Syria, Crisis Ecologies, and Enduring Insecurities in the MENA

Samer Abboud, Villanova University

If there were an archetypal subject in the MENA region today, who would that be and who would guarantee their security? The questions of ‘who protects?’, ‘who/what is a threat?’, and ‘what is being protected?’ have no immediate answers in the context of a fragmentation of securitizing actors and proliferating security referents. People within the region are subject to overlapping insecurities, from the slow, gradual decimation of livelihoods through climate change to the immediate upending of life by a pandemic or the onset of war. These overlapping and entangled insecurities constitute what I think of as crises ecologies, assembling at the intersections of civil conflict, mass human displacement, proxy wars, environmental and epidemiological crisis, state militarization, external intervention, and economic collapse. Crisis ecologies are robust, generated by and generative of differential notions of security and threat, promoting practices that contribute to enduring insecurities in the region.

The Syrian conflict sits at the epicenter of the region’s crisis ecologies and highlights the entanglements of individual and regional crises. The prospects for resolving the Syrian conflict remain contingent on the desecuritization and disentangling of internal and external threats that are fueled by regional circuits of power. As Rafeef Ziadeh[1] argues, the perpetuation of conflict in the region occurs through various circuits of power that connect “stable” spaces to conflict zones through, for example, overlapping cartographies of militarization and humanitarianism. These circuits have become constitutive elements of the post-GWoT regional order in which violence, militarism, and the suppression of political demands have become core pillars of state transformation. At the regional level, the question posed by Pinar Bilgin of “Whose Middle East?”[2] is to be secured remains relevant. For Bilgin, this question has produced conflicting visions of what threat and security mean in the region that induce securitizing actors to adopt policies that produce insecurity for others. The absence of a common definition of internal security and external threat opens up the space for radically different security and insecurity referents. Fragmented regional visions are generative of conflict, not paralysis or inertia. In other words, I do not believe that the Syrian conflict and regional crises are frozen in the way that, for example, the Cypriot conflict is frozen. The Syrian conflict continues to metastasize precisely because of how it sits at the intersections of so many regional circuits that generate crises rather than contribute to resolving them.

Syria’s conflict ontology has been shaped by these regional circuits of power and through compounding crises external to the conflict itself, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the imposition of international sanctions, climate change, and regional economic collapse. The principle international approach to reconciliation and conflict resolution in Syria has been through approaches that attempt to force deliberation between different constellations of power roughly organized around “opposition” or “regime” poles, with different international and domestic actors to the conflict represented in one pole. Attempts by the United Nations[3] to facilitate peace in Syria have approached the problem in this way, from trying to impose an agenda for peace and political transition (Annan), to forging great power consensus (Brahimi), to building peace from the “bottom-up” (de Mistura) through ceasefires and local reconciliations. These attempts have failed spectacularly, not solely because they were unable to produce a way out of crises and to force concessions from different constellations of power, but because they advanced liberal norms that were incapable of addressing the regional circuits and crises ecologies that shaped Syria’s conflict ontology. Syria’s conflict ontology is illiberal, driven and shaped by the authoritarian management of war and peace that seeks a violent bifurcation of society into the loyal and disloyal and the consecration of authoritarian rule through new legal regimes of power and the continuation of state violence against recalcitrant populations.[4]

The Syrian conflict ontology thus poses two principal problems for questions of peace and reconciliation. The first problem is how a regional order defined by persistent conflict can be reoriented to facilitate desecuritization and reconciliation. This is not only to ask who will desecuritize but how will desecuritization occurs. The second problem is how a normative framework could emerge to facilitate such a transition away from persistent conflict to an untangling of crises. This is to ask how a common normative structure could emerge to foster dialogue and deliberation between different securitizing actors within the region. The United Nations approach to reconciliation in Syria was incapable of providing a sufficient response to these problems or an alternative political framework for reconciliation that could have extracted the Syrian conflict from the regional circuits that fueled it.

Crisis ecologies persist because of an emergent normative order that disincentivizes securitizing actors to engage in deliberation, negotiation, and the desecuritization of threats. In Syria we see the emergence of such an order reflected at both the domestic and regional levels where illiberal norms are advanced by the Syrian regime and the tripartite Astana powers[5] Russia, Turkey, and Iran, as approaches to conflict resolution. While framing reconciliation in terms and processes that mimic[6] liberal peacebuilding, the Astana Process has actually sought to establish a post-conflict order that submits Syrian sovereignty to the negotiation and consensus of the tripartite powers. The Astana Process began as a mechanism for Russia and Turkey to monitor battlefield ceasefires but has since grown into a complex forum for regional dialogue over Syria’s future in which issues ranging from a new Syrian constitution to joint Russia-Turkish military patrols are deliberated and decided upon. Since its creation in 2017, the Astana Process has effectively supplanted the Geneva process as the mechanism for regional deliberation over how to resolve the Syrian conflict. In this way, illiberal norms and conflict management strategies have come to shape Syria’s trajectory.

