria. With the civil war in Syria, both sides of the conflict have been receiving aid from external parties. Saudi Arabia for example supports the opposition with speculation that it is a means of breaking international relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. In doing so, they are ensuring that the balance of power does not benefit Iran, using their oil wealth to arm the Syrian opposition, although not directly involving themselves in the conflict (Manfreda, 2012). On the other hand, the Syrian government benefits from a relationship with Russia, where the Russian government provides weapons in the name of national defense and security. Incidences in international affairs has seen Russia and China using their veto power in the United Nations Security Council to prevent a resolution condemning the Syrian government for violent suppression of anti-government protests (Grand View, 2012).

Despite aid being used as a form of international political leverage, Syria has also found itself at the centre of international relations for the purpose of maintaining some measure of international diplomacy and peace measures, where they have been forced into quasi-peace agreements. In 2005, France and USA pressured the Syrian army to withdraw troops from Lebanon. More recently the United Kingdom and the United States of America, amongst other Western states have been increasingly intervening in the civil war providing aid in the form of communications, logistics and advice. The expectation however is that the involvement in the conflict will develop into more active intervention, such as the United Kingdom asking Syrian rebels to “set out a vision for how a post-Assad Syria could be governed” (Blitz, 2012).


It is clear that interventionism exists as a form of IR with regards to Syria for two apparent reasons. The first is to gain some form of political advantage, although arguably this is a secondary concern as the situation becomes more severe. These countries are therefore intervening in the conflict through provision of aid as a means of gaining some form of international bargaining power to shape future international relations. The second concern, which arguably forms the basis of Western intervention is in the interests of the international community generally, namely the protection of peaceful relations in international affairs. Although the effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen, clearly there is no obvious solution to the conflict in Syria, and to the extent that the three traditions theory remains without a complimentary equilibrium and as a result IR is used to provide the diplomatic compromise between realism and revolutionism, it is arguable that without IR peaceful compromise will never be reached. Although it is not clear whether IR will provide an equitable solution to this conflict, it is evident that the opposition and state forces in Syria are unable to reach a solution internally and the only realistic solution therefore is reliant on IR theory to attempt to resolve the conflict in the absence of any other practical solution.


Blas, J.(2012). EU ban forces Syria to cut down oil production. [online] Available: [Accessed 3 November 2012]

Blitz, J. (2012) UK asks Syrian rebels to set out vision. The Financial Times Online [online] Available: [Accessed 5 November 2012]

Dunne, T. (1993) Mythology or MethodologyTraditions in International Theory. Review of International Studies, Vol 19, pp. 305 – 318

Efrat, Y. (2012) The roots of the Syrian Uprising. [online] Available: [Accessed 2 November 2012]

Goldstein, J. (2007) Core Principles of International Relations Theory. [online] Available: [Accessed 5 November 2012]

Grand View (2012) The Reasons why Russia Supports Syria [online] Available: [Accessed 5 November 2012]

Leggett, K., Solomon, J. and King, N. (2006) On the Borderline: Threat of Wider Mideast War Grows; Israel Blames Iran, Syria for Backing Hezbollah as fighting escalates; Tough Choices for Washington. Wall Street Journal.

Malas, n. (2012) Attach on Syrian Opposition Town Kills Score. Wall Street Journal Online [online]

Manfreda, P. (2012) Current Situation in Syria. [online] Available: [Accessed 2 November 2012]

Manfreda, P. (2012). Saudi Arabia and Syrian Uprising. [online] Available: [Accessed 5 November 2012]

Manfreda, P. (2012). Options for Intervention in Syria. [online] Available: [Accessed 4 November 2012]

Marx, K. (1906) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I. The Process of Capitalist Production. Engels, F. & Untermann, E. (eds.), Moore, S. & Aveling, E. (trans.) Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co.

Saul, J. (1974) The State of Post-Colonial Societies: Tanzania. The Socialist Register, Vol 11, pp 349 – 373

Taylor, A. (2005) Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad May Have $1.5 Billion In Assets Around The World. Business Insider [online] Available: [Accessed 5 November 2012]

The Economic Intelligence Unit (2012) Syria: Country risk summary. New York: EIU

Wight, M. (1991) International Theory: The Three Traditions. Leicester: Leicester University Press

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