The conflict in Syria is well-known, but a deeply complicated subject. What first started as mass protests demanding abdication of their authoritarian leader Bashar Al-Assad, resulted in a civil war. The difficulty in comprehending the Syrian civil war lies in the fragmentation of the different opposition groups. Furthermore, the instability of the country resulting from the civil war opened up a gap Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL) knew how to fill in.
The presence of IS convolutes the conflict even more. This conflict in Syria has now developed itself from a civil war between the government and opposition groups to a conflict with major international interests. With Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq supporting the Assad regime and the United States (U.S.
), France, the United Kingdom (U.K.), Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey supporting the rebels, once again we find ourselves in a U.S.- Russia division.In political science, many studies focus themselves on the onset of civil wars and why they occur. This essay will attempt to examine the different causes of civil war provided by the existent literature. And furthermore answer the research question: “What are the causes of the Syrian Civil War?” through applying the different theoretical approaches.
This essay is furthermore divided into two sections: first, a global analysis of different theories regarding civil war onset will be made. In the second part, these theories will be applied to the Syrian Civil War. Causes of Civil WarDescribing Civil War Contrary to what is often assumed, there is no clear definition of a civil war. A lot of debates about how a civil war should be defined revolve around the casualties of the conflict (Baev 2007). The generally accepted interpretation is given by the Correlates of War (COW) which describes civil war as following: “Any armed conflict that involves a) military action internal to the metropole, b) the active participation of the national government, and c) effective resistance by both sides and d) a total of at least 1,000 battle-deaths during each year of the war” (Sarkees, 2010, p.5). Collier & Hoeffler (2004) however, extend this interpretation by emphasizing the difference between a massacre and a civil war. According to them, the casualties need to be at least five percent on both the government and opposition side in order the conflict to be a civil war.
In a renewed typology, the term ‘intra-state war’ is introduced. These intra-state wars encompass civil war and inter-communal conflict. The distinction between those two involves the presence or absence of the government as an actor of the conflict (Sarkees, Wayman, & Singer, 2003). This typology furthermore divides civil war into 1) wars regarding local issues “and 2) wars where they seek control of the central government.Causes of Civil War Many different causes are presented in the literature. In this essay, four overarching causes will be discussed: economic causes, ethnic linkage, counterinsurgency and the political regime.
Economic causesFive main analysis stand out regarding economy and causes of civil war. Two of them do believe in the importance of ethnicity in the outbreak of civil war, but however, believe that economy is the propulsive force behind this. Collier and Hoeffler (2004) created an econometric model to evaluate when a civil war will occur.
They highlight the importance of greed and grievance feeding the civil war, but they don’t believe it is the trigger as such. The fact that rebellion takes place is due to certain – mostly financial – circumstances, which gives them the opportunity to rebel in the first place (Collier and Hoeffler, 2004). Three important sources provide rebels of financial aid: natural resources, diasporas and financial aid from opposed governments. Another factor contributing to the onset of rebellion is income because the probability of rebellion increases when income is low. Newman (1991) on the other hand, finds that not financial circumstances but rather modernization of society as a whole causes civil war. He concludes that certain social groups tend to be mobilized when economic modernization takes place. A third analysis focusses on rational choice behaviour. Grossman (1995) attempts to explain civil war by focusing on the actions taken by rebel leaders and the ruler to persuade citizens.
The actions that they take are influenced by rational choices the citizens will take. Grossman (1995) claims that these actions and the outbreak of rebellion are influenced by the Pareto-efficiency. The Pareto-efficiency is considered the ultimate efficiency point between supply and demand. When there is as much supply as there is demand, no one is discriminated. So based on the Pareto-efficiency, when people are discriminated in a financial or economic way caused by the state, the risk of civil war increases. As previously discussed, Collier & Hoeffler (2004) also emphasize the importance of natural resource trade, aside from the financial part of rebellion. In addition to their research Humphreys (2005) indicates that not only greed and grievances created by natural resources generates a civil war, but found other mechanisms that contribute to this process as well. He points out that interests of other countries regarding natural resources contribute to a civil war.
It has to be understood this is not a cause but rather can cause an escalation of the conflict through third parties’ intervention. He furthermore refers to dependency. States which are dependent on natural resources are considered weaker, which implies that civil war is more likely to occur (see below) (Humphreys 2005).
The idea of dependency goes even further than only generating a weak state. Countries that are more dependent on trade of natural resources have in general, lower level of internal trade. Some scholars believe that high levels of internal trade produce higher social cohesion.
