Sunday, December 18, 2016

Responsibility to Protect Syria - A Case Study


It is widely believed that non-intervention is the norm within an international society since international law restricts the use of force except for purposes of self-defense or by way of collective enforcement as authorized by the United Nations Security Council (Bellamy and Wheeler 2014). This misunderstanding is grounded in the debate on how the international community should react when governments commit acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, or other mass atrocities against their own citizens. Important, yet complicated, questions always arise. Were governments unable to avoid such abuses, or, have they collapsed into civil war and/or anarchy? Does sovereignty provide the country with a blanket of legitimacy to treat their own populations inhumanely? Should sovereign states not safeguard the security of its citizens above all else? Does the international society have a legal and moral duty to protect its fellow global citizens?

This paper will examine the successes and failures of the international intervention in Syria, as a case study, using the core principles that sustain the concept of “Responsibility to Protect”. Firstly, it will outline the concept “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP) as per the United Nations’ Charter. Secondly, the paper will discuss the context of the Syrian conflict and the stakeholders within. Finally, it will assess the international community’s response and intervention in regards to their Responsibility to Protect vis-à-vis the conflict in Syria.

Outlining the Concept of “Responsibility to Protect”

As stated by the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (2005), “the Responsibility to Protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing has developed as an important global principle since the adoption of the United Nations World Summit Outcome Document in 2005”. As stipulated in the outcome of this document, the concept of RtoP refers to the state’s obligation to their populations and toward all external populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocities. RtoP specifies three pillars of responsibility:

Pillar One: Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Pillar Two: The wider international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility. Pillar Three: If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the United Nations Charter (United Nations Office 2005).
According to the Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect (2008), the above principles originated in a 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, paragraphs 138, 139 and 140.

The United Nations Secretary-General released a report in January 2009 on implementing RtoP. Following, was the first General Assembly Debate on RtoP in July 2009. At this debate, the United Nations’ Member States overwhelmingly reaffirmed the 2005 commitment and the General Assembly passed a consensus resolution taking note of the Secretary-General's report. The Secretary-General has since released annual reports in advance of the General Assembly Informal Interactive Dialogue on RtoP. Moreover, the Security Council and Human Rights Council have invoked RtoP in more than 45 resolutions since 2006 (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2008). It can, therefore, be seen that RtoP has been discussed, debated, and assessed on numerous occasions throughout the years, indicating its transformation from convention to the norm. Throughout these conventions, RtoP has transformed: no longer a debate between sovereignty and human rights, RtoP has become a discussion on how to best protect people in danger (Bellamy & Wheeler 2014). It must not be taken for granted, however, that these discussions are absent of controversy. In fact, a complete international consensus has yet to emerge: since RtoP involves sovereign nations forcibly intervening on other sovereign nations, it undermines the concept of sovereignty itself and threatens national security (Bellamy & Wheeler 2014). The morality aspect of RtoP seems to be what justifies such responses, that is, the compassion for humanitarian intervention (Bellamy & Wheeler 2014).

The Syrian Conflict and its Stakeholders

The conflict in Syria erupted in March 2011 and can be traced to the Arab spring, which involved the mass movement of uprisings and demonstrations in the Arab world that began in Tunisia following a street vendor who set himself alight in protest of police brutality (Hove & Mutanda 2014). The event subsequently led to a chain of uprisings that engulfed several Arab countries, including Syria. At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, stakeholders predicted its outcome to be similar to that of the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions, or to that of other Arab states affected by the Arab spring (Hove & Mutanda, 2014). On the contrary, the peaceful protests in Syria were met with a violent response and turned out to be one of the most catastrophic humanitarian crises that led to an eventual civil war. This escalation was the result of external intervention.

