Labeling a country, in this case Syria, a failed state is beset with political overtures and overarching consequences. The international community has given itself the power of principle but has been unable to administer a truly just cause when dictating the label “failed state.” The provisional notations used to outline the statistics of healthy states are based on distinct standards set within definitional boundaries of Western institutions. This creates highly contestable notions toward measuring the health of a state due to the innate differences in how ‘success’ is defined within existing cultures.
When we create a dichotomy of good state/bad state it is more than just a moral opprobrium, but defining a certain entity as completely recalcitrant towards the community of nation states. If the current Cessation of Hostilities negotiations in Geneva continue on its current course of failure, we may witness the quiet dismissal of Syria from our great political sphere and placed upon it the title of failed state.
If this occurs, is it by a legitimate measure of state failure or is it accommodating for those who know how to use international institutions (as backed by the United Nations) to fortify policy-making imperatives of those who want to use Syria as a buffer state? Can the stronger protector states hijack the tools for law and order to project geopolitical strength?
Failed state implies that governing institutions are unable to provide services and protection to its people due to a weak central government. State apparatuses can become delegitimized by the systemic corruption of economic monopolies tilted in favor of elites and exploitation of the poor underclasses. But what modern state is not plagued with the perils of delivering political goods? Is corruption a prime measure for declaring a nation’s sovereignty void?
The concept of a failed state can be looked at as a neo-imperialist tactic in order to control opposition factions that seek to overthrow the existing rule of Assad regime forces and aid the backing of groups with interests that align with foreign powers.
Declaring Syria a failed state may actually be counter effective and can facilitate the dangerous optic of a power void. This state of weakness (whether real or not) can discredit pro-government forces ability to counter ISIS and Al-Qaeda militants, both within the country and regionally, and further complicate any opening for diplomatic talks. The politics of diplomacy between Assad regime forces and opposition leaders is dictated by gains made on the battlefield.
The opacity and complexity of who represents the opposition is a stumbling block towards any real compromise Bashar al-Assad can bring to the negotiation table. One of Assad’s political objectives is to develop and retain some sort of protector mini-state for his own ruling minority, the Alawites. The Assad family has ruled Syria for 45 years and has built the infrastructure of the Syrian nation state under the tutelage of Alawite control.
The development of Syria as a modern state is underscored by the sectarian nature of the organization of power, which aide in both its strength and weakness to operate as a sovereign power. The state may not have democratic institutions, but maintains its sovereignty through Assad’s ability to manage functioning apparatuses of the state (in this case through violence).
International conventions and treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions, can be used to weaken the political legitimacy of a violent ruler but has yet to be used to topple an unfavorable state actor. The violent nature of the Syrian state weakens its resolve to proclaim sovereignty, but cannot be used as the only dictum of failed state status. Thus, declaring Syria a failed state at any time in the near future will deepen the insecurities of Bashar al-Assad and strengthen his role to keep Syria united (however flawed it may be in its current form).
Does civil war completely erode the political aptitude of a state and render it useless? War changes political fault lines; it does not cancel out the innate sovereignty a country is instilled with at birth. Modern institutions such as the UN were created to protect the resounding nature of the nation state and not to be used as a political tool to upend sovereign governing powers.
War ravaged countries like Syria are keen to play politics with labels as long as its leaders can keep their power afloat. Assad, with his Russian and Iranian backers, see the notion of failed state as political backstabbing and will use everything in their (political/military) arsenal to keep control of the Syrian state as they want it to exist.
The rights of the nation state are embedded in the depths of its historic fortitude, its people’s united identity, and its ability to stand as an independent actor. The Syrian state may be situationally weak and immoral in its usage of physical violence against its citizens, but will use the multi-layered conflict raging both inside and outside of the country as political capital to keep the state alive.
For example, ISIS exists as a trans-national threat and not just within the theater of conflict against Assad. This complicates the usage of failed state status, as it can lead to the strengthening of radical Islamists insurgent forces to ultimately define the boundary lines of a new Syrian state. The routinely ill-defined nature of opposition military fighters and political leaders further complicates who has the legitimacy to shape a new governing authority if Assad regime forces lose power over all its military infrastructure.
What is happening in Syria is not just a simple insurgency rooted in intercommunal enmity. It is a both a regional and proxy war that is ushering in a new era of power politics in the Middle East. This conflict will define the battles that will take place in the coming years and will ordain a new balance of power for the region. Thus, the anatomy of power will always be used to supersede the usage of labels. Labels are extracted through the lens of principle, but cannot be used alone to sever the fundamentally chaotic nature of multi-state war.
If the U.S wants a stronger negotiation hand in the Geneva based (now semi-collapsed) Cessation of Hostilities talks, it must have a solid understanding of who the major players are in the Assad run Syrian state and why they are important for helping to end the ongoing sectarian violence.
It is true that the nature of the Middle Eastern nation state is changing, but it is not clear how removing Assad based on failed state status will spur the onset of a governing authority capable of maintaining law and order, or for that matter building new state architecture that breeds stability.
The current instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya affect the realities of the Syrian conflict and needs to be calculated in any measured approach to ending government and opposition violence. The U.S must change its foreign policy outlook in order to administer goals that are suited for a Middle East that is birthing new allied regional blocs.
Instead of concentrating on what has failed in the now nominal Arab state system, there should be a repositioned focus on how American leaders can help guide important regional players (like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran) to create an environment where serious treaty negotiation can take place. This can help facilitate the beginning of a cycle of talks that can ultimately lead to a new balance of power.
The boundaries of this conflict are still too fluid and will not allow for a total breakup of the Syrian state. Diplomacy will continue to be used as a political façade due to the fact that both local and regional players in the conflict want to continue to fight in order to maintain strategic strength on the battlefield.
The Syrian conflict is not just about failed states, but about a total reset of what the modern nation state means to the Arab Street and the Muslim community. Right now, we are witnessing the beginning of a very long political conquest where military battle will define the New Middle East Order. The U.S must decide what its role will be once the dust settles in this regional reshuffling.