This phenomenon indicates that dependency on natural resources does not only create a weak state but also creates social fragmentation (Humphreys 2005). Considering the macro-levels of an economy, scholars have proven that countries with less economic development and are thus considered ‘poorer’, are more prone to go to war (Holtermann 2012). This is due to economic opportunities on the one hand, and political-military opportunities on the other.
Holtermann (2012) describes these economic opportunities as a somewhat rational choice based on income. Since people living in poorer countries gain less income in general, they will also be satisfied with lower income when rebelling. This makes rebellion more likely. The political-military opportunities arise when the penetration of the state in some areas are low, which is profitable for mobilization. In these respective areas, the rebels can influence the inhabitants because the state never did through providing several services for example.
Ethnic causesWhen ethnicity causes a civil war, it is considered an “ethnic civil war”. In literature, many different explanations why ethnic groups rebel are given. Grievances, opportunities, exclusion, loss of political power and competition are considered the most explanatory triggers (Denny and Walter 2014; Cederman; Lars-Erik, Wimmer, and Min 2010; Fearon and Laitin 2003; Cederman and Vogt 2017; Collier and Hoeffler 2004). As discussed in the previous section, Collier and Hoeffler (2004), showed that certain opportunities must be present before rebellion can occur. The ethnic causes, they believe, are grievances towards the state.
This is thus considered a motive to engage in violence but is according to Collier and Hoeffles (2004) nevertheless enough to start a civil war. Cederman, Wimmer, and Min (2010) mainly discuss the importance of exclusion and losing political power – nowadays or historically. They point out that ethnic groups who are excluded from the political and decision-making process, are more likely to start rebellion and violence.
Furthermore, not only discrimination in the political process but also exclusion and dissatisfaction, in general, create grievances which trigger rebellion (Denny and Walter 2014). It should however, be emphasized that ethnic conflict is not a straightforward concept but is considered different in particular regions and countries (Brubaker and Laitin, 1998). Brubaker & Laitin (1998) attempt to explain ethnic and nationalist violence through comparing research that already has been done. In addition to what is already discussed in this section, they have found three intra-ethnic processes which influence ethnic violence – which does not necessarily mean civil war. Calculated incitement, provocation or intensification of violence, sanctions posed within a certain group or ethnic outbidding are all considered processes that contribute to ethnic violence (Brubaker and Laitin 1998).
Fearon (as cited in Brubaker & Laitin, 1998) furthermore stresses the importance of leadership in a country. He states that if for example a new state is established and dominated by an ethnic group, ethnic violence is more prone when there is at least one other powerful minority group present as well. A last, and ‘realism’ approach to ethnic civil war is given by Posen (1993).
He explains the importance of the security dilemma in ethnic conflict. When a regime collapses, anarchy emerges. This situation of anarchy could create a security dilemma by different groups and as a result, create ethnic competition. This competition furthermore could lead to violence when the other groups’ security is threatened. He nevertheless emphasizes that the security dilemma is often resolved with just defensive mechanisms, and thus does not result in violence (Posen 1993).
Counterinsurgency”Counterinsurgency refers to military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychologicaland civic actions applied by the government or an occupying force to defeat orrepress an insurgency or uprising” (Mucha, 2013, p.151). Mucha (2013) examined the effect of counterinsurgency on the onset of civil war. In his research, he has found that four interdependent factors influence and trigger civil war. First, he describes that neglecting needs of a population generates the grievances discussed above.
Random operations that are done by the police create an even greater gap between population and the government because it fails to secure its citizens. If then, a government decides to change its ‘security operation’ to a military one, people will be more prone to stand up for their rights. Furthermore, it is very often the case that the military gets more freedom to handle the insurgencies. If this is the case, anger towards the government from both population – who see that the government is unable to fulfill their basic needs – and the opposition group only grows.
All these factors combined, fuelled the (counter-)insurgency and ultimately the civil war in two cases: Syria and Peru (Mucha, 2013).The political regime There is a lot of ambiguity in the literature regarding the political regime and its influence on civil war. Fearon and Laitin (2003) for example indicate that civil war is not more likely in an autocracy and neither in democracies.
They, including some other scholars, believe that the political regime as such does not influence the outbreak of civil war. They point out, however, that the transition of a political regime plays the most important role (Fearon and Laitin, 2003; Hegre et al., 2001). Political regimes which are not a democracy, nor an autocracy are found to be unstable. This instability creates the opportunities for opposition groups to rebel.