The norms proffered by the Astana Process do not advance prospects for regional desecuritization but serve to strengthen regional circuits of power.  This order is emerging through a negotiated vision that seeks the management of the Syrian battlefield through the perpetuation of external influence on armed groups as the core goal of deliberation. Astana thus reinforces Syria’s authoritarian conflict ontology. The ultimate aim of the Astana Process is not to eliminate violence but rather to manage it through creating battlefield conditions for the negotiation over who gets to exercise authority over what territory, who can influence what actors, and what counts as permissible violence. In this sense, the evolving policies of the tripartite powers are relational and dependent on the specific conditions of the battlefield at any moment.[7] Major battlefield questions, such as policy towards the northeastern areas under Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control or areas in Idlib governorate dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), remain subject to tripartite negotiation and consensus. In this way, the tripartite powers have been successful in mostly transforming major armed groups into extensions of their own policies on the ground.

The tripartite management of the Syrian battlefield has paralleled efforts at imposing a post-conflict order that rejects the inclusion of former belligerents into the political process. The Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC), while operating under the auspices of the United Nations, remains ineffectual because of an effective veto held by the representatives of the Syrian regime on the Committee. The Syrian Congress for National Dialogue (SCND) was created out of Astana as a way to manufacture an opposition movement that was willing to negotiate with the Syrian regime. Similarly, proposals for parliamentary reform, presidential term limits, and other legal reforms, have been advanced through the Astana process and serve to legitimate change in the name of post-conflict reconciliation. In all of these efforts, the normative basis of Astana’s political processes has centered on excluding the Syrian opposition from post-conflict order and concretizing regime power. The architecture of post-conflict order emerging from Astana forecloses opportunities for widespread deliberation over Syria’s future. Such a vision emerging from Astana is both the outcome of waning liberal power and interveners’ inability to shape conflict outcomes and a permissive regional environment in which illiberal norms and practices form the constitutive basis of conflict management.

Astana’s mechanism for the management of the battlefield and major political issues in Syria has occurred while the Syrian regime has passed a series of laws aimed at disenfranchising Syrians and ensuring the exclusion of large segments of the population from post-conflict politics. The regime has envisioned a post-conflict order in which the wartime bifurcations of Syrian society into friends and enemies of the state (or, loyalists and oppositionists) are consecrated as pillars of politics.[8] The exclusion of those deemed disloyal to the state is being realized through the creation of a legal architecture of citizenship and personhood that denies ‘disloyal’ Syrians various rights, including rights of residency, property ownership, bank accounts, and so on. The aim of these laws is to effectively cast out segments of the population that are constituted as real or potential threats. Drawing on a broad definition of terrorism newly enshrined in Syrian law—one  that collapses all violent and non-violent acts against the state as terrorism—the  Syrian regime has sought to render life in Syria impossible for hundreds of thousands of Syrians. These new laws leave hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians with very little recourse to rights, redress, and repatriation.

Displaced Syrians are forced to ‘settle’ their status with the government before returning to their homes. The settlement processes require Syrians to not only prove that they have not engaged in any subversive activity against the state, but to also sign a pledge never to do so. The regime’s vision of post-conflict Syria is simply an extension of wartime order in which recalcitrant populations were acted on with the full violence of the state and its battlefield allies. The violent bifurcation of Syrian society is being extended through the law and new forms of state power that ensure that all Syrians deemed disloyal or “terrorist” are unable to live their lives inside of the country. The aim of these new legal regimes is not to effect reconciliation but to consolidate regime power and it is complimented by the politics of the Astana process. For those who fear or are unable to return, the prospect of life outside of Syria is no less grim. Syrians displaced throughout the region are often subject to a range of abuses, violence, and forms of exclusion at the hands of host states and humanitarian organizations that perpetuate rather than alleviate insecurity. There is simply no space for Syrians inside or outside of their country to collectively, safely, and securely escape the regional circuits of warfare, humanitarianism, and displacement.

The normative order in the region today is generative of political options such as Astana or the regime’s settlement and reconciliation processes.[9] There is no normative framework for resolving the Syria conflict today that seriously addresses Syria’s conflict ontology as shaped by the region’s crisis ecologies. The liberal norms advanced in other cases through external intervention, especially in the late 20th century, produced varying sorts of post-conflict regimes in which liberal and illiberal norms constituted the basis of post-conflict order. This is not to express any nostalgia whatsoever for liberal hegemony, but instead to suggest that liberal norms and liberal interveners provided an alternative terrain for the negotiation of reconciliation and post-conflict order. No such countervailing force exists in the Syrian case. Liberal norms around reconciliation matter mimetically[10] in the Syrian case as illiberal actors advance core goals of political transition, reconciliation, power-sharing, and so on, but through a narrow politics of exclusion. Liberal language has been appropriated towards illiberal ends.

