Caught in the Web of Archaic Policies
No. 3 2016 July/September
Dmitry Yevstafiev

Ph.D. in Political Science, is a Professor at the Department of Integrated Communications, Media and Design at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Five Strategic Vectors of the Syrian Conflict

Mesopotamia (“between the rivers” in Greek), the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and the Levant which embraces the current territories of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, vividly reveals the contradictions of the modern world. This region has highlighted the immediate consequences of the military conflict and absence of a full-fledged cooperative basis for the key states to maintain strategic interaction. Yet this does not rule out the possibility of certain, albeit limited, cooperation in military operations and in the political and socio-economic reconstruction of the region.

The conflict has pinpointed several long-term development vectors. While the effects have not yet fully manifested themselves, they will be clearly short-term and at a certain point may begin to shape political processes outside of the Middle East.

Vector 1. A combination of ethnic, religious, political, and economic factors

The conflict in Syria can hardly be called civilizational in its pure form, although the newly developed division is very deep. Samuel Huntington formulated classical civilizational identifiers on the basis of ethnic/religious, and cultural/behavioral distinctions. All are confirmed in the long-term historical perspective. But in this particular case some specific aspects of destabilization have emerged that cannot be labeled either national or ethnic.

Even if understood in the broadest sense, the “national” factor loses the decisive role in such divisions. Conflicts of this sort become very hard to manage because the nation state and its institutions, although understood differently, always constituted the backbone. But apart from the processes stemming from the impossibility of further preserving nation states within the framework of the colonial era (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Libya are the classic examples), the possibility has emerged of space re-division for the sake of economic gain. In other words, the factor of ethnic and religions tensions tends to fuel an ever-greater impact on the system of international relations, but it is complemented by economically motivated destabilization. Against the backdrop of globalization’s slowdown and in the context of the crisis that has affected catch-up development strategies, this factor stands out most graphically.

The diversified nature of conflicts and their consequences is the key strategic feature of world development. Syria is the first hotbed of tensions where this can be seen clearly, although to a rather limited extent for now. The country does not play a major role in the global economy and is an element of secondary importance in the global logistics system. The clash of interests may be much fiercer if it involves territories far more significant to global economic flows.

Traditional transport and infrastructure corridors and facilities with global or trans-regional importance have long been either within the “white zone” of relations among world powers (under the legal control of binding agreements), or within the “gray” region (governed by informal arrangements). The Montreux Convention is an example of the former, observed even when tensions are very intense (for instance, the current Ukrainian crisis or the Russian-Georgian war of 2008). The rules of shipping in Gibraltar, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and other specific regions are examples of the other kind.

However, new logistics corridors that emerge as a result of the world map’s redrawing tend to appear in zones of legal and political uncertainty. Hence one of the most acute concerns the Silk Road Economic Belt project raises is regulation standards. China wants to create this corridor exclusively according to its own national rules and principles, a desire that is unlikely to find enthusiastic support of the other participants. Undoubtedly, a discussion about the rules of the game will emerge in connection with such promising logistics spaces as the Nicaragua Canal and the Northern Sea Route (even though no one has so far questioned Russia’s sovereignty over it).

Vector 2. The clash of network structure and hierarchy

The 1990s witnessed overwhelming interest in network structures. Widely believed to be more effective than hierarchic configurations, network structures are more adaptive and destined to phase out the previous models of control and management in general. The concept and political practices of “color revolutions” boiled down to undermining the hierarchic structure (the state) with the flexibility and mobility of network actors. The global network space, which, it seemed, would replace the boring domination of hierarchy, was seen as a world of transnational corporations. Although essentially hierarchic, they encourage the transformation of socio-economic globalization processes into network form since they assume the role of actors within the global community.

It is noteworthy that at the phase of mature globalization (the end of the 1990s and early 2000s), transnational companies coexisted relatively peacefully and even cooperated with transnational non-governmental organizations, although the latter as a rule were positioned as fighting against the expansion of global business. For instance, a large share of the global ecological movement kept quiet about shale gas and oil production. And the initially anti-globalization Fair Trade Movement is now being used by the largest global corporation (the very same Starbucks) for marketing purposes. Theoretically, there was a possibility of harmony between them, just like the probability of a network universum in which the individual’s affiliation with a certain country would be of secondary importance behind affiliation with this or that network.

