It is now a cliché to say that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and has multiple regional and international drivers.
For some time, all of these complications were adduced to answer the question: “Why is there a military and political stalemate in Syria?” Beginning in September 2015, however, Russian intervention on the side of the regime of Bashar al-Asad dramatically altered the dynamics that gave rise to the deadlock. Now that Russian bombing has been suspended, many hope a political process can bring an end to the war. Instead, the conflict is likely to continue, but on a very different trajectory.
The concept of networks of violence is very useful—not for figuring out who is fighting whom at any given moment, for that is impossible, but in tracing how the stalemate emerged. Networks of violence have formed throughout the country and are a key feature of both regime- and rebel-aligned forces. There are three basic structures that serve as the nodes of the violent networks and which contribute to the non-hierarchical, fragmented nature of violence. The first node is that of the battalion or company. These battalions are typically made up of a small number of fighters who are concentrated in specific areas. An excellent example is the shabbiha groups that eventually evolved into the core of the National Defense Forces (NDF), a regime-aligned militia.
Brigades, the second node in the network, are conglomerations of battalions under a central command. These units have a much wider geographic range than battalions and are active in larger parts of cities and provinces.
A larger, non-hierarchical form of coordination is the front, the third node in the networks of violence. Fronts are amalgamations of brigades that serve more as military alliances than as chains of command. The fronts usually form in situations of battlefield necessity, and are typically composed of dozens of brigades, with a small number of powerful brigades that dominate. Loyalty is often very weak with different brigades pledging and withdrawing allegiance with alarming frequency.
The Army of Conquest, a front formed in March 2015, contained three of the more powerful rebel-aligned brigades in the northern provinces, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as four smaller brigades. Upon its formation, the Army of Conquest made military advances in Idlib and Hama provinces. These advances were halted by regime-aligned forces, as well as the defection of Jund al-Aqsa over administrative disputes. The defection of this powerful brigade emasculated the front’s capacity and led to the eventual departure of Sham Legion, one of the smaller brigades. While still operating in the northern areas, the Front’s advances have subsequently been limited.
A second example is that of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, started in 2014 as a conglomeration of northern-based brigades to coordinate military activities against the Islamic Front and other rebel brigades. Quick defeats on the battlefield led to the defection of some of the Free Syrian Army affiliates backed by the West, who formed a new coalition with Harakat Hazm and other Islamist-oriented groups called the Revolutionary Front. Within less than a year, that front, too, had been gutted by defections, including of Harakat Hazm, which dissolved into another grouping called the Levant Front. Such examples abound. As such, these networks are defined by their fluidity.
In Syria, the structure of the armed groups aligned with both regime and rebel forces is what Paul Staniland calls “fragmented,” based on their weak social and political entrenchment in the conflict landscape. The possible exception is the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units. But neither the Free Syrian Army brigades nor the NDF militias that have terrorized civilians under the pretext of security provision are deeply rooted. This lack of entrenchment is the outcome of many factors, including: the lack of political parties and associations from which to mobilize the population; the atomization of the uprising; material drivers of the conflict; and competing social bases linked to different authorities that change over time. The lack of entrenchment reveals itself in the constantly changing administrations and armed groups present in different areas. In turn, the absence of solid social bases forces different armed groups into cooperative networks that enhance their geographic reach, contribute to resource distribution and ensure their survival. In short, these groups enter into cooperative agreements for material, political or military reasons, and not necessarily ideological ones. Cooperation occurs out of necessity.
The military and political stalemate emerged because these networks are strong enough to continue fighting yet not strong enough to overtake and control territory. Regional rivalries, such as between the Saudis and Qataris on the rebel side, further ensured that resources were directed toward different networks to help maintain the stalemate. Such balances on the battlefield were reflected in the political arena, where major actors, including those inside of Syria, remained intent on a military solution to the conflict rather than a political one. A military stalemate never made political concessions attractive.
This fluid and unstable, yet proliferating, organizational structure of violence in Syria was the immediate backdrop to the Russian intervention.
One of the central questions facing armed groups in conflict is their ability to reproduce, socially, militarily and economically. They need to get recruits, find weapons and make money to finance their operations. The Russian intervention squeezed the ability of these groups to reproduce, thus altering the material and geographic conditions under which the networks of violence form. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, not to mention the suffocation of supply routes, reduced and degraded the capacity of many armed groups to the breaking point.
The disruption of the stalemate resulted in an agreement on a ceasefire, which took effect on February 27. Paradoxically, Russia’s intervention has made politics possible. But the particular kind of politics prefigured by Russia’s intervention is not one in which violence and conflict are discouraged or one in which any meaningful political demands, such as a serious, substantive political transition, may emerge.
The networks of violence have little interest in engaging in a political process that offers no tangible material benefit to them. After five years of conflict, and the development of robust war economies throughout the country, these networks in fact have a larger stake in continuing violence. In the absence of a unified rebel vision and continued infighting and fluidity between networks, there is no reason to believe that a Russian-brokered peace process would help to dissolve the networks.
When the history of the Syrian conflict is told, it will be disaggregated into various stages and periods. The transition from the period of stalemate to the period after the Russian intervention will be seen as a key turning point in the trajectory of the conflict. It will also help give insight into the different forms of authority included or excluded in future political arrangements, and the continuity of different, although no less disturbing, forms of violence in Syria.