This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Christopher Phillips, Queen Mary University of London

Barack Obama is frequently blamed for the outcomes of the Syrian civil war. The rebels’ failure to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, the growth of a Jihadist presence that culminated in the declaration of ISIS’ Caliphate and the intervention of Russia are frequently attributed to the then-US president’s actions.[1] Such charges give considerable agency to the US president and western leaders. Yet is this accurate?

The debate over responsibility for the outcome in Syria should be understood within the terms of an ongoing debate among International Relations (IR) scholars over how much influence the choices of individual leaders have over major events such as wars and diplomacy, and how much they’re constrained and directed by overarching structural conditions. The structure-agency debate in IR is long lasting and in some ways unresolvable.[2] The core question within these debates, whether agency or structure is more significant in determining international relations, has been of particular interest to Middle East scholars and policy makers when seeking to explain the successes and failures of the 2011 Arab Uprisings.[3] Ahmed Morsy expands on these debates elsewhere in this collection, explaining how Neo-Classical Realists (NCR) have sought to bridge such divides by showing how foreign policy is produced by an interaction of domestic politics with global structural conditions.[4]

This paper argues that while the Syrian case emphasises the primary importance of global and regional structure in limiting policy, interaction with domestic politics and the agency, character and choices of leaders often determines the shape and nature of actions taken within those constraints. This paper will explore first the major international structural conditions that shaped Syria’s war and then analyse key decisions by outside players over the course of the conflict, assessing how much structure and agency affected the outcome. It concludes that while leaders such as Obama always have agency, in most cases in Syria their decisions were heavily constrained by structural factors beyond their control.

Regional and Global Structural Change

The Syria conflict, which swiftly evolved from domestic peaceful protests into multiple simultaneous civil wars and international proxy wars serves as a useful test case to contribute to this structure-agency debate, given the number of external actors involved and the number of key decisions seemingly impacting the war’s outcome.

In the decade preceding Syria’s uprising a series of structural changes occurred that would greatly impact the conflict and shape external player’s reactions, on both regional and global levels. The regional international system was shifting to an embryonic multipolar order. Since the retreat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s the Middle East could be characterised either as a unipolar order dominated by the US and its allies, with this dominance challenged not by a peer competitor but by a weak set of players including (at different times) Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and non-state actors Hezbollah and Hamas.[5] This order was unsettled in the 2000s, primarily by two factors: the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war and wider global and regional economic developments, that interacted to shift several regional (and also global) structural conditions. Firstly, Iran broke out. The fall of Saddam alongside a domestic economic boom enabled Tehran to be more regionally expansive than at any time since 1979. This led to the second shift, more active Saudi Arabian involvement in Middle Eastern politics to contain its regional enemy.

Though this Saudi-Iranian rivalry produced clients and rival blocks, this did not solidify the 2000s’ weak bipolar order because of a third shift: Turkey’s entrance as a regional power. This was due to domestic political and economic factors – the Islamist-leaning ideology of its ruling AK party and the hunt for new markets for a booming manufacturing sector. Qatar, benefitting from a fossil fuel boom driven by Chinese demand, also entered regional politics as an independent force. Qatar and Turkey’s ambitions ensured the regional system became multipolar rather than bipolar.

A final regional structural shift was the growth of fragile states. The collapse of Iraq after 2003 and growing instability in Yemen increased the arenas for regional competition within this emerging multi- polar order. It also created space for significant Jihadist and other non-state actors. In the run up to 2003, Lebanon and, to an extent, Palestine had been the primary battleground for regional rivalries. After 2003 Iraq and Yemen were added to this list and, after 2011, Libya, Syria and (briefly) Egypt. These latter two shifts were particularly impacted by internal developments and the ambitious policies of particular leaders, while the first two owed more to external structural changes. This neatly echoes Morsy’s point of how difficult it is for Neo Classical Realists to consistently place more emphasis on either structure or domestic factors to explain foreign policy change.

At the global level, the international system was also shifting, though less obviously, towards a multi-polar order. The US’s imperial over stretch and failure in Iraq in 2003-11, public war weariness and the 2008 financial crisis meant the US was becoming less inclined towards interventionism.[6] This contributed to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 who promised a withdrawal from Iraq and a tilt towards Asia. At the same time China’s economy was booming and challenging the US-dominated order in South East Asia and Africa, while Russia was also becoming more assertive under Vladimir Putin. The multi-polar international order would become more visible during the course of the Syria conflict, but the ingredients were present by 2011, stretching back to the strategic blunder of the 2003 Iraq war and its unintended consequences.

