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Putting Syria in its place

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By Klaus Dodds


Where exactly is Syria, and how is Syria represented as a place? The first part of the question might appear to be fairly straight forward. Syria is an independent state in Western Asia and borders Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. It occupies an area of approximately 70, 000 square miles, which is similar in size to the state of North Dakota. Before the civil war (March 2011 onwards), the population was estimated to be around 23 million, but millions of people have been displaced by the crisis. We must also add into the equation that around 18 million other people, living in North America, Latin America, Europe and Australia are of Syrian descent. Famous people of Syrian descent include the late Steve Jobs of Apple fame and the actress Teri Hatcher. So where does Syria begin and end when we factor in the Syrian diaspora?

How has Syria been understood as place?

During the ongoing and bloody civil war, we have arguably been bombarded with news stories and images of a country that has rarely enjoyed such prominence. Fundamentally, and over a period of 18 months, Syria transformed from a minor element of Middle Eastern geopolitics (compared to Israel, Iran and Palestine in the past) and Arab Spring transformation (compared to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya) to a place of mass concern. But making sense of the Syrian civil war or uprising remains a deeply contested affair as rival groups inside and outside Syria struggle to frame Syria in political and geographical terms. My contention is that Syria can be understood in six fundamental, and at times, competing ways.

1.      Syria represented as a place of humanitarian disaster

The ongoing conflict in Syria has uprooted communities and forced millions to flee across international borders, or seek safety within the country as internally displaced people. The United Nations believe that around 40% of the population requires humanitarian assistance and some six million people are thought to be displaced in some fashion. As a space of unfolding and continued humanitarian disaster, Syria becomes increasingly demanding of our attention; the focus of concern and assistance in the wake of concern that the state is no longer able to function in a way that is conducive to the security of its citizens. As a humanitarian disaster, it also heightened the likelihood that Syria’s territorial sovereignty will need to be violated in order for the UN and others to offer protection and support for vulnerable citizens, many of whom are women, children and the elderly.

2.      Syria framed as a space of extremism

The civil war is believed to have unleashed new forces of extremism and sectarianism. Syria in the process becomes a more complex place. Maps circulate purporting to show the ethnic composition of the country, and like maps of the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, help to sustain arguments warning of long standing animosities and dangers facing those who intervene. It becomes an opportunity for others to note that Syria is an ‘invented country’; a product of the First World War and the French mandate. As if to suggest, as a consequence, what do you expect? Extremism flourishes in such complexity where the ruling elite are a minority sect of Islam (Alawites).

3.      Syria represented as a place of opportunity

The ‘big powers’ and ‘rising powers’ that are using Syria opportunistically play out their own agenda so that less attention is given to Syria as a complex inhabited place. Syria becomes both a stage and a conduit for diplomatic and military performances, and a space for flows of arms and other forms of support to particular factions. Some of the players, such as Qatar, are relatively new to this kind of ‘big power geopolitics,’ but apparently driven by a desire to be seen as a more active geopolitical agent in the region. Others, such as Russia, have had a long standing relationship with the Syrian regime and consider the country to be strategically significant, close to the Mediterranean, and close to oil and gas fields of the Middle East. A view that, it is argued, the US shares as well.

CIA map of Syria

CIA map of Syria

4.     Syria framed as a place ruled by conspiracy

The fourth version of Syria addresses its role as a place of and for conspiracy. The crisis is thus seen as a ‘distraction’ from what is really happening with commentators keen to point out antecedents. For example, the theory that Syria is part of a wider plot by the US to weaken both Iran and its close ally Syria along with its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. Other stories include the UK government under Tony Blair considering anti-Syrian activity, in alliance with the United States, because of fears that Syria was not reliable when it came to protecting Western hydrocarbon interests, including a pipeline deal involving Iran and Iraq. Conspiracy theorizing, which is hugely popular in the Middle East, has become an alternative way of viewing places like Syria, where the focus is less on ‘appearances’ and more on detecting ‘hidden’ aspects such as discovering secret meetings, covert operations, and sensitive documents.

5.      Syria as a ‘leaky container’, a space with insecure borders and a place barely able to contain flows of people, arms and ideas

The most notable example of this instance is Lebanon, where the Syrian civil war has stretched across an international border and affected the political life of communities there. In November 2013, a bombing occurred outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut killing 23 and this was attributed to a group, the Abdullah Azzam Shaheed Brigade, who are in opposition to the Syrian regime. This followed months of violence in Lebanese cities and towns such as Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli. But, it is worth bearing in mind that this spill-over is not just one way. Syria, in the recent past, has also been a space of hospitality as spill-over from the Iraqi crisis resulted in over 1.5 million people fleeing over the Iraqi-Syrian border. Spill-over has also caused anxiety to other neighbors, such as Jordan, who fear that more refugees will arrive from Syria.

6.       Syria as a place indicative of international norms

In this instance Syria becomes a testing place; a place where the international community must ‘prove’ itself. The bleak stories regarding the use of chemical weapons against civilian populations in August 2013 become a moment to act – not only because of civilian suffering – but because an international norm had been violated. So in principle, the place in question is irrelevant. President Obama, for example, was swift to draw attention to the violation of such norms, and to warn that a failure to act might lead to increased risk of future usage of chemical weapons. The violation of the norm not only presents a danger in the here and now, it also points to future dangers that can now be increasingly imagined as a consequence of the attacks in August 2013. While calls for military strikes were later called off as a consequence of high-level US-Russian diplomacy, Syria remains ‘testing,’ not only of international co-operation, but also in terms of whether it can be proven that weapons of mass destruction have been safely secured. It also became a moment, repeatedly, for ‘Syria’ to be invoked as emblematic of the limits of the United Nations and the role of obstructive others.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction and The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction.

The Oxford Atlas Place of the Year 2013 is Syria. The Oxford Atlas Place of the Year is a location — from street corners to planets — around the globe (and beyond) which has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date and judged to reflect the important discoveries, conflicts, challenges, and successes of that particular year. Learn more about Place of the Year on the OUPblog.

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Image Credit: CIA map of Syria. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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