One must understand the hostility within Syria as a power struggle rather than a humanitarian intervention, especially within the city of Aleppo. Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, over 280,000 people have been killed (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that as of October 2016, there were over 4.8 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.1 million internally displaced persons, which is the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect report (2016), both Russian and Syrian government aircraft are currently conducting sustained airstrikes in Aleppo, with illegal barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and bunker-buster bombs. As of September 2015, Russia commenced airstrikes in Syria, claiming that it would help defeat the militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, most of these airstrikes have targeted other opposition forces and civilian areas outside government control. Additionally, an international coalition, led by the United States, is currently conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 5,357 fighters of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and 611 civilians were killed during coalition airstrikes between September 2014 and September 2016, while Russian airstrikes had killed 2,861 fighters of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and 4,162 civilians, including over 1,000 children, by 30 October 2016 (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). Furthermore, Amnesty International investigated 11 coalition airstrikes and in October 2016, reported in that an estimated 300 civilians were killed in these attacks (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016).

The United Nations Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry has asserted that Syrian government forces have committed crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. Syrian government airstrikes in residential areas have breached the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, which demanded all parties cease attacks on civilians and the use of indiscriminate weapons (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). The Commission of Inquiry has reported that government-allied militias and other pro-government forces have also conducted widespread attacks on the population, committing crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts” (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). Numerous armed opposition groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq, have also committed war crimes, violating International Humanitarian Law by targeting religious minorities through mass killings and sexual enslavement. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, between June 2014 and October 2016, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria executed 4,500 people, including nearly 2,450 of them being civilians (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016).

Assessing Responsibility to Protect vis-à-vis the Conflict in Syria

The Syrian conflict transformed from an internal political protest to an international affair (Hinnebusch 2012). It was the intervention of “superpowers” like the United States and Russia that influenced the dimension of the Syrian conflict toward a different direction than what would have taken place without their involvement. Russia was intensely opposed to the United States’ domination in the Middle East, and ultimately reacted as a catalyst, intensifying the conflict. Russian intervention in Syria revealed important developments in Russia’s broader foreign policy thinking (Averre & Davies, 2015).

To elaborate, Syrian President Assad belongs to the Baathist political party and is thus supported by Iran and Hezbollah and to some extent by the Iraqi Shia government. Because of Assad’s authoritarian regime, the majority of the Syrian population do not want him in power. At the same time, countries such as Russia, Iran, and Iraq don’t want a change in regime because this will cost them an important political ally. As such, these sovereign nations, acting in opposition to the United States, were fighting for regional, possibly global, hegemony. Like Russia, Syria and its supporters, were ultimately seeking to exercise powers of sovereignty. For example, this conflict was important to Russia because the Syrian regime is the only remaining geostrategic Russian ally in the region wherein Russia’s strategic naval base is located (Ratelle 2016). It can be therefore seen that Russia’s intentions differed from that of the United States, because their intervention was not motivated by International Humanitarian Law and/or International Human Rights Law, rather, it was motivated by self-interest.

Throughout this conflict, Moscow continuously argued that peace talks should include President Assad’s government and his key ally Iran (Mohammed and Al-Khalidi 2013). In so doing, President Assad wanted to avoid a repetition of what Western powers did in Libya under the guise of RtoP (Hove & Mutanda 2014). Some of the regional powers including Saudi Arabia and Qatar also began arming and funding opposition groups against countries that were acting under the pretense of RtoP. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continued to provide crucial economic, military, and political support to the Syrian government, all in the name of regional stability (Phillips 2015). In critiquing the use of RtoP, Bellamy and Wheeler, for example, argue that states do not intervene for primarily humanitarian reasons:

States almost always have mixed motives for intervening, and are rarely prepared to sacrifice their own soldiers overseas unless they have self-interested reasons for doing so. For realists, this means that genuine humanitarian intervention is imprudent because it does not serve the national interest. For other critics, it suggests that the powerful only intervene when it suits them to do so, and that strategies of intervention are more likely to be guided by calculations of national interest than by what is best for the victims in whose name the intervention is ostensibly being carried out (2014: 482).
States have historically become involved in a humanitarian intervention on a selective basis, often escalating contradictions over policy, rather than protecting people strictly out of moral obligation. From a realist view of statism in the anarchic realm, the most powerful player in international relations is the state itself (Ratelle 2016). The problem of selectivity arises when an agreed moral principle is at stake in more than one situation, but national interest limits different responses (Ratelle, 2016). As such, the interest of any given government determines the behavior of a state, and thus they become selective about when, where and how they choose to intervene. Therefore, in the case of Syrian intervention, RtoP became corrupted, acting as a means to an end. The intervention of some countries was motivated by political preferences that ultimately affected their power rather than intervening for the purpose of humanitarian protection. RtoP was created on the basis of legal and moral obligations to intervene; however, this is not what resulted.