This structure of regional multipolarity embedded within a declining global unipolarity would have notable consequences in Syria.

The Regional Level: Intervention from Local Powers

To illustrate how leaders’ decisions interacted with and were often constrained by these structural conditions, the remainder of this paper case studies key decisions, often seen as the turning points in the conflict. Arguably the most significant decision was that made by Bashar al-Assad to violently supress protests in 2011, which set Syria on the path to war. The internal structure of Syria’s politics generates its own fascinating structure-agency debate which we don’t have time to explore here. The focus instead is on the key external decisions that shaped the war, and three stand out: the decision by regional powers to sponsor Syrian fighters rather than seeking mediated solutions; the decision by the US to limit its intervention in the conflict until the emergence of ISIS in 2014; and the decision by Russia to intervene on Assad’s side in 2015.

The eagerness of regional powers to send money, weapons and support to Assad and his opponents in the first years of the crisis played a major role in its rapid escalation from protests to civil war.[7] The opposition, for example, received direct and indirect encouragement from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to pursue a military solution in the face of Assad’s violent suppression in 2011-12. The embryonic Free Syria Army was allowed to base itself in Turkey in July 2011. Qatar funnelled arms to the rebels via its Libyan allies as early as November 2011, and promised $100 million in support in February 2012. Saudi Arabia used tribal allies to procure arms in February 2012, the same month that it and Qatar urged the international community to back the rebels.[8] This contrasted with their swift abandonment of an Arab League peace initiative barely a month after its creation in December 2011. Though they noted Assad’s frequent violation of the agreement, both were arming rebels soon after its collapse, suggesting a lukewarm interest in mediation at best.

On the other side, Iran also encouraged a violent response from its ally. Iran initially urged Assad to avoid mass slaughter, but when Damascus ignored these pleas, Tehran still supported it. In 2011 the first Iranian military advisors arrived in Damascus. The next year Tehran dispatched its Lebanese ally Hezbollah to fight the rebels, and by 2013 there was a sizeable Iranian-sponsored military contingent in Syria eventually including Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani Shia militia, commanded by IRGC Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani. As the conflict turned violent Iran increased its military resources rather than means to peacefully resolve the crisis.

These actions were shaped by the structural changes discussed. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey showed themselves to be ‘pro-war’: believing violence was the quickest and most effective route to topple Assad. Qatar and Turkey’s activism was enabled by the structural shifts of 2003-11, giving each the confidence to intervene. Had a similar uprising broken out in Syria in 2001, the Kemalist government in Ankara and a then-insignificant Qatar would not likely have acted the same way. Saudi Arabia likewise may have been more cautious. The growth of Iran and the perceived ‘loss’ of Iraq in 2003 meant many Saudi Arabian policy makers looked at Syria in 2011 as an opportunity to correct the perceived regional imbalance. Iran’s position was less impacted by structural shifts. The Assad regime was an ally since 1979 and Tehran would likely have sent help if asked irrespective of the post-2003 changes. That said, the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian ally did make it easier for Iran to act: giving Iranian planes access to Iraqi air space after December 2011 allowing easier resupply to Damascus.

Such structural changes did not make the regional powers’ behaviour in 2011-12 inevitable, but they transformed Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s regional position, making their entry into the conflict seem easier and thus more likely.

The Global Level: Washington and Moscow

Despite the emerging multi-polar order, the US was still the world’s most powerful actor. Had it decided to, the Obama administration would have been able to topple the Assad regime by force. The fact that it did not do so has led many to attribute Assad’s survival to Obama’s inaction: emphasising agency. Yet Obama was constrained by structural forces, limiting his realistic options. Obama could have ordered a direct US-led military attack on Assad, like George W. Bush in Iraq. However, the failures of 2003 showed Obama that military-led regime change did not always produce favourable outcomes. Neo-Classical Realists would further note domestic constraints: the public were not on side as they had been after 9/11, and the economy was weak following the financial crisis. Even had he wanted to, and it certainly wasn’t his preferred course, Obama would have struggled to shake off these limits.