They furthermore state this argument with the fact that autocratic regimes often have the means to suppress these rebellions, which makes civil war less likely. Ohlson (2008) has established the ‘Triple-R Triangle’ theory. In his theory, he estimates that three ‘R’s are the underlying causes of civil war: Reasons, Resources, and Resolve. He splits the reasons into background conditions on the one hand and proximate conditions on the other. Regarding the influence of the political regime on civil war onset, these background conditions are considered important. Ohlson (2008) states that the influence of colonialism, and thus earlier subjection to a powerful external state is a first factor which creates greed and grievances.
As discussed in the first part, greed and grievances seem to be the most explanatory factor concerning civil war onset (Collier and Hoeffler 2004). A second background and structural condition creating these grievances consider the weak state. Weak states, especially in the international system, are unequal and unstable. These grievances on their hand are often linked to group identity, patrimonial rule, and corruption (Ohlson 2008).
This ‘weak state’ approach is also applicable to the theories of Fearon and Laitin (2003) and Hegre et al. (2001). The instability of the weak state, whether in transition to both autocracy or democracy or just an unstable state creates the Resources as described by Ohlson (2008).
These resources are capabilities and thus opportunities necessary to start fighting and can be military or organizational. A possible opportunity could thus be political instability. What caused the Syrian Civil War?With the uprising of the Arab Spring in 2011, mass protests occurred in different countries in the Middle-East and North Africa. In countries including Egypt, Libya and Yemen citizens gathered together demanding more democracy. Access to open media contributes to conflict spill over (Young et al., 2014). This is no different in Syria.
When four young school boys witnessed the mass protests in the Middle-East on social media, they painted “your turn next, doctor (Assad)” on the wall of their high school (Junger and Quested, 2017). They got arrested, held in captivity and were brutally abused by the police. This event encouraged the Syrian people to organize peaceful demonstrations against the actions of their autocratic president Bashar Al-Assad.
The Syrian Civil War eventually started when Assad brutally cracked down these protests by using violence (Olanrewaju and Joshua, 2015). On the contrary to what the regime expected, these demonstrations did not stop after the violence occurred but it only encouraged larger parts of Syria to join the protests. In the summer of 2012, the actions of the government created armed resistance and resulted in a full-blown war (Olanrewaju and Joshua, 2015).When considering the above-mentioned theories regarding civil war onset, the counterinsurgency theory seems to be the most explanatory one. However, once again civil war is not an easy phenomenon and is mostly not caused by only one factor. If we take the economic causes into account in the analysis of the Syrian conflict, only little evidence can be found. Haddad (2011) found some tendencies in the economy of Syria, right before the civil war occurred. He found that in 2010, the Syrian economy was relatively stable.
But however, the sustainability of the economic growth is still ambiguous. Regarding the poverty and income rates in Syria, no data is available. The poor country theory, therefore, cannot be confirmed. The theory of Newman (1991) could give an explanation when a certain interpretation is made.
The Western lifestyle of Bashar Al-Assad in his youth encouraged him to modernize Syrian society. He therefore introduced the Internet in Syria (Grohe 2015). Even though only 22.5 percent of Syrian population had access to the Internet and it was mostly controlled by the government, the social media did contribute to the onset of the war (Grohe 2015). A third economic theory took natural resources into account (Humphreys 2005). When looking at oil production in Syria it has gradually decreased over the years, which of course results in a decrease in oil revenues (Haddad 2011). Nevertheless, actions have been taken by the Syrian government to improve this situation.
This will probably make Syria more dependent on from foreign countries in the future but has not generated large-scale differences in the country. This furthermore implies that the natural resources theory is not applicable to Syria. Ethnically speaking, Syria is adequately homogenous (Olanrewaju and Joshua 2015). But even though 80 percent of the Syrian population is Arab, the differences in religion are worth mentioning. When 74 percent of the population in Syria is Sunni, the government is predominantly Alawite, a Shiite offshoot (11 percent) (Olanrewaju & Joshua, 2015; “World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Syria,” 2011). However the outbreak of the Syrian civil war cannot directly be linked to these differences, it is possible that the majority of the Syrian people feel neglected by the government.
As mentioned above, this could of course create grievances against the Syrian government because they do not feel presented in the political processes (Cederman; Lars-Erik, Wimmer, and Min 2010). The ‘security dilemma theory’ of Posen (1993) furthermore, gives no explanation regarding the Syrian civil war. This is due to the fact that there was no anarchy when the civil war started.