The Syrian government, with support from its international allies, continues to engage in its military might, grasping for more power at all costs. Combined Syrian and Russian airstrikes have enabled Syrian government forces to recapture Aleppo and regain the significant territory that was previously lost to opposition forces. The direct participation of Russian aircraft in the bombardment of Aleppo makes them complicit in alleged mass atrocities and war crimes (The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect 2016). The failure of the ceasefire agreements and escalation of fighting in Aleppo proves that all sides in Syria remain committed to an outright military victory and that the ongoing civil war continues to endanger the lives of countless civilians. Attacks on soft targets including hospitals and civilian infrastructures demonstrate a complete disregard for International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law. Therefore, restoring the cessation of hostilities is vital for the protection of civilians and reviving peace talks. Although there have been, to some extent, a few successes from RtoP as enacted by western liberal democracies (especially in opening their borders for the mass influx of refugees fleeing Syria), Syrians are still living amid war, a war that could not be resolved by RtoP. By and large, the international society has failed in their moral obligation to protect the vulnerable populations of Syria.


The Assad regime in Syria has not only immensely failed to abide by Pillar One of RtoP, but also bears primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of mass atrocities and crimes, exacerbated by their refusal of Pillar Three involving intervention. As hostile divisions thrive within Syria, the United Nations Security Council continues to fail in enforcing compliance with intervention. Outside political influence, including western liberal democracies and the wider middle eastern regional powers, continue to weaken Syria’s chances of ceasing hostilities. Despite the current military, political and diplomatic stalemate, Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia remain key players in all negotiation settlements regarding this conflict. Therefore, any significant change in the Syrian conflict will only be achieved when these sovereignties intervene solely on their legal and moral Responsibility to Protect, rather than advancing on motives of national interests, hegemonic culture, or selective bias.


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Bellamy, A. J. & Wheeler, N. J (2014). Humanitarian intervention in world politics. In Baylis, J., Smith, S. & Owens, P. (Eds.), The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (6th ed.) (p.480-491). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Hove, H. & Mutanda, D. (2015): The Syrian Conflict 2011 to the Present: Challenges and Prospects. Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 50(5) 559-570. DOI: 10.1177/0021909614560248

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The Difference between Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

Image: Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

By Kagusthan Ariaratnam


The distinction between genocide and ethnic cleansing is a “grey area” that befuddles scholars, policy makers, and students alike. The concepts of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” can be illustrated through examples. An instance of genocide would be the Holocaust, the systematic obliteration of the Jewish population during the Second World War in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. A more recent occurrence would be the mass murder of 800, 000 Tutsi people in Rwanda by Hutus in 1994. Another example would be the Rohingya Muslims’ persecution in Myanmar in late 2016, when the country’s armed forces and police carried out the killing of Rohingya people in Rakhine State in the country's northwestern regions. On the other hand, ethnic cleansing, while it also involves the intention to exterminate a population, it is more limited to forced deportation or population transfer. A case of this is the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. In this instance, terrorists forced the migration of 50,000 Hindus from the state of Jammu and Kashmir through the use of fear, rape, assault, and the destruction of property.

This essay will provide a theoretical explanation of the differences between genocide and ethnic cleansing. Firstly, it will explain the term “genocide” as it is defined by the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Secondly, it will outline the origins and definition of the term “ethnic cleansing” according to the United Nations Commission’s Report on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Finally, the two will be discussed in relation to one another, and ultimately differentiated to shed some light on these two ambiguous terms.