More feasible was greater US support to rebel forces, possibly including air support, as occurred in Libya in 2011. Yet Obama did not trust the rebels sufficiently, correctly fearing Islamists and Jihadist among them, and recognised this still would be insufficient to tip the balance against Assad. He twice vetoed an arming plan by Hilary Clinton and David Petraeus for these reasons in 2012, even though he eventually relented and sent limited weapons from Spring 2013. Two structural factors came into play here. Firstly, the presence of jihadists was greatly exacerbated by the 2003 Iraq war. Secondly, the growth in power and influence of regional actors such as Qatar meant that the US struggled to monopolise the flow of arms. Indeed, in Libya when the US did back the rebels more extensively, they couldn’t prevent Qatar and UAE from backing rival groups and destabilising the post-Gadhafi environment. Indeed, the debacle of post-intervention Libya further deterred Obama in Syria. Obama was also conscious that the US had a bad record of arming proxies going back decades. In that sense perhaps Obama’s agency did come into play as he was much more willing to reject the foreign policy establishment’s usual tools in an attempt to avoid past mistakes.[9]

Obama’s twin decisions on direct strikes – not to go through with a prepared attack on Assad in September 2013 after he allegedly used chemical weapons, and putting together an international coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014 – also suggest considerable agency. The US military and White House staff were fully prepared for a missile strike on Damascus in 2013, only for Obama himself to defer at the last moment. Echoing Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s point elsewhere in this collection about the significance of ‘middle powers’, the UK parliament’s vote not to join the strikes seems to have contributed to the president’s wavering. Obama eventually reasoned that he would more effectively remove chemical weapons from Syria via a proposed deal with Russia. Yet this was not all down to his agency and structural factors came into play. Russia’s increased global importance made it a viable partner to facilitate a deal. Obama’s caution also stemmed from a fear that the strike would set a precedent and suck the US into another Middle Eastern quagmire – something he was reluctant to do after unpopular failures in Iraq and Libya.

So why did Obama then launch a direct intervention in Syria barely a year later, against ISIS rather than Assad? Though the arena was the same, the mission was quite different. In 2013 the attack would have been to protect the international norm against using chemical weapons and possibly to help topple a dictator. In 2014 Obama’s intervention, while also having a humanitarian framing in preventing a Yezidi genocide in Iraq, was presented domestically as counter-terrorism. Unlike in 2013 Obama made no attempt to seek congressional approval, launching it via executive order. This might suggest Obama’s agency is the best explanation. However, there were strong structural drivers. The growth of Jihadists actors like ISIS had emerged out of the structural changes of the 2000s: the chaos of post-2003 Iraq. While Obama did not seek congressional approval, there was broad support for his actions, unlike in 2013 when Obama’s aides feared he might lose any vote.[10] After 9/11 US law makers and public opinion were broadly united on the need to confront jihadists, whereas the perceived threat from dictators like Assad was far less.[11] In fact, in the post 9/11 era it is hard to imagine many US presidents being less confrontational that Obama on groups such as ISIS.

A third and final key decision was Moscow sending its air force to Syria in 2015, later supported by Special Forces and military police, which shifted the conflict decisively in Assad’s favour. While victory was still not guaranteed, Assad’s defeat was off the cards from this point. This intervention was the product of several actions. Firstly, Iran’s appeal to Moscow for help – sending Suleimani to Moscow in summer 2015. Secondly, President Putin’s decision to act. There were several motives behind his involvement that show the NCR’s interplay between domestic and foreign factors: a desire to contain radical Islamists that might infiltrate southern Russia; appealing to Russian Orthodox supporters by protecting Syria’s Christians; asserting Russia’s resurgent foreign policy against the West; and providing combat experience for the Russian military. However, the timing of the intervention was due to an imminent threat that Assad might collapse.

The agency factor here is quite strong. Structurally, the emerging multi-polar global order which permitted Russia to be more active came about due to factors beyond Russia’s control: the economic boom of China in the 2000s and the imperial and financial over-stretch of the US. Yet how Moscow inserted itself into this order owed much to the policies of its leader, which are either ingenious or reckless depending on your perspective.[12] Putin responded aggressively to the changing regional environment. The 2008 Georgia war was a prelude to further military and covert operations including the Ukraine campaign and annexation of Crimea in 2013-14, the intervention in Syria in 2015, interference in the US election of 2016 and various acts of espionage in the UK. In the Syrian case, while the structural forces perhaps necessitated Russian involvement to save its ally, the form it took seemed very ‘Putinist.’ Russia could, for example, have sent planes to be commanded by Syrian pilots or to be under Assad’s command. Yet Putin intervened directly – making a significant geopolitical statement beyond just saving Assad. The shifting structure of the international system provided space for Russia to act, in this case deterring the US from becoming directly involved and potentially blocking Moscow’s 2015 intervention, but it was Putin’s agency that determined the shape of the involvement.

