What are the strategic challenges posed by the impact of the Syrian Civil War on the Middle East?

The history of mankind is nothing but a constant story of war, conquest, and subjugation. The arc of history is now leading toward peace but the case is otherwise in the Middle East. As the Syrian Civil War seems to be ended apparently, the series of violent developed patterns seems to be a new normal in the region, and peace is walking under the shadow. The Civil War, an episode of authoritarianism described as a black swan event, has swept the region and attacked large swathes of mankind. The complex engagement among the local, regional, and international powers highlights how strategic interests are constantly changing and evolving, and redesigning regional patterns. The debacle finds its roots back in 2011, which has not only disintegrated the social cohesion but also posed wider threats to the region. The Syrian War is marked by its complexity, multi-dimensionality, and ferocity, wherein the pursuit of peace and democracy has given way to sectarian scrap, proxy war, political adventurism, and regional imbalances. The confluence of sectarianism, geopolitics, and fragmentation has engendered profound and potentially long-lasting consequences in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War. Over the past decade, various parallel struggles have emerged, ranging from vertical conflicts such as the regional cold war and the power vacuum to horizontal clashes between rebels and the Kurdish movement towards autonomy, which have led to regional spillover and further compounded strategic challenges in the Middle East. The conversion of a significant Arab nation into a global battlefield has established a model that might have wider complications for the whole region, the full context of which is hard to comprehend under contemporary priorities and practices. The central theme of the essay revolves around the major strategic challenges engendered by the Syrian conflict, the reverberations of which will continue to be felt throughout the region for years to come. The essay seeks to explore the strategic legacies of the war for the Middle East, its power hierarchies, and the possibility of persisting regional authoritarianism and aggressive political systems, leading to the tailpiece.

               Sectarianism is one of the major strategic challenges to the Middle East, that emerged and intensified during the Syrian War, which has exacerbated regional divisions and polarized the region as a whole. It would be reductive to discount the role of sectarian fault lines which they have played in heightening regional tensions, given the combination of socioeconomic, political, and structural factors that have contributed to the contemporary regional exhaustion. The Syrian conflict has witnessed the convergence of sectarian and ethnic divisions with a territorial demarcation of exclusion and the revival of ethnic sentiments. As a result, access to power for communities and individuals has become more intertwined with their sectarian affiliations (Tzemprin, Jozić & Lambare, 2015). While navigating the post impacts of sectarian trends in the Middle East, it has become evident that the Syrian War fuelled the revival of pre-ascribed identities and regional positioning. The Sunni-Shiite sectarian division carries particular significance, particularly considering the regional scope of the Syrian crisis, which has rapidly become enmeshed in a larger proxy struggle between the key regional players, Iran and Saudi Arab (Berti & Paris, 2014). Sectarianism has contributed to strained relations between Turkey and Iran, as well as between Ankara and Tehran, which would also destabilize Lebanon’s fragile doctrinal balance, intensify societal cleavages in Iraq, and fuel Sunni-Arab extremism, all of which have strategic implications for all players. The region has incurred substantial expenses, evident in Iraq, where al-Qaeda-linked Sunni extremists have resurfaced, intensifying the state’s deadly sectarian strife. Consequently, regional instability has become a norm, leading to a schism within the Islamic community that has disrupted the entire fabric of the Middle East.