It has been outlined in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, that genocide requires the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. The Convention explicitly outlines the very acts that are considered under the definition of genocide:
(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Each component of this article involves lethal force. Furthermore, the Genocide Convention not only defines genocide, it prohibits it. Moreover, the Convention obligates any country to prevent genocide and punish those who have committed acts of genocide. While the Convention stipulates a country’s responsibility to more than merely refrain from genocidal acts, it also requires prevention and punishment, which gives it universal jurisdiction and scope. This highlights the international concern for genocide. It becomes difficult to prove cases of genocide, however, since the following two components are broad in nature, and thus, make “intent” difficult to interpret and prove: (1) The intent to destroy a particular group, and (2) The commission of specific acts in support of the intent.

Ethnic cleansing

The basic foundations of ethnic cleansing are widely understood; however, ethnic cleansing in contradiction or distinguished from genocide has never been codified in international law. Instead, ethnic cleansing is understood as a form of previously-defined crimes. For example, the commission of experts in the ICTY have identified practices employed in ethnic cleansing as “crimes against humanity” that “can be assimilated to specific war crimes” and added, “that such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention”. This quote illustrates the close relationship that the two concepts share, as ethnic cleansing is used interchangeably with genocide or understood as a result of genocide. With respect to previously-defined crimes, the warfare of the former Yugoslavia brought a detailed inspection of the term ethnic cleansing; however, failed to anchor the term within international law (Lieberman 2010). The effect of this incoherence within legal arguments can be seen in the work of the ICTY, but more specifically, in the effects of legal proceedings. The ICTY is the legal body responsible for punishing crimes associated with ethnic cleansing, and its proceedings have most often mentioned ethnic cleansing with the purpose of providing background to a case or evidence of another related crime. Also, within court proceedings, ethnic cleansing is often seen as a term within quotation marks. This, therefore, facilitates the confusion, and the continuation of a gray-area for scholars, policy makers and learners who use the term. In fact, one attorney, in defending the ICTY, sought to use the absence of an international legal definition as grounds to challenge the use of the term, stating that “It does not exist in [the] Genocide Convention or in the international customary law” (United Nations, Case number IT‐97–24‐PT).

Nevertheless, Benjamin Lieberman (2010) explains that in the early 1990s, ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered the academic circle as a new term closely linked with genocide. Lieberman notes:
Language referring to the idea of clearing away groups had been used in previous conflicts, but the particular term ethnic cleansing only gained widespread attention during the wars for the former Yugoslavia. Though now widely condemned, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ may actually have been coined by supporters of violent attacks designed to drive Bosnian Muslims out of mixed communities in the spring of 1992 (2010: 2).
Since its origin, the use of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ triggered controversy because it could function as a synonym, that is, a more favorable term to cover up macro acts of violence or make the phenomenon sound less harmful. Nonetheless, despite its origin and potential for the misconception, the term ethnic cleansing quickly gained common recognition as a major form of violence directed toward groups of people. It is a methodical attempt by one political, social, or religious group to remove an ethnic or religious group from a specific area through coercive means, where killing may be involved. It includes both forced migration and the threat of brutal killings to terrorize a minority population and force them to leave a specific territory. In addition, the means utilized to achieve ethnic cleansing may include torture, arbitrary arrest, execution, assault, rape, forcible eviction, loot and arson, destruction of property and so on.

Difference between Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

To simplify, the term genocide commonly refers to mass murder that is prohibited and punishable under the jurisdiction of the Convention. Genocide and ethnic cleansing are very similar with respect to their intent or purpose; that is, a political or religious group intends to exterminate another political or religious group from the midst of their presence. However, the difference is found within the means by which each concept achieves their intentions. Genocide adopts a much more brutal approach that utilizes mass murders and brutal killings, while ethnic cleansing adopts a more limited approach that utilizes forced deportation or population transfer. In other words, ethnic cleansing chooses to terrify a particular ethnic group, forcing them to leave a particular area in order to create a more homogenous population (Lieberman 2010). For example, although historians have used the word ethnic cleansing to explain the systematic and brutal killings of Jews during the Holocaust of the Second World War, the very fact that it involved mass murders of some six million Jews indicates that it was more of a genocide than ethnic cleansing. To distinguish, some 50,000 Hindus from the state of Jammu and Kashmir were displaced through acts of bodily harm and theft or the imposition of fear therefrom; thereby illustrating the acts of ethnic cleansing.

