The situation in Syria is very complex and difficult to comprehend. An analysis of the country, region and global factors (beyond usual suspects of oil and arms industry) could help in drawing some lessons. For this, it would be useful to step back from the trees and observe the bigger picture of the forest. The resulting analysis is not prescriptive or critical, and given the complexities of the subject, no analysis can be comprehensive.
When viewed through Adam Smith’s framework, Syria does not have an abundance of productive land, labour and capital, while having small reserves of oil and natural resources. Aleppo (north) and Damascus (south) are the two major commercial centres. Much of the land in the eastern half is not conducive to agriculture. The north-east has the Euphrates and its allied rivers, and is the main agrarian region. Restricted access to the Mediterranean via the Homs gap, distance from the Suez and Persian Gulf and a very weak navy imply that its ability to interdict supply chains of commerce is not a serious threat. By itself Syria would not be a critical area for those interested in trade in the region. The country does not have significant comparative advantages. Low indices for education and gender inequality limit the ability to develop competitive advantages.
Syria has been on the path of almost every empire going from east to west (or vice-versa) for two millennia. These empires extend in time from the Egyptian, Persian, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Abbasid, Ottoman, to the British-French and USSR.
In 2012, the Gini coefficient of inequality was 0.36, per capita annual income was about $5300 and population living in poverty was about 17%. These indicators and the (relatively low) HDI score compare favourably with many other developing countries. Syria has been admirably secular in its religious outlook. Despite such favourable indicators, scholars have pointed out for decades that it is a potential tinder-box of the Middle East. It is a dictatorship, and a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural country in which significantly greater than half of the population was deprived of political opportunities. It is collapsing like some other countries (notably Yugoslavia, Iraq and even the Soviet Union) have collapsed earlier. One of the common features in these collapsed multi-ethnic states has been that they have not been politically inclusive. Regardless of economic welfare and equality, when a number of ethnicities/sects believe that they do not have opportunities for equitable political representation (like one person one vote), the stage seems to be set for failure of the nation-state. Supply follows demand, whether for guns or for textbooks.
Syria has been on the path of almost every empire going from east to west (or vice-versa) for two millennia. These empires extend in time from the Egyptian, Persian, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Abbasid, Ottoman, to the British-French and USSR. Its location in the Levant makes it important to the “south-eastern” edge of Europe across the Mediterranean. A country on the travel path of empires was generally subjected to suffering in the past. In modern times, Singapore (smaller and less complex clearly) has used its location on the maritime pathways to build itself into a prosperous country from 1962. Its success highlights the importance of focus on development, equality among ethnicities and a “win-win” approach overall. Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography highlights the challenges for small developing countries located in strategic spaces and bereft of natural resources.
The multipolar region has four key players: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt, and a fifth one if Israel is included. The interests of these players do not seem to coincide, and may indeed conflict.
The multipolar region has four key players: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt, and a fifth one if Israel is included. The interests of these players do not seem to coincide, and may indeed conflict. These rivalries draw in external players who have interests in the region, or who come in to support one or more of the regional players. After WWII, multi-polarity and centuries of conflict ended in Europe, and the system became bipolar with a land power (USSR) in balance with an overseas balancer (USA). The resultant stability facilitated the development of western Europe. Multi-polarity seems to contribute to making a region more unstable and conflict prone. The Middle East does not yet show structural stability, as seen through the Liberalism and Realism lenses. The thoughts of Kenneth Waltz and John Meirsheimer in their works are illustrative.
The conflict prone ASEAN region grasped the opportunities of regional (1977) and global changes (1991), and evolved a regional vision of co-prosperity. They have partially succeeded in developing co-operative institutions, despite countries being at widely varying stages of development. By 2050 ASEAN can potentially develop to collectively have the 3rd highest GDP in the world (there are early signs of political challenges in ASEAN now which may need to be managed). In contrast, the region in which Syria lies has not focused on co-prosperity and all round regional development, despite receiving trillions of dollars from proceeds of oil sales. In a region with many countries with high per capita incomes, Syria received about $12 per capita in developmental aid in 2011.
The inexplicable war of 2003, whose strategic rationale (if any) is unclear, has been a driver and catalyser of serious regional instability.The fledgling “Arab Spring” has been another seminal event whose prospective effect on the region should not be underestimated. Starting from late 1947, the European region (and occupied Germany) made rapid progress enabled by a vision of shared prosperity and security, and institutional arrangements (Marshall plan, NATO and European communities). One of the features of the success of Mr Yew (Singapore) and Sultan Qaboos (Qatar) has been their commitment to institutions of governance. Despite 70 years of independence, Syria (like many developing countries) have not yet built adequate institutions or have degraded them.The thoughts of Daniel Acemoglu on the importance of institutions in his work in “Why Nations Fail” are illustrative.
Asia is celebrating the dawn of the Asian century in 2014, like Europe did in 1914. In the 2020s, despite economic growth, Asia could potentially face serious political turmoil which will test its political leaders.
President Obama came to office with the expressed intention of not getting involved in overseas conflicts and gradually pulling back from existing commitments.The reality now is different and the chorus is growing within the region for increased commitment. The actions of leaders are dictated by imperatives, constraints and capabilities. Intentions can change quickly, while capabilities change over the long-term. These long-term imperatives are elaborated by George Friedman in his work in “The Next Decade.” Henry Kissinger highlights that, in such contexts, the choice for a decision-maker is always between the lesser of evils, and a good choice is most often not available.
An under reported problem in Syria has been the impact of water (and food) challenges. By 2030-35, the global demand for water may exceed freshwater supply by 40%. Brahma Chellaney in his work has highlighted the risk of conflict driven by water shortages. “Global warming” could thus lead to more instability in various parts of the world, giving urgency to efforts related to climate change.
Finally, as businesses face a “vuca” environment, countries face an anarchic (implying lack of hierarchy) world. The observations of Ian Bremmer in “G-zero Worlds” are illustrative. The international system is based on the Westphalia “sovereign-state” since ~1680 AD, and the breakdown of the nation-state system in the Middle East is one of the major changes unfolding. Asia is celebrating the dawn of the Asian century in 2014, like Europe did in 1914. In the 2020s, despite economic growth, Asia could potentially face serious political turmoil which will test its political leaders. It may be useful for its citizens to keep some of the above lessons in mind.