               Furthermore, in contemporary times, developments in the geopolitical landscape and strategic interests have resulted in the emergence of proxy wars between major blocs to enhance regional power and maintain dominance. This has led to an increase in regional rivalries and furthered balkanization within the region that goes beyond sectarian space. The resulting fragmentation has altered the region’s geostrategic dynamics and contributed to the redrawing of alliances and the balance of power (Bernhard & Rapp-Hooper, 2013). Episodes of disruptions have become a normal theme of regional politics due to extensive rehearsals in the Syrian war. For instance, the War has posed Turkey with long-term security challenges owing to its pro-Islamist external policies toward Syria, which have been a subject of controversy domestically as a result of the Jihadi factions moving from Turkey to Northern Syria (Sly, 2013). The wave of revolution in the Middle East, calls for democratization, apprehensions about the disintegration of established regimes such as Egypt’s Mubarak regime, Iran’s progress in developing nuclear weapons, and the perceived reduction of the U.S. involvement in the region have shaded the regional patterns in an intensified manner amid Syrian War. These elements have collectively exacerbated regional instability, urging states to devise assertive foreign policies that utilize sectarianism to unite Sunni Arabs against the Iran-led Shiite movements. Moreover, the severing of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with allegations against Tehran for supplying arms to Houthi insurgents in Yemen, further fuels the instability in the region (Nasr, 2018). In addition, the Syrian conflict has destabilized Lebanon, resulting in political gridlock, worsening sectarian ties, growing chasms between the Sunni and Shiite populations, a surge in Salafism, and mounting stress from the vast number of Syrian refugees entering the country (Mota Esteves, 2018). Furthermore, the dependence of the Syrian government on Iran has set it on a collision course with Israel, which has been striving to impede Tehran’s expansionist agenda through consistent airstrikes against Iranian targets in the Middle East and countering their proxies. All of these events and dynamics have significant consequences for the region’s stability and require careful consideration.

               The victory of the Syrian-centered international alliance has intensified the regional confrontation between two groups of nations aligned with either Iran or Saudi Arabia (Barnes-Dacey, 2018). With the conclusion of the Syrian war, it is expected that the UAE-Saudi-Israeli-American group will increase their anti-Iranian rhetoric and actions, particularly in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, and Iraq, using offensive methods. However, most of their attempts to weaken Iranian allies have not been successful, and some have even backfired, such as the war in Yemen. As a result, a new strategy may be needed to achieve regime or behavioral change, which may involve economic sanctions to foment popular opposition to the Iranian government. The goal is to reinforce the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah alliance, which currently incorporates prominent Iraqi players, and counteract the regional implications of Russian success in maintaining the regime and the advantages Iran will gain from the post-war reconstruction of Syria (Tabatabai, 2018). Furthermore, the Saudis and Emiratis aim to collaborate more closely with other countries in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, to safeguard their interests and restore the political and credibility losses they faced in the Syrian conflict by engaging in more assertive actions. This highlights the limitations of a Sunni-Shiite framework in understanding the realities of war in the region. The major takeaway is that although sectarianism can be intentionally fueled in the region as a part of a broader geopolitical strategy, sectarian dynamics, as well as the associated instability and radicalism, are difficult for regional actors with dented pan ideologies, to control.

               The history of modern Syria can be described as a repeating cycle in which Syria and the Middle East interact and influence each other, frequently reacting to external interference. The prevalence of proxy wars, which are fueled by the interests of global powers, is a defining feature of contemporary conflicts. The strategic significance of proxy wars has increased amid the Syrian War, and the formation of cross-border alliances among diverse actors has become a common practice since then, particularly in the Middle East. The Syrian crisis has been made more complicated by the merging of proxy wars, state-to-state relations, great power rivalry, and cyber warfare, all of which are altering the regional outlook. This has created a free-for-all environment, in which external actors pursue military adventurism and advanced strategies to further their interests, often disregarding the consequences for the region as a whole (Hughes, 2014). The aforementioned changes indicate a shift in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, with potential long-term implications for the region. Russia has become more influential, while Turkey and Iran have expanded their direct influence in Arab affairs. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided weapons and financial support, and the United States has shifted its focus towards confronting Iran, leading to a downgrading of its intervention in Syria and Iraq. Dealing with hybrid threats has become a major challenge for the Middle East, as countries are now more inclined to employ proxy actors to carry out aggressive actions that fall below the threshold of conventional warfare. This has elevated proxy warfare to a widespread security concern, with broader empirical consequences that require careful consideration. The military interventionism in Syria has redefined the patterns of the entire region, with Iran’s regional behavior reflecting several strategic changes resulting from the Syrian Crisis (McInnis, 2016). Specifically, Iran has increased its influence in Syria to capitalize on the power vacuum left by the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, to establish a land corridor from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean Sea (Del Sarto, 2021). The Iranian regime has viewed this as a successful experiment, as it has protected the Syrian government from collapse and improved Iran’s overall position in the region, a factor that is further calibrating violence in the region (Márquez de la Plata Valverde, 2018).