Debates over the classification of ethnic cleansing often focus on the intent of the perpetrator. Refugee movements, for example, confirms the characteristic of ethnic cleansing actions, but to apply the term ethnic cleansing, one must also entail a judgment or interpretation of the organization’s intent and the planning of their encouraged eviction. For example, the removal of civilians during wartime could be considered a war crime, however; the distinction of ethnic cleansing occurs when refugees flee a war zone as the result of the fear of uncertainty or the risk of grave harm. Genocide, on the other hand, would not involve such large emigration of refugees due to the mere extent of murder that would be involved. Therefore, it becomes clear that both ethnic cleansing and genocide involve roots of ethnic and religious hatred and refer to the intention of removing an ethnic or religious group from a particular area. The only difference that separates ethnic cleansing from genocide lies in the fact that ethnic cleansing is more of the nature of forced migrations, while genocide strictly involves absolute elimination through mass murders and brutal killings.


The global community deserves to understand the difference between these two ambiguous concepts since this distinction outlines the extent of the destruction caused, the extent to which people are targeted, and the explanations for why they are targeted. In short, the international scholar community must become more attentive to the finer details of each case of genocide and ethnic cleansing, as these populations who suffer horrendous crimes deserve legal justice. The international community will become further misguided if they only engage in legal debates surrounding the crimes committed, rather than become focused on their moral responsibility of proactively preventing future crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing by way of clear identification.


Ellis-Petersen, H. (2018, August 27). Myanmar's military accused of genocide in damning UN   report. Retrieved from        military-accused-of-genocide-by-damning-un-report

Lieberman, B. (2010). ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ versus Genocide? Oxford Handbooks Online. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232116.013.0003

Ratelle, J. F. (November, 2016). Lecture on Introduction to the Study of Conflicts and Human Rights. Personal Collection of J.F. Ratelle, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON

United Nations. (n.d.) United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Retrieved December 13, 2016 from

United Nations of the Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. (1951). Retrieved December 13, 2016 from

Warikoo, K. (2014). Religion and security in South and Central Asia. London: Routledge.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Understanding the Causes of Civil War in Iraq and Syria

The civil wars in Iraq and Syria are the most catastrophic and worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The two main causes of civil wars in Iraq and Syria are authoritarianism and sectarianism. This essay will examine the causes and comparative analysis between two contemporary civil wars: The Iraqi civil war from 2006 to 2008 and the Syrian civil war from 2011 to 2013, with the aim of seeking to identify why each conflict erupted. Firstly, the essay will look at the nature of undemocratic and authoritarian regimes in both Iraq and Syria that were consequently categorized as failed states, where the incubation of civil war was inevitable. Secondly, the paper will discuss how sectarian violence in both Iraq and Syria caused ethnic and religious unrest that eventually led to civil wars in both countries. Finally, the essay will conclude by explaining why authoritarian regimes and sectarian violence were perceived as salient vis-à-vis civil wars in Iraq and Syria and its implications within the wider Middle Eastern region.   

Authoritarianism in Iraq and Syria

The similarities between both the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki’s, and the Syrian President, Bashar al-Asad’s regimes were authoritarian in nature. In an authoritarian regime, the fundamental democratic principles, such as, participation, competition, and liberty, are very limited (O’Neil, 2013). In addition, in such a regime the government is above the law and no one holds them accountable for their misconduct and violations. However, to stay in power, the rulers need some sort of alliance with military or religious leaders as seen in Iraq and Syria.