It is generally maintained that the “networkers” lost the competition to the “hierarchs” because the nation state has survived as the basic unit in the international relations system. In reality the situation is far less unambiguous. The confrontation is continuing, with the conflict in Syria and Iran providing a fresh impetus.

Radical religious communities, global crime, and international terrorist groups have mastered the mechanisms of globalization to a far greater extent than anyone else. Their influence over the past five to seven years has grown largely due to the obvious slowdown of globalization (social and socio-economic above all). In fact, network structures have displayed far more operating flexibility and have taken advantage of the opportunity to re-divide geopolitical space and redistribute key cash flows.

The Syrian conflict has demonstrated the ability of network structures to provide social services in controlled areas. Informal groups indulged in this kind of activity before and in some cases they were more successful than the state. However, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon were operating as ordinary hierarchies, which substituted for the state in the territories under their control. As for the Islamic State (outlawed in Russia) in Raqqah and Damascus and Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo and Idlib, both remained unmistakably network type organizations.

That networks have not managed to retain power is a different matter. Moreover, the networkers’ fundamental task was not so much to eliminate the hierarchic structure of a specific state as to merge with it and transform it into a sort of government; in other words, hierarchy. In some places it worked (Serbia, Tunisia, and Georgia), and in others it did not (Egypt), or brought about long-term destabilization (Ukraine). But the model of network elements’ penetration into a hierarchic structure was essentially the same everywhere. In Syria, a purely network structure (the Islamic State) and the classical state, although a rather intricately constructed one, clashed for the first time in modern history. The Islamic State, which emerged as a network and remained so throughout the larger period of the conflict, set the task of ruining the state as such. Attempts to establish their own hierarchy (statehood) caused no noticeable influence either on the military campaign or the conceptual and ideological components of the radical Islamic community. Moreover, the network pattern of organization in the Islamic space in Syria and Iraq remains, even in view of the looming risk of military defeat.

It is remarkable that the network nature of post-Maidan statehood has not yet been overcome in Ukraine despite strong outside pressure. The United States, Russia, the European Union, and the OSCE were unanimous that Ukraine should get back to hierarchy in politics and in the use of force and violence (in particular, for the purpose of eliminating the paramilitary wing of network statehood—the so-called volunteer battalions). As foreign control of Ukrainian politics eases, the network nature of statehood tends to reproduce itself.

It is also significant that the “Russian world” concept is an even greater antipode of Russian statehood. It is targeted against government institutions, which look too backward, are incapable of dynamic expansion, and are not close enough to the grassroots.

The key factor for the contradiction between the hierarchic and network models of governance is the ability of the classic nineteenth and twentieth century nation state or multi-nation state with a prevailing ethnic group to ensure effective feedback between political institutions and society. Another important question is to what extent the ruling elite can be “emancipated” to ignore public sentiment. The history of the civil war in Syria and the plight of the Bashar Assad-led political elite have provided quite a few lessons. As the ruling class grew increasingly defiant of society’s opinion, the vacuum was filled by network structures. Apparently, they provide far greater points of contact with society.

Attempts at launching statehood construction in Syria “from scratch,” for which the United States and the West have been pressing (dismantling the Alawites-based model), mean that Syria’s new statehood will begin to be erected in competition with the network pseudo-states—the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (both internationally recognized as terrorist organizations). Russia’s proposal to preserve the shell of the Assad regime but fill it with new content looks far more sensible strategically.

As a matter of fact, we have witnessed the first attempt at institutionalizing network statehood. For the first time ever an anti-system ideology was used as the basis for statehood construction.

The network challenge will apparently be acute for Islam as the most actively developing ideological system of the modern era. To a certain extent this is natural for a religion that in fact does not have a clerical hierarchy, but for that reason it was believed that the precedent is unique and cannot be transplanted to other civilizational models. However, now the focus is on networking the control of violence stemming from an ideology that uses Islam as a shell, but fills it with different content. And this is quite applicable outside Islam, at least outside the classical interpretation of Islam.