               Furthermore, the presence of Iranian forces in the region poses a risk of escalation and intervention, creating challenges for neighboring states and beyond. Syria seeks to limit Israeli military activities against Iranian targets on Syrian soil and prevent a full-scale conflict. Additionally, the improved version of Hezbollah presents increased risks to the region and Israel, in particular. If successful in establishing a larger front against Israel with Iranian support, extending from southern Lebanon into the Golan Heights, the threat posed by Hezbollah will intensify, and fabricate the entire region. The knot between Iran and Russia during the Syrian crisis has remained a significant concern for regional and global states. These developments have disrupted the established status quo in the Middle East and prompted states such as Israel, the U.S., Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to re-evaluate their foreign policies to counter the growing influence of Iranian forces and their proxies (Bolan, 2018). The proximity of Iranian forces to Israel increases the likelihood of a confrontation, which can extend beyond Iraq to include Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Moreover, the Syrian conflict has created a new sense of moment for Kurdish in the Middle East. The Syrian Kurds rely on their relationship with Syrian opposition groups and regional powers to determine their political and military trajectory. The involvement of Kurdish forces in the region has led to increased collaboration among various Kurdish movements, which is affecting the political and strategic landscape of the Middle East. Similarly, the political and military reality suggests that both Israel and Hezbollah have had limited strategic gains in their conflict and that in an all-out confrontation, both parties have paid a high price and presented significant challenges to the region. The rise of proxy wars is becoming more prevalent, and there are discussions about great power competition, emphasizing the urgency of strategic thought processes in dealing with proxy conflicts,  a real threat to the stability of the region (Rauta, 2020).

               The civil war in Syria has resulted in the display of power by non-state actors, such as insurgents, rebels, and militias, which has had serious implications for regional and global security. The rise of extremism is one of the most significant challenges that has emerged from the conflict and will continue to pose a serious threat to regional stability for many years to come. The Middle East has experienced an influx of radicalization and fundamentalism which has led to waves of militarization and terrorism as a by-product of the Syrian war. A large number of foreign fighting forces have fought directly or indirectly, including Hezbollah, the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, YPG, and SDF, as well as smaller tribal, Islamist, and secular rebel groups (Lister, 2016). With regional and international powers vying for influence during the Syrian war, increased terrorism and radicalization have taken new heights due to the direct support from Global Giants. The Syrian war era can be seen as a microcosm of the regional processes and undertones in the post-Arab uprisings era, with the region plagued by endemic victimization and extremism, oriented towards the past rather than the future. Terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, have thrived in the chaotic environment of the civil war, taking advantage of the instability to gain territory and power in other parts of the region (Warrick, 2016). Sectarianism has radicalized the Sunni camp, providing a solid basis for extremist groups like Al-Qaeda to thrive and prepare for future schemes. This situation is similar to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, as thousands of aspiring jihadists from Iraq and other countries flock to Syria to fight for their respective ideologies (Zelin, 2013). Instances of terrorist incidents that have impacted the Middle East can be observed in various events such as the November 2015 bombings in Beirut, resulting in the loss of lives of more than 200 individuals and leaving over 4,000 injured. Furthermore, in June 2016, the attack on Istanbul airport resulted in the death of over 40 people, and in July 2016, an attack on a marketplace in Baghdad left at least 15 individuals dead. Moreover, Kurdish separatist tendencies have been on the rise and pose a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries such as Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Such regional insecurity and polarization pose a significant threat to the states in the region, particularly Israel, due to the increased levels of extremism and radicalization. The emergence of Jihadists adds to the existing risk, as there is a significant likelihood of a “Sinai Scenario” where radicalized non-state armed groups use Syria as a base to launch attacks against Israel.