Who, then, can provide protection and security for our archetypal subject introduced at the beginning of this essay? Or, what/who produces enduring insecurity for our archetypal subject? Any attempt to answer these questions requires an impossible forensics of Syria’s conflict ontology. Such a forensics requires that we situate the conflict within regional circuits that allow us to think relationally about the many external interventions into Syria’s conflict, the cascading impact of war economies, the proliferation of armed groups, the absence of a deliberative political process, the regional politics of humanitarian protection and care, the shifting priorities of regional actors, the increasing traction of illiberal norms to solve conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic calamity, the proliferation of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in the West, competing regional security visions and practices, demands for ‘loyalty’ by the Syrian regime, and on and on. The relational patterns of domestic and global politics that produce insecurity for our archetypal subject are the constitutive elements of a post-GWoT, post-uprisings regional order structured around crises ecologies. Individual and collective Syrian agency in this context is circumscribed to some extent by the conflict’s entanglement in these crisis ecologies.

The archetypal subject appears to me as one caught within the circuits of these crisis ecologies without the possibility for the articulation of their own narrative of insecurity. Who will provide vaccines when they are available? Who will ensure that the displaced have rights? How can people’s economic livelihoods be secured? Individuals, armed groups, social groups, and state actors will relate to these questions differentially because of the proliferation of competing security referents and actors in the region today. The region’s crisis ecologies reinforce this emergent order rather than provide the possibilities for its unravelling.

The Syrian conflict is neither frozen nor stuck in a stalemate that prevents its resolution. There is no grand bargain waiting to be negotiated or an international peace process that will reorient the trajectory of the conflict and extract Syria from the overlapping and intersecting crises that define the contemporary regional order. Instead, an illiberal post-conflict order is being crafted that fuels regional crisis ecologies and contributes to the perpetuation of human insecurity and regional instability. Regional crisis ecologies must thus be understood as neither aberrations of an otherwise stable regional order or as stalemates that remain stagnant, generational, and in need of external intervention to resolve. The regional crisis ecologies are being produced every day, from the Astana Process negotiations, to the movement of people throughout the region, to the continued violence being inflicted on populations, and through to the short- and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on daily life. The continued deepening of these crisis ecologies suggests that the regional order is more dynamic than a ‘frozen conflict’ lens affords.


[1] Rafeef Ziadeh. 2019. Circulating Power: Humanitarian Logistics, Militarism, and the United Arab Emirates. Antipode, 51: 1684-1702.

[2] Pinar Bilgin. 2015. Region, Security, Regional Security: “Whose Middle East?” Revisited. In Monier E. (eds). Regional Insecurity After the Arab Uprisings. New Security Challenges Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp. 19-39.

[3] Asli Bâli and Aziz Rana. 2017. The Wrong Kind of Intervention in Syria. In Makdisi, K. and V. Prashad (eds.). Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations and the Arab World. Oakland: University of California Press.

[4] See Lewis, David, John Heathershaw, and Nick Megoran. 2018. “Illiberal peace? Authoritarian modes of conflict management.” Cooperation and Conflict 53 (4): 486-506 and Owen, Catherine, Shairbek Juraev, David Lewis, Nick Megoran, and John Heathershaw, eds. 2017. Interrogating Illiberal Peace in Eurasia: Critical Perspectives on Peace and Conflict. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

[5] Sinem Cengiz. 2020. Assessing the Astana Peace Process for Syria: Actors, Approaches, and Differences. Contemporary Review of the Middle East, 7(2): 200-214.

[6] Özker Kocadal, ‘Emerging Power Liminality in Peacebuilding: Turkey’s Mimicry of the Liberal Peace’, International Peacekeeping, 26, No. 4 (2019): 431-456.

[7] Christopher Phillips. 2020. The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[8] Samer Abboud. 2020. Reconciling fighters, settling civilians: the making of post-conflict citizenship in Syria. Citizenship Studies 24(6): 751-768.

[9] Marika Sosnowski, ‘Reconciliation agreements as strangle contracts: ramifications for property and citizenship rights in the Syrian civil war’, Peacebuilding.

[10] Özker Kocadal, ‘Emerging Power Liminality in Peacebuilding: Turkey’s Mimicry of the Liberal Peace’, International Peacekeeping, 26, No. 4 (2019): 431-456.