The element of “greed” in a civil war could be measured by the theory of “cost-benefit analysis,” which is a systematic process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a decision, policy or an action (Rodreck, Patrick & Adock, 2013). A case in point is how and why authoritarian regimes in Iraq and Syria came into being. For example, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki’s regime was hungry for power to take control of the country’s natural resources and commodities, such as oil. Alternatively, ordinary people engage themselves in rebellion in Iraq and Syria, where they are driven by economic motives that they could attain self-enrichment and material gain.  Hence, greed that led to authoritarianism can be perceived as one of causes of civil war in Iraq and Syria.

As noted by Collier and Hoeffler (2004), in Iraq’s political landscape, there was an increasing amount of struggle for power and resources. There was an insatiable desire to take control of state institutions by authoritarian regimes. At numerous times in Iraq’s recent history, political leaders have sought to expand their influence over government ministries, security forces, and civil society groups as means to increase their power.  According to Marisa Sullivan (2013):

Since 2007, Prime Minister Maliki has used the creation of extra-constitutional security bodies to bypass the defense and interior ministries and create an informal chain of command that runs directly from his office to the commanders in the field, allowing him to exert direct influence over the both the targeting of individuals and the conduct of operations. Chief among these are the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC) and provincial-level operations commands. OCINC reports directly to the prime minister and is staffed by Maliki loyalists. The extra-constitutional body has no legal framework to govern its existence and therefore no accountability or oversight, yet it has significant powers and resources. Maliki has also attached Iraq’s most elite units to his military office, and has used them for political purposes (p.6).

                   This battle for power has also become extremely personalized for political triumph in Iraq, which is mainly tied to personal survival. Although, according to realists’ school of thought, an anarchical system in world politics is advanced by statism, survival and self-help (Baylis, Smith, and Owens, 2014), in Iraq’s case, however, power is highly centralized and the regime is extremely corrupted. Political mobilization at the national level in Iraq has completely jeopardized the role of the judiciary as an independent check on the other branches of government. Prime Minister Maliki’s growing influence over and limitations on supposedly independent institutions have weakened the legitimacy and efficiency of these bodies, particularly the judiciary and the parliament. The judiciary has been an accomplice to the centralization of power by Maliki through a series of provocative rulings that have empowered the executive power and restrained or removed his political rivals. Through his emergence of power, Maliki has destabilized the system of checks and balances that were proposed in the constitution (Sullivan, 2013). Therefore, such an undemocratic regime as Iraq is prone to violence and disorder due to animosity and resentment of the general populace, which eventually led to civil war.

Like Prime Minister Maliki’s government in Iraq, the Syrian republic is also ruled by the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Asad. Asad was recognized as president for his second term in a 2007 referendum that was not free or fair by international standards. The president made key decisions with counsel from a small number of security advisors, ministers, and senior members of the ruling Baath Party. Alawites, the ruling religious sect, were dominating the regime in a disgraceful way in Syria, particularly in the military, in the appointment of officers and even recruits. The constitution mandates the predominance of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society. President Asad and party leaders dominate all the branches of government. Security forces report to civilian authorities. According to Raymond Hinnebusch (2012):

By the end of 2010, the outcome of Bashar al-Asad’s authoritarian upgrading had become apparent. He had used the external threat to generate nationalist legitimacy, enabling him to marginalize the old guard and ward off pressures from democracy activists. This was combined with an economic opening used to mobilize financial capital as a substitute for declining oil rents. He had positioned himself as balancer above a divided society, propagating an image of himself as both a modern reformer and a pious Muslim. Compared to those of other Arab republics, the regime enjoyed a foreign policy congruent with public opinion, a young President still enjoying the benefit of the doubt and seen as preferable to alternatives in the regime, security forces more loyal and effective than elsewhere, a weaker civil society and a more fragmented opposition (p.106).