On the contrary, they started fighting their autocratic president. As previously discussed, the counterinsurgency theory by Mucha (2013) already explains why the war in Syria occurred. Mucha (2013) proved with his analysis that indeed, counterinsurgency fuelled the civil war in Syria. The operations done by the police, by arresting these schoolboys, created a gap between the government and the population (Mucha 2013).
The fact that Assad traded this ‘security operation’ in a military one against its citizens, encouraged them to create an armed rebellion and fight back. It is however important to investigate the characteristics of the political regime to see whether or not this could also have had an influence on the civil war. Calculations of both the Freedom House and Polity IV indicate that Syria is an autocratic regime, and already was before the civil war occurred (The Freedom House 2010; Polity IV 2014). When examining the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the theories of Fearon & Laitin (2003) and Hegre et al. (2001) are possibly outdated. They state that the actual political regime has no influence on the onset of civil war.
With the Arab Spring uprisings since 2011 however, this theory can be refuted. The fact that these civil wars with mass protests occurred, is only due to the fact that they lived in an autocratic regime. This implies that the political regime does influence civil war and that not only countries in transition are vulnerable to it. They furthermore explained how civil war occurrence is less likely in autocratic regimes, because they have the means to suppress these uprisings (Fearon and Laitin 2003; Hegre et al. 2001). Nevertheless, the exact opposite appears to be true when examining the war in Syria since the suppressing resulted in civil war.
On the contrary, the theory of the weak state provided by Ohlson (2008) gives us more insight on the importance of the state structure. A weak state is considered to generate instability, inequality and division amongst its citizens. This is furthermore often linked with patrimonial rule and corruption which develops certain social identities and very often exclusion as a result (Ohlson 2008).
The Syrian government together with its army is indeed patrimonial and corrupted (Heydemann 2013). As mentioned above, the government is particular Alawite, which is a Shiite offshoot, while 74 percent is Sunni (Minority Rights Group International 2011). Combined with the patrimonial rule, this could cause enormous grievances amongst the population, which furthermore instigates a weak state. It is very plausible that these generated social identities contributed to the enmity towards Assad and his government, and thus encouraged the population even more to armed rebellion (Cederman; Lars-Erik, Wimmer, and Min 2010; Ohlson 2008). In addition it is important to emphasize that while the Civil War was proceeding, the state and its infrastructure weakened even more. This resulted in a gap, which Islamic State (formerly known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL) knew how to fill in (Olanrewaju and Joshua 2015). The interference of Islamic State in Syria only worsened the conflict both nationally and internationally. ConclusionMany scholars have attempted to understand the causes of civil war, especially after the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
These theories, however, should maybe be reconsidered since the Arab Spring occurred in 2011. With this essay, I have investigated how the contemporary literature regarding the onset of civil war, is applicable to the Syrian Civil war that started in 2012. It is however always the case that one single variable or trigger cannot fully explain why a (civil) war occurs. The theory that is considered to be most applicable is the one of Mucha (2013). He explains why counterinsurgency fuels the civil war in Syria. Looking at the events happening at the beginning of the civil war, with several repressive actions of the government, this is the most explanatory trigger recently given in literature. The civil war occurred when Assad and his government tried to suppress peaceful demonstrations using violence against its citizens. This essay, however, tried to take a deeper insight into underlying factors and triggers causing this conflict.
Aside from the counterinsurgency theory, two important causes can explain the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. First, the modernization theory of Newman (1991) explains to us how the modernization of society can influence the onset of civil war. The fact that Assad introduced the Internet to society, in order to modernize it, resulted in young school boys being inspired by the Arab Spring. And thus painting an anti-government sentence on the wall. This is considered the first event that triggered the Civil War.
Second, the fact that a religious minority governs the country could create greed and grievances towards the state (Cederman; Lars-Erik, Wimmer, and Min 2010). The patrimonial state and corruption generated by the government, along with the fact that it is a religious minority, does not only exclude parts of the population from the decision-making process but does also create a weak state. Both of these outcomes influence the likelihood of civil war (Cederman; Lars-Erik, Wimmer, and Min 2010; Ohlson 2008; Fearon and Laitin 2003; Collier and Hoeffler 2004). It is necessary for further scholars to investigate the causes of the Arab Spring and Syrian Conflict in great depth, since the dominant literature already existing is not fully compatible with these happenings.