Vector 3. Strategic confrontation between monopolarity and polycentrism

The concept of multipolarity has not been confirmed in practice yet, although theoretical research into the issue and information support for it has been robust and proactive, above all from China and the academic circles it sponsors. Moreover, neither the EU nor China as potential centers of power have managed to convert their superiority in certain kinds of resources (the European Union’s regulatory and soft power and China’s economic might) into a new geopolitical status. China has focused on implanting itself into bipolarity through the global economy and has neglected the opportunity of contesting the status of a second center. Its competition with the United States is seen rather in the creation of regional coalitions, varying in composition, goals, and tasks, which cannot be moved to other parts of the world.

An attempt has been made to assert at least two new centers of power—Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both pursuing geopolitical tasks that vastly exceed their own resources. Iran has intervened in this situation in an attempt to take advantage of its own economic and, above all, political component of its potential as a center of power. Though power instruments were used locally, the effects of the armed conflicts the new centers of power stimulated have spread far beyond the boundaries of the Greater Middle East.

This is best seen in Turkey, which has been very active in its attempts to press not so much for the political or economic, but for the geopolitical program of Neo-Ottomanism. Other countries are conducting similar policies (naturally with certain allowances for their capabilities and real conditions): Poland, India, and Brazil. In the near future, Indonesia and Egypt may join in if the economic situation stabilizes. Saudi Arabia is capable of forming its own coalition on the basis of client relations with a number of Arab and African states. Full-fledged subsystems of dependence are emerging, each possessing its own development logic. But against this background the states of the half-forgotten “evil axis” look almost harmless, because none is able to fundamentally change the international system.

Russia operates within this paradigm to make use of its advantages in certain types of power within a local space. Naturally, Russia’s potential is greater than that of a usual center of power. And it has been trying to act in keeping with the logic of creating its own subsystem of alliance relations, although for the time being its efforts to this end have been ineffective politically and costly economically.

On the other hand, a group of countries has been identified that is interested in preserving the system and key trends of globalization while enjoying opportunities for pursuing a more independent course. These are, above all, the countries that are being plugged into the new institutions of U.S.-centered architecture—the Trans-Pacific Partnership or Trans-Atlantic Economic Partnership. A number of potential centers of significance, such as Vietnam, South Korea, and Germany, have demonstrated their intention to stay within the classical globalization formats, using monopolarity in their national interests. And this is an important trend that merely confirms the hypothesis that geopolitical processes are non-linear and multivectored.

The number one problem of modern U.S. policies is the strategic inability to govern the ambitions of key players and to build them into the system of global monopolarity. Dismay in the face of polycentrism has created a package of threats to global security, outlined by U.S. President Barack Obama in his address to the United Nations (Russia, the Ebola virus, and the Islamic State), with the net effect of entertaining the world public.

A number of specialists do have a point when they say that U.S. military activities in the 2000s and 2010s heralded the crisis of monopolarity. There was no longer any chance to keep the system on which it rested in balance without exercising direct military pressure.

In a world where globalization is slowing, the potential power centers’ model of choice was not only accession to this or that economic system, but primarily the buildup of military strength. Apparently, the forecasts predicting slow and asymmetrical erosion of monopolarity do make sense. This is happening at the qualitative level too: the United States is losing supremacy in national power components, while at the regional level Washington is losing its dominating position in certain regions of the world. The decline of monopolarity—due to follow if no significant events take place to either reverse or speed up this trend—will not look like an instant collapse or a quick change of the model.

It looks like the United States has missed the moment to adjust the global institutions to make them adequate to the challenges of the new era. Some steps to this end have been taken—for instance, the reform of quotas in the IMF in favor of the BRICS countries. But the situation has developed an unmistakable power bias, while the effects of partial economic appeasement are considerably weaker than they could have been under different conditions. Apparently, the assertion of the new status of military power and the political will to use it, demonstrated in Syria, Iraq, and other places, is to blame. Actions by North Korea—whose target audience is not the United States, but China and Japan—are no less indicative and confirm the theory that in the emerging system of international relations, the military strength potential is very easy to monetize.

Vector 4. The clash of high technologies and archaics in the power sphere

 As the Russian air operation in Syria has indicated, the availability of high-tech weapons of the latest generation (Kalibr cruise missiles and air-launched smart weapons) failed to give the Syrian army absolute advantage on the battlefield, although it guaranteed a favorable situation by two important parameters. First, the use of high accuracy weapons helped avoid unfavorable humanitarian effects that might have been sensitive to Russia. Second, it promptly restored parity in terms of ground forces control between the Syrian government army and the militants.