               The conflict in Syria has acted as a test for various Islamist factions, including extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as more pragmatic and peaceful moderates such as the Muslim Brotherhood and local and national groups. However, the challenges of the war have been mixed for all types of actors such as Islamists, with their anti-government activism proving largely ineffective, much like that of secular opposition forces. Following the war, Islamist groups face significant challenges in establishing sovereign territories, as evidenced by the unsuccessful attempts of ISIS and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda and its Syrian allies. This experience indicates that regional and global powers may face a vicious cycle or socio-economic collapse as a result of growing strategic threats from militant jihadists. Particularly in Egypt and the UAE, these groups have faced harsh crackdowns since 2013, while their support from Turkey and Qatar has been inconsistent. The failure of Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition to gain ground leaves their future role in Arab politics uncertain, potentially leading to new rivalries among Sunni Arab communities across the region. In addition, the coalition comprising Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq has broadened its scope to include multiple militias and paramilitary groups that have been established in Syria and Iraq since 2012. These groups typically receive direct support from Iran and are often staffed by volunteers from Iraq and Afghanistan. With the inclusion of these newly emerging paramilitary forces and militias, the coalition’s members that include Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have become stronger, allowing them to exert greater influence both on regional levels and beyond. Furthermore, the militarization of the conflict in Syria has had long-term implications for the entire region. Unusual threats, such as the development of precision missiles in Lebanon and the potential deployment of high-quality Iranian weapons in the area, have emerged as a result of the conflict. This situation highlights the struggle for regional power among major actors who seek to increase their influence in the area through non-state actors. The proliferation of radical militias composed of foreign fighters, along with internal divisions, has complicated post-war efforts at political grounds and reconciliation in the Middle East. Consequently, the involvement of external powers in Arab states, in coordination with non-state actors, may lead to a prolonged and direct military intervention, with a lasting presence in the region. The conventional approach of supporting rebels through the provision of arms, training, and indirect support is now subject to scrutiny. Given the impact of the Syrian conflict on the region, rebels are likely to request sustained, substantial support, including an enduring on-the-ground presence, from their foreign supporters, a factor that is strategically challenging for the stability of the region.

               Nevertheless, certain Middle Eastern states with authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Algeria may interpret the Syrian conflict as a model for dealing with local uprisings and foreign rebels (Hamoud, 2017). The Egyptian adoption of aggressive tactics, including military operations, curfews, arrests, and the demolition of entire neighborhoods in Sinai, illustrates the extent to which entrenched authoritarian Arab states resort to excessive force to quell local rebellions. This approach has led to two outcomes: despite continuous military assaults, the rebel threat persists, and the international community remains apathetic towards the situation in the Middle East. Similarly, the conflict in Yemen involves Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, backed by the US and the UK, employing excessive military force against a weaker adversary for a prolonged duration, with little opposition from the global communities. These states with considerable military power and external support will control the post-war process, both politically and commercially, ultimately leading to military adventurism and instability in the region. Thus, the Syrian conflict has left a legacy of exploitation for the regional states, and a message that nations can brutally suppress their populations or weaker neighbors without interference from the international community, as long as they avoid using chemical weapons, committing genocide, or posing a terrorism or refugee threat to the rest of the world. Hence, the use of violent stunts in the Civil War has left a legacy of extremism, suppression, exploitation, and terrorism which is cracking the entire regional fabric.