Even though, Syria’s civil society is weakened by militarization, demands for democratic reform by nonviolent demonstrators began in March 2011, which continued throughout the year. When the protests began, local committees emerged and took responsibility for organizing events within their own communities. The Asad regime responded with indiscriminate and deadly forces to suppress such protests, including military attacks on several cities. For instance, in April 2011, the regime blocked supplies to the southern city of Daraa of electricity, water, and medical services, and it constrained entry and exit for almost 20 days while shelling the city’s soft targets, such as mosques, hospitals, schools, markets, and other public places. The regime continued the use of deadly military force against its citizens despite its agreement to an Arab League plan to engage in reforms and to end killing civilians in November 2011. The UN reported that more than 5,000 civilians were killed between 2011and 2012 (Hinnebusch, 2012).

It is against this backdrop that both Iraq and Syria fall under the category of failed states. The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy Magazine conduct research and collect data to indicate whether a state is fragile or failed. Such factors like economic instability, human rights violations, and security issues, are some of the many elements that are taken into consideration when determining the status of a state (The Fund for Peace, 2016).  Furthermore, according to the study, Iraq and Syria are ranked in a very high alert for possessing the characteristics of failed states during the years between 2006 to 2008 as well as 2011to 2013 respectively.  For example, failed states have minimum security and sovereignty and may not collect taxes regularly. In addition, contrary to Max Weber’s definition of a state, a failed state does not have the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory (Weber, 1919). As such, both in Iraq and Syria, the outbreaks of civil wars were inevitable given the nature of undemocratic authoritarian regimes and subsequent failed states.

Sectarianism in Iraq and Syria

Before proceeding further, the term “sectarianism” needs to be clearly defined. As Fanar Haddad (2011) notes, a sectarianism is a form of bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group. It is, therefore, one of the causes of civil war in Iraq and Syria can be explained under the pretext of sectarianism between Shia and Sunni factions in both states. The Shia Muslims of Iraq are Arabic-speaking majority group, which is comprised of 60%-65% of the Iraqi population. They were politically marginalized under the Saddam Hussein regime. Alternatively, the Sunni Muslims of Iraq are an Arabic-speaking minority group, which is comprised of 32%-37% of the population. The Sunnis have been politically dominating Iraq for centuries until the American invasion of 2003 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016).

The element of “grievance” in a civil war can be viewed by the “relative deprivation theory”, which is a view of social change and movements whereby people act for social change to acquire opportunities, status, or wealth that others possess in which they believe they have the right to obtain (Townsend, 1979). For instance, rebellion in Iraq and Syria have sprung when people cannot bear the misery of their life, such as a feeling of injustice and inequality, ethnic and religious hatred, denied dignity and freedom, and political exclusion and repression; mainly due to sectarian violence. The notion of grievance that led to sectarianism can thus be perceived as prominent vis-à-vis civil wars in Iraq and Syria.

As pointed out by many scholars, the 2003 American invasion of Iraq paved the way for sectarian violence between Iraqi Sunni and Shia factions due to the establishment of pro-Western Shia government in Baghdad. The Sunnis’ spiritual and emotional struggle in accepting Iraq’s Shia government is awkward. Shireen T. Hunter (2014) explains:

The most significant factor behind Iraq’s problems has been the inability of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and its Sunni neighbors to come to terms with a government in which the Shias, by virtue of their considerable majority in Iraq’s population, hold the leading role. This inability was displayed early on, when Iraq’s Sunnis refused to take part in Iraq’s first parliamentary elections, and resorted to insurgency almost immediately after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein. All along, the goal of Iraqi Sunnis has been to prove that the Shias are not capable of governing Iraq. Indeed, Iraq’s Sunni deputy prime minister, Osama al-Najafi, recently verbalized this view. The Sunnis see political leadership and governance to be their birthright and resent the Shia interlopers (p.1).