Conclusion: Structure Over Agency?

The actions of international leaders impacted how the Syria conflict played out and personality mattered. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emir Hamad of Qatar were both ambitious and interventionist while alternative leaders may have been less reckless. Likewise, Obama was instinctively cautious, while Putin was a gambler. However, the options available to them were enabled or constrained by the structural environment in which they operated. Erdogan and Hamad were only able to act because space had opened up in the emerging multi-polar regional order. Obama was cautious because of US imperial overstretch and Putin felt he could be reckless because of structural US retreat. In some cases structure seems particularly dominant. This is especially so with Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose regional enmity appears relatively fixed, whoever is in charge.

Individual decisions did shape specific outcomes, such as Obama’s decision to call off his strike in 2013 or Putin’s to intervene in 2015. However, the overall trends seemed more directed by structure. Putin was likely to prop up Assad, even if the shape of the intervention was particular to him. Obama could have gone ahead in 2013, but he would not likely have allowed himself to be sucked further into the Syria conflict. His strike may have ended up like Donald Trump’s hits on Assad in 2017 and 2018: a rap on the knuckles, but not the decisive intervention oppositionists hoped for. The fact that Trump has not substantially stepped up US Syria policy, despite posing as the anti-Obama, reinforces the notion that structure rather than agency drove responses to this conflict. Obama may frequently be blamed for the outcome of the war, but in reality regional and global structural conditions appear more important in driving the Syria conflict than the agency of whoever was sitting in the White House.

Endnotes:

[1] See for example Cohen, Roger, ‘America’s Syria Shame,’ New York Times 8/2/16 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/opinion/americas-syrian-shame.html [accessed 10/10/18]; Tisdall, Simon, ‘The Epic failure of our age: how the West let down Syria’ The Guardian 10/2/18 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/10/epic-failure-of-our-age-how-west-failed-syria [accessed 10/10/18]; Gerson, Michael, ‘The horrific results of Obama’s failure in Syria’ Washington Post 3/9/15.

[2] Bieler, Andreas, and Adam David Morton. ‘The Gordian Knot of agency—structure in international relations: A neo-Gramscian perspective.’ European Journal of International Relations 7.1 (2001): 5-35

[3] Hinnebusch, Raymond. ‘Conclusion: agency, context and emergent post-uprising regimes.’ Democratization 22.2 (2015): 358-374; Valbjørn, Morten (2017). Strategies for Reviving the International Relations/Middle East Nexus after the Arab Uprisings. PS: Political Science & Politics, 50(3), 647-651.

[4] See also Ripsman, Norrin M., Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, and Steven E. Lobell. Neoclassical realist theory of international politics. (London: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] Different interpretations discussed in F. Gregory Gause, ‘Beyond sectarianism: the New Middle East Cold War’, Brookings Doha Center (2014); Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation (London: Scribe, 2013); Curtis Ryan, ‘The new Arab cold war and the struggle for Syria’, Middle East Report 262 (2012): 28–31.

[6] Lynch, Marc, ‘Right-Sizing America’s Mideast Role’ Foreign Policy 11/1/13 https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/01/11/right-sizing-americas-mideast-role/ [accessed 10/10/18]

[7] Phillips, Christopher, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (London: Yale University Press, 2016) p. 82

[8] Ibid p.137

[9] Goldberg, Jeffrey, ‘The Obama Doctrine’ The Atlantic April 2016

[10] Brian Beutler, ‘Obama’s Bombing Syria Without Authorization—and Congress Couldn’t Be Happier’ The new Republic 23/9/14 https://newrepublic.com/article/119544/obama-authorized-isis-strikes-syria-and-congress-ok [accessed 10/10/18]

[11] The importance of perception is expanded on and explored elsewhere in this collection. For example, May Darwich discusses the role of perceived roles in regional politics and how those roles can change, while Curtis Ryan and Ahmed Morsy both reconsider’s Steven Walt’s classic text on the importance of perceived threat in explaining alliances and behavior.

[12] Rachman, Gideon, ‘Putin is reckless, but not irrational. He can be deterred’ The Irish Times 20/3/18

Structure, Agency and External Involvement in the Syria conflict