               The Middle East has been plagued by civil wars and disasters, leading to the refugee crisis that poses significant challenges to the entire region. The displacement of millions of Syrians has placed excessive pressure on the social and economic infrastructure of neighboring countries. As of 2019, approximately 6.7 million Syrians have been displaced, with 4.8 million registered as refugees in neighboring countries and 2.5 million internally displaced within Syria (Zisser, 2019). At its peak, the refugee population outnumbered the indigenous population in Jordan, Lebanon, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, resulting in the world’s largest refugee concentration and a high risk of regional spillover. The influx of refugees has led to concerns about overpopulation, food insecurity, and increased social issues. These issues have heightened tensions between host countries and refugees and have affected diplomatic relations with neighboring states, thereby exacerbating security concerns for those residing in the region. Incidents such as the 2016 bomb explosion outside a refugee camp in Lebanon, the 2018 confrontation between refugees and police in Turkey, and Jordan’s 2019 decision to build a wall along its border with Syria highlight the gravity of the situation. Furthermore, the presence of Syrian refugees has intensified underlying political conflicts, leading to heightened geo-political, geo-economic, and geo-strategic interests in the region. This has exacerbated ethnicity and identity issues in the entire region. For instance, the presence of refugees has added fuel to conflicts between Iran and Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Turkey and Iran. The refugee crisis in the Middle East is a complex issue that has arisen as a result of civil wars and disasters. Likewise, the presence of refugees has intensified underlying political conflicts and exacerbated ethnicity and identity issues in the entire region.

               The Syrian civil war has had a devastating effect on the Middle East’s economy, leading to a decline in resources and income due to the displacement of numerous individuals. Additionally, the insecurity caused by the conflict has resulted in a decrease in foreign investment. As a consequence, the Syrian crisis has caused a 1.2 percentage point (pp) drop in Iraq’s economic growth, a 1.6 pp decrease in Jordan, and a 1.7 pp reduction in Lebanon over the last ten years, exacerbating poverty and contributing to the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Despite the support and assistance from the international community and humanitarian organizations, the region has suffered severe economic shocks, especially in the Mashreq. In addition to this, refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan have fewer years of schooling than their host country counterparts, which could have a positive impact on GDP growth. The instability created by the war has made it difficult for businesses to operate, resulting in the collapse of the regional tourism industry especially in Syrian, and increased costs for businesses in Iraq due to rising oil prices. Due to the displacement of businesses and economic devastation, several residents have gone unemployed. While it is crucial to provide support to those affected by the war, it is essential to address the underlying strategic issues and prevent further instability in the region.

                              To encapsulate, a return to stability and security is not a bonanza, but perhaps a glimmer of hope amid the contemporary age of globalization. The civil war has made the Middle East nastier and chaotic. Regional stability is essential to cope with the modern challenges posed by the global and regional Giants. The aftermath of the civil war in Syria does not guarantee a new beginning for the Middle East but rather indicates a return to authoritarian rule and pre-war conditions marked by underdevelopment and significant strategic challenges. This scenario is likely to fuel continued mistrust towards the West, especially the United States and Israel, and more deference to Russia and Iran. Without lasting solutions, the negative impacts of war will persist in the region, leading to instability, radicalization, and sectarianism. The approach of allowing the factions to fight each other is strategically short-sighted for the international community in contemporary settings. While the regional cold war may have adverse effects, it could also facilitate improved relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies if existing disputes are resolved. However, rebuilding the regional order, destroyed during the civil war, will be a daunting challenge, requiring all parties involved to work together towards achieving lasting peace. The developments in Syria suggest that the regional cold war will continue without resolution, with local authoritarian regimes maintaining their grip on power in the face of militants and liberal democracy, and Syria will likely remain a focal point of instability for the region.

Zunaira Khan
Zunaira Khan
Zunaira Khan has done her Masters in Intelligence and Security studies. As an analyst, security consultant, and counter-terrorism specialist, her focus has been on developing target-oriented strategies to produce innovative solutions to existing challenges and threats. In addition, she will be the first Pakistani female to work on the role of women in intelligence in pre- and post-Cold War era and how they are working beyond traditional setting today. • Her diversified experience spans where the focus has been on education, research, public speaking and diplomacy, policy analysis, and security consultancy at key positions in different organizations. • She has also worked on a project for Ministry of Defense, United Kingdom and Common Mission Project on the existing challenges to institutions, using latest “H4” strategies and techniques.