            After hundreds of years of ruling, both under the Ottoman empire and after independence, and then during Saddam Hussain’s era of marginalization of Shias as atheists of society, the Sunnis have difficulty accepting the Shia rule. The peak of sectarian violence in Iraq was probably when the February 2006 bombing of one of the holiest shrines of Shias, the al-Askari Mosque in the city of Samarra, by the Sunni militants. This led to a wave of Shia retaliations against Sunnis followed by Sunni counterattacks. Consequently, in October 2006, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Iraqi government estimated that more than 370,000 Iraqis had been displaced since the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque, bringing the total number of Iraqi refugees to more than 1.6 million (Katzman, 2009). By 2007, the conflict intensified over the next several months that a United States Government Accountability Office Report (2007), described the situation as having elements of a civil war, quoting a US intelligence assessment.
Like Iraq, the ruling party in Syria belongs to Alawite, a division of Shia Muslim, that is comprised of 13% of the country’s population. Moreover, President Asad and his most senior political and military associates are tied to Alawite, therein Asad’s regime is backed by Shia governments such as Iran in the region. Furthermore, similar to the marginalization of Sunni’s in Iraq, the Asad regime in Syria is also politically and militarily oppressing the country's Sunni Muslim majority, which is comprised of 74% of the population. Consequently, the Sunnis in Syria are aligned with the Syrian opposition rebels and other regional Sunni states including Persian Gulf States. Furthermore, external actors including Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia also largely impacted sectarianism in the Syrian conflict. Christopher Phillips (2015) argues:

Iraq’s civil war was felt in Syria. Regime news outlets manipulated the chaos in Iraq to raise the fear of sectarianism and present the regime as protector. Geopolitically Assad was determined to weaken the USA in Iraq, so he facilitated the transit of Sunni jihadist fighters across the Iraq frontier. Not only would these fighters later turn on their former patron, but their ideology spread, albeit in limited pockets. […] External elites also exploited sectarianism in Iraq. Saddam’s fall heightened tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The more Tehran’s influence grew in Iraq, the more Riyadh sought to undermine Iran’s play for regional leadership by emphasising its Shia character. Saudi Arabia’s ally King Abdullah II of Jordan warned of a ‘Shia crescent’ across the region, while pan-Arab satellite television, mostly indirectly owned by the Saudis and other Gulf states, offered a new forum to promote sectarian language (p.368).

As the violence in Syria has deepened, outsiders have backed the different sides, and set the conflict into the background of a wider Sunni-Shia internal strife. For instance, due to sectarian divide, Maliki’s Iraqi regime, which is made of majority Shia factions, was pursuing a pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian regional policy despite American sanctions on Syria and Iran. This imbalance led other regional Sunni regimes to support the insurgency in both Iraq and Syria thereby exacerbating the civil wars in both states. Even though Bashar al-Assad's government generally avoids sectarian language, the departure of many former supporters has left him ever more dependent on the Alawites. While anti-sectarian ideology turned out to be a main theme of the Baath Party, factions within it could not escape their sense of identity and still counting on the external regional actors for who backs up whom. Thus, the Damascus government's attempts to blame rebels and foreign fighters for the country's turmoil seems to be legitimate.
In contrast, within the Syrian opposition, people talk about the other sects, including Christians or Alawites in their ranks, categorically rejecting the label of Sunni Jihadists. Or the Syrian government supporters will hint the existence of non-Alawites in the higher echelons of the regime. That said, each faction meanwhile tries to undermine their opponent with the sectarian label (Urban, 2013). This tradition has left the Syrian nation largely undeveloped, strongly aware of sectarian identity, and open to the messages of those who justify Jihadism and create an opportunity for intercommunal violence that led to civil war.  
The political, military, and humanitarian implications of civil wars in Iraq and Syria were largely caused by authoritarianism and sectarianism, which are not resolved, to date. While the only remaining super-power, the United States of America, supported Iraqi authoritarian regime for a limited time, the ever-present Russia is still supporting the authoritarian regime in Syria, both in the name of regional stability, which will have negative ramifications and only exacerbate tensions and divisions within the wider Middle Eastern region. On the other hand, Maliki’s Iraqi regime and Asad’s Syrian regime were responsible for sectarianizing the Sunni versus Shia conflicts within the wider region of Middle East as well.  Ultimately, the international community must recognize that stability in the Middle East will only come through an inclusive, representative, and fair political system that protects the rights of all Iraqis and Syrians.

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