But the long-term advantage in military technology no longer played a decisive role. Moreover, the Russian airforce started widely using classical ammunition and predecessors of smart weapons (for instance, launched from Tupolev-22M3 bombers). This did not result in any negative effects on the quality of fire support from the air. Frequently the general intensity of combat operations was far more important. This was the case, even if one overlooks the cost effectiveness of using different types of weapons, which in the context of a local conflict is a key factor.

Still more indicative is the relatively low effectiveness of combat operations by the “Western coalition,” which used exclusively high-tech weapons and achieved only an imitation of results; in fact, suffering losses to the Islamic State on the ground.

It is quite correct to question the entire methodology of calculating the sub-strategic balance of power that postulates the unconditional hegemony of U.S. military power. Such an approach argues that the mobility of the U.S. armed forces is unsurpassable and coupled with superiority in high-tech weapons. But once military-technical superiority does not necessarily spell the decisive advantage even in asymmetrical conflicts (over far unequivocally weaker opponents), how reliable is the basis of military power monopolarity in reality?

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has demonstrated the limited potential of high-tech air-to-surface strikes without accompanying operations by ground troops or their capable substitute. For instance, for private military companies or volunteer detachments and militias opposing the enemy along the frontlines, getting air support is a highly welcome but not decisive bonus. Particularly when combat operations spread beyond the bounds of a quasi-colonial conflict, a classical type of conflict in the bipolar world.

There is a big question mark over the entire concept of technologizing combat engagement as the sole basis of military domination of the North at a time when the South prevails from the standpoint of demography and military resources. The first doubts regarding the correctness of “qualitative asymmetry” as an approach to conducting combat operations surfaced during the Second Lebanese War in 2006—the Israeli army’s operation against Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon. The Israelis’ total technological superiority failed to achieve indisputable results on the battlefield, while the ratio of losses turned out unfavorable. At the time it was interpreted as a casual disruption of effectiveness.

It is important to study the forms and methods of participation in the Syrian conflict. Iran provides the most interesting example. The system of military instruments that Iran created and demonstrated in Syria is possibly the most flexible of all those tested in recent military conflicts. In action, Iran tried both classical military units and the capabilities of military advisers (although the effects of their activity is possibly more questionable). Additionally, Iran deployed internal security forces (incidentally, the experience of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps IRGC in a local conflict may prove very useful in the future) and paramilitary affiliated forces (Hezbollah, both Lebanese and possibly Iranian). The country also tested ostensibly independent units of “Shiite volunteers.” Iran experimented with military potentials suiting any taste proceeding from the widest possible spectrum of potential armed conflicts that may affect its interests. No doubt there is vast room for improvement, but Iran’s potential opponents in the region either lack this kind of experience or the experience is rather negative, such as Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen.

Vector 5. More complex interaction between social reality and “information society”

The Syrian conflict has provided an example of the profound virtualization of politics (and even its power component) and of creating stable pre-engineered actors exclusively for the communication space. The “moderate opposition” is the most noteworthy one. The emergence of this term and the phenomenon’s recognition as a key element of the conflict illustrates the numerous opportunities to manipulate the information society relying on the principles of integrated communications. But the question has a different side to it.

Islamic structures master the newest manipulation techniques with relative ease. Information society takes root in archaic social structures, while the latter easily develop the knack of using the latest technologies. Globalization or archaic social systems and modes of behavior are the immediate consequence.

This phenomenon also has a delayed effect, which, incidentally, may prove the most significant of all with time. The events of the past 40 years have seen high rates of social archaization around the world. Apparently, the string of upheavals in the 1970s should be regarded as the point of departure: the beginning of radical Islamic resistance to the central authorities in Afghanistan under Mohammed Daoud (1976-1977); “bread riots” in Egypt (1977), which demonstrated the strength of archaic social institutions in modernistic-looking cities; the Islamist uprising in Syria’s Aleppo (1979); and the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978-1979). The referendum on the Islamic state system of Pakistan held by autocrat President Zia ul-Haq can be considered as the ultimate legitimization of these processes. It heralded not only a return to the past, but also the recognition of a new strategic model of social development that had until that moment shown a distinctive trend towards industrial modernization.

