Journal Essay

Syria and Its Neighbors: Introduction to Chatham House Special Section

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

As the Syrian civil war reaches its sixth anniversary, it is increasingly clear how much the conflict has transformed the politics of the Middle East. Syria itself has been shattered. Whatever the fate of the current crisis, violence, political instability, state weakness and economic difficulty look likely to continue for years to come in a country formerly known for its relative stability. The shock waves have spread quickly and in manifold ways to Syria's immediate neighbors. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey proved unable to prevent the strife from spilling over, whether through flows of refugees, non-state fighters, radicalization or sectarianism. Regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey, have invested considerably in a conflict that has sometimes seemed as totemic as Israel-Palestine. The increasing involvement of Russia in Syria and the notably limited role of the United States have raised bigger questions about the regional balance of power. Donald Trump's ambiguous stance towards Syria only adds another layer of uncertainty.

The following collection of papers explores what these transformations might mean going forward, and how the long-term local, regional and international politics of the Middle East have been affected. They have been produced as part of Chatham House's Syria and its Neighbours Policy Initiative. This multiyear research and convening project aims to support a coordinated and holistic policy response to the conflict in Syria and its long-term regional implications, with a particular focus on the country's immediate neighbors. The program has received generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution (NOREF) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

The collection begins at the international-regional level, with Christopher Phillips's focus on the activities of leading regional anti-Assad states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. He discusses the paradoxical nature of these governments' policies: exploiting a perceived retreat in U.S. power to intervene in Syria, but unable to achieve their goals without U.S. support, which eventually proved limited.

Moving to Syria's immediate neighborhood, Denise Natali and Bassel Salloukh study the cases immediately east and west. While Natali argues that Iraq, for all its traumas, seems unlikely to break up, Salloukh warns of the increased contestation in Lebanon as a spillover effect.

The final two articles narrow the focus to Syrians. Zeynap Kaya and Matthew Whiting explore the impact of the war on the dynamics of Kurdish nationalism inside Syria and beyond, and how strong this movement is likely to become. Samer Abboud considers transformations in Syria's socioeconomic structure and how these may affect attempts to bring the country back together.

The collection highlights the complex ramifications of a conflict that shows no sign of reaching a definitive conclusion. At each level — international, regional and local — the war has rippled out, often in unpredictable ways. Some outcomes were foreseeable yet did not prompt adequate responses from policy makers. It is hoped that this forward-looking collection will help inform more appropriate strategies in the future.

Christopher Phillips
Chatham House and Queen Mary, University of London