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Expert Views: How Seven Years of War in Syria Changed Modern Conflict

As the war in Syria marked its seventh anniversary this month, Syria Deeply’s expert community weighed in on what the conflict can teach us about 21st-century wars.

Written by Kim Bode, Hashem Osseiran, Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Syrian pro-regime forces advance on the outskirts of Ain Tarma in Eastern Ghouta as they continue to press their offensive to capture the rebel-held enclave on the doorstep of Damascus on March 21, 2018. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT – While the war in Syria is by no means the only 21st-century conflict, it is often described as one of the worst in the last 100 years. Seven years of fighting has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced over half of the country’s pre-war population.

As part of our “Expert Views” series, Syria Deeply collects insights from our expert community to understand what the war in Syria has taught us about modern conflicts, particularly when it comes to the role of foreign intervention, the limits of humanitarian efforts, counterterrorism and the impact of disinformation and propaganda.

The Role of Foreign Intervention and Proxy Groups

Rifaie Tammas, PhD candidate at Macquarie University, Australia

Foreign powers’ intermittent support to various opposition groups has contributed to their fragmentation and weakness, while [foreign] support to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has enhanced its cohesion and strength. This is because the Assad regime already had stable relations with its allies, better systems in place to channel foreign support and superior military and organizational strength. Meanwhile, the political and armed opposition had to establish connections with foreign backers from scratch, while also working towards better unity among their ranks. The ideological and strategic difference among opposition bodies was another main reason for their weakness. Foreign actors have contributed to that fragmentation as each actor supported a side that can fulfill their strategic objective in Syria.

The Limitations of Humanitarian Efforts

Dr. Claire Healy, trafficking research officer, International Centre For Migration Policy Development

We conducted a study on the effects of the Syrian conflict on human trafficking in Syria and its neighboring countries. We found that one of the main reasons why displaced Syrians are vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation is that their basic needs – food, income generation, accommodation, education – are not being met, both within Syria, and when they are refugees in neighboring countries. The short-term focus on providing “humanitarian aid” needs to be reformed, and the priority must be ensuring that people affected directly by war and related violence, people displaced within their country, and people living as refugees outside their country have ways of accessing decent, regular work and generating an income to support themselves and their families. It must also be ensured that children in this context are in school, as a primary objective.

The Syrian war has shown us that war itself and conflict-related displacement cause vulnerabilities that can be abused by exploiters and traffickers, taking advantage of the desperate situation to profit from labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, forced marriage and exploitation in armed conflict.

Counterterrorism Efforts

Carl Turner, site coordinator, Conflict Analysis and Resolution Information Services (CARIS)

When we talk about counterterrorism, the first question to ask is, “According to whom?” The Assad regime has been arguing that it is countering “terrorists” from the first protests in 2011, when it was clearly [fighting] its own people, [including] defectors from its own military. The opposition, at the time, could argue that it was fighting back against a “terrorist” regime that had terrorized its own people for decades and was intent on using force and fear to crush dissent.

If we limit ourselves to ISIS, we can address an actor that [most label] as terrorist. This has been more akin to counterinsurgency, and while the campaigns against ISIS have been successful, they have come at great cost. It is important to put the conditions in place to avoid a return of ISIS, or a successor, and this requires good governance based on civil society.

The Impact of Disinformation and Propaganda

Turner, CARIS

All wars are subject to disinformation and propaganda as the protagonists use it to justify their position, discredit their enemy and mobilize support. Governments have immense resources in this respect, but authoritarian ones such as the Assad regime rely on repression to put the message across. The prevalence of social media neutralizes the ability of the government to maintain its version of the “truth” and allows challengers to disseminate their own message (or propaganda). One of the most striking aspects of the Syrian war is that the use of social media and the internet is ensuring that the violence is being transmitted to the outside world in a volume that is unprecedented and is also in near real time. A particularly dispiriting aspect of the battle for “truth” are attempts to discredit what is genuine footage or reports as made up because it challenges the viewers’ worldview or presents a negative perspective of the side they support. It is one thing to be skeptical of what is presented to us as “facts,” and we are right to question and weigh up evidence, but it is another to resort to outright denial. The real world doesn’t fit your precious worldview, or mine for that matter, and the dead remain dead, regardless of what side they are on.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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