Subsequently, all those developments were looked upon as something that concerned the developing world alone. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria and, to a certain extent, Egypt have underwent transformation from relatively modernistic societies into archaic ones both formally and essentially. Archaization was slowed somewhat in Algeria, Tunisia, Indonesia, and Tajikistan, but only for a time. The information society’s boom not only hindered the slide back towards the past, but also was apparently one of its driving forces. With the passage of time the worldwide belief developed that archaic social and economic systems are quite acceptable.

The latest wave of instability in the Middle East and the ever-greater information transparency of post-modernistic societies enable the transition of social archaization from the developing world to countries with advanced economies. The destruction of Western fundamental social institutions is a contributing factor. Of course this process is not a fast one, and it is still far from the “point of no return,” but it makes no sense denying it either. Its manifestations are quite evident in Britain (Sharia Patrol vigilantes) and France. They are increasingly noticeable in Germany and Belgium. Primarily this concerns such basic social institutions as education.

The beginning of the struggle against the Islamic State in real life has by no means caused the virtual conflict to disappear. Rather that aspect of it has just been pushed to the sidelines, where it has acquired a new form. True, the virtual dimension loses its dominating role at the point of contact with reality. But the virtual dimension is somewhat different where such contact does not exist yet (for instance, in EU countries the expectation of terrorism and the growing fear of the consequences of migration take center stage) and the balance of virtuality and reality may be different. That allows for the recreation of an artificially engineered equivalent of the Islamic State at a fundamentally different site—outside the Levant and the Middle East.

The long-promised North-South rivalry is apparently already underway through competition between modernistic and archaic social institutions, with the archaic ones proving more competitive. They are more effective in using the opportunities of the information society. Thilo Sarrazin, a controversial German politician, pointed to this circumstance in his widely discussed book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Is Doing Away with Itself). Deconstruction is subject to classical socio-cultural institutions, especially those with organizational embodiment. In this way the framework of the Western type modern organization is eroded and replaced—at the local level for now—by archaized institutional surrogates. The high-tech information society, certainly one of the attributes of European post-modernity, is being successfully used for the archaization of European social space.

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The reviewed vectors are phenomena whose effects will manifest only in the long term. However, it is these vectors that will determine the structure and special features of the system of international relations if the slowdown of globalization becomes an operating reality and not a just political one.

The implementation of these vectors—in combination or separately—implies an expansion of the zone of instability, because in all cases the use of power instruments will be required to a certain extent. In fact, the conflict in Syria and Iraq has demonstrated to a greater extent than the anti-Russian sanctions the importance and potential effects of various power instruments in the modern world: from nearly classical wars to the use of strategic weapons. What the conflict in Syria has not shown is the limits of permissible escalation. And this is the worst threat to the system of international relations.

Russia’s foreign policy is relatively free from ideology. In a sense it is close to the practices of detente, a period when propaganda merely played the role of cover for achieving pragmatic, largely technological aims. But U.S. foreign policy is becoming increasingly ideologized to determine certain actions. This makes the strategy of limited partnership very unlikely, while casual instances of interaction (for instance, cooperation against the Islamic State) remain hostages of propagandistic inertia.

The situation will not look as hopeless if one admits that the emerged development vectors can be controlled only to a certain degree, in particular, during a period of global economic instability. Then at least attempts at a dialogue with the United States will not be ruled out (the U.S. will take care of the loyalty of its European satellites) over the destabilization red lines not to be stepped over in the system of international relations. Even more so because Obama’s remarks about the mistakes committed in Libya do provide the minimum grounds for dialogue.

Also, constructive interaction between Russia and the West will depend on the ability to expand the framework of the relatively conflict-free agenda between Russia and the U.S., which, as experience has shown, is the core of multilateral cooperation. This will be difficult, but possible, to achieve for the sake of slowing down the destructive global processes.

Russia’s strategic task for the next five to seven years is very clear. Its effective military potential (which certainly needs further expansion) should be complemented by strategic capabilities to engineer and govern at least sub-global geopolitical processes. Only the most naive people can think that the tendencies observed in Syria and Iraq will not manifest themselves in the post-Soviet space. Yet for an adequate reaction there must be a fundamentally different economic base and more effective social and governance institutions.