Putting the War in Syria into Its Proper Historical Context
By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Social media platforms allow casual observers and experts alike to comment on important contemporary issues. Although experts can write columns or books on their chosen field, social media provide a way for ordinary people to voice their untrained reactions to global events.
Such is the case recently regarding the Syrian war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and exacerbated geopolitical competition regionally and internationally. Several observers, via numerous social media posts, have suggested that Syria has changed the world.
These observers cite the rise of far-right political parties in Europe due to the migration crisis, Russia’s efforts to reassert itself in Middle East politics and general lamentations that the international community failed to intervene in Syria against the Assad regime. Although the thoughts in these posts seem to be knowledgeable observations, they miss the nut of the issue on all counts.
Syria and Its Impact on European Politics
Following the 2008 financial crisis, many fringe political parties that only had small showings in previous elections began gaining traction following accusations of economic mismanagement. Although every European nation suffered differently, many of the well-established centrist parties felt the strain brought on by public dissatisfaction.
This shift in voting habits did not swing solely to the right or left of the political spectrum. Instead, the general overview of European politics at the time was an “anybody else but…” attitude. Even then, larger centrist parties did not lose power per se, but their coalitions were disrupted.
Nations such as Spain, Italy and Greece, for example, entered a period of political turmoil during which ruling coalitions simply failed to form. In the case of Greece, in 2015, voters elected Syriza, a “coalition of the radical left.” (In Italy’s May elections, right-wing leaders have come together to form an “anti-establishment government.)
The Syrian civil war has raged since 2011. But its impact on European politics did not materialize until refugees from the beleaguered nation fled into neighboring countries as far away as Germany, Italy and Turkey.
Some nations hoped the refugees would bolster their labor markets. However, these countries failed to consider the financial, social and ensuing political costs of following these liberal refugee admission policies.
Far-right political parties, along with some on the far left that had already made gains from the earlier financial crisis, found a new issue to exploit. Smaller political parties with extremist views managed only to disrupt ruling coalitions, but they could not overturn the political landscape.
The same parties that have held the reins of power over the past 20 years still retain power today among the regional powers of Europe. But there has been a larger shift in the East European states.
At best, the so-called rise of the far right in Europe has gained some traction, but the far right hasn’t actually seized a majority of any ruling coalition as a result of immigration and refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. Indeed, center-right or rightwing populist governments in Europe such as those in Hungary, the Czech Republic or Poland predate the Syrian conflict.
National elections have certainly occurred since 2011, but the immigration debate merely solidified existing support among established conservative parties. Further debate about just how far to the right many of these parties and politicians have moved also fails to satisfy the claim that their current status is simply the result of the Syrian conflict.
The Russian Presence in the Middle East
The commentaries found on social media regarding Russia often show partisan or national biases. Social media users are not immune from this bias either when they comment on Syria. But the common theme is that U.S. inaction against Assad allowed Russia to move into the Middle East. This is a strange notion, considering the long-term relationship between Moscow and Damascus, which any expert on Syria surely knows.
During the Cold War, Lebanon hosted one of the largest Soviet intelligence presences in the Middle East. Since the fall of the shah and the 1979 Islamic revolution, Moscow has frequently used Iran to undermine U.S.-led efforts in the region. Russian activities not only predate the current Syrian conflict, they also predate the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
If this claim of U.S. inaction were reframed in the context of Russian military actions returning to the Middle East, then yes, the Syrian conflict allowed Moscow to further its military adventurism. There is an important caveat, however.
Russia entered the Syrian conflict because Moscow wanted greater leverage over the West in general and over the U.S. in particular. Ten years ago, Russia invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia because the West recognized Kosovo’s independence against Moscow’s wishes.
The Russian president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, said as much. A similar issue arose when the U.S. and several European partners intervened in Libya, also against Moscow’s wishes. Russia ultimately involved itself militarily in Syria to prevent the West from removing Assad or perhaps taking action in Ukraine.
The Cost of Intervention
If the U.S. and its European partners had decided to intervene in Syria at the outset of the Syrian conflict, then it is conceivable that Russia would not have been able to intervene in the Syrian conflict. But this concept ignores two rather important points.
First, military interventions are not guaranteed to result in political stability, let alone in a democratic government. Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan are prime examples of that.
Second, Russia could have exploited the opening that Western intervention in Syria would have brought by escalating the war in Ukraine. Another tactic that Russia could have used was to subvert former Soviet bloc nations in Europe that are not NATO members.
Putting aside Russian strategy, military interventions can increase civilian suffering and prolong conflicts without bringing about the desired results. Precision munitions are not always precise nor are Western troops immune to mistakes, meaning that military forces initially welcomed as liberators could soon feel the same level of scorn as the sitting regime.
Additionally, the U.S. is a large, powerful nation with a multitude of interests and must prioritize its application of force. For instance, if the U.S. had engaged Syria more fully, then Washington might not have been able to respond to a potential crisis elsewhere.
Simmering issues on the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, Eastern Europe or the Caucasus demand U.S. attention. With U.S. forces stretched thin, responding to another crisis would be a significant challenge.
Syrian Conflict Hasn’t Changed the World to a Significant Degree
Syria did not change the world, but it did have a profound impact on existing geopolitical tensions. It is worth noting, that without the Syrian conflict, many of these political issues would have come to a head somewhere else.
The contemporary issues facing Europe economically and demographically will continue to influence local politics. Russian economic malaise and Soviet-style behavior will continue as well.
Iran is coming to grips with its military overextension in the Middle East as its economy crumbles. For its part, the U.S. has changed how it interacts with the world and this is not a consequence of the Syrian conflict.
We must always consider the breadth of history when we analyze crises and conflicts. The world is returning to a period that is both familiar and distinct from the anomalous Cold War and post-Cold War periods. If anything, the Syrian conflict simply demonstrates a return to history, not a change of it.