The kinetic phase of the Hybrid War on Syria seems to be drawing to a close, but the weaponization of chaos theory is still an ever-present threat that mustn’t be underestimated, though the state could creatively leverage change to its own advantage in order to emerge from this conflict even stronger.
The Hybrid War on Syria is the best example of the weaponization of chaos theory, the conceptual basics of which were elaborated upon in an academic article that the author jointly published in collaboration with another expert in September 2016 titled “Chaos Theory, Global Systemic Change, And Hybrid Wars”. That piece deserves to be revisited in light of the impending end of the kinetic phase of this conflict in order to draw attention to several realistic scenarios that could imperil the country’s stability at this crucial point. Observers, let alone Syrian decision makers themselves, shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the Syrian Arab Army’s latest anti-terrorist successes and succumb to “victory disease” by convincing themselves that the war is over, when it’s actually just returning to its pre-kinetic political phase, albeit at a pivotal juncture that will determine the course of the country’s future for years to come.
Rereading the author’s aforementioned research will provide one with a more solid understanding of the complex concepts at play that will influence the forthcoming scenarios that pose the greatest risk to Syria’s stability, but a summary of them and their interconnected dynamics is nevertheless worthwhile to commence as a general refresher. Accordingly, the first part of this analysis will review the basics of chaos theory and its relationship to Hybrid War, while the second will explain its relevance to contemporary Syria as its conflict transitions from the military to the political phase. The objective is to inform interested individuals and hopefully even competent decision makers about some of the most important ever-present but largely unseen political and strategic challenges that Syria will be forced to confront in the near future, as this will lay the groundwork for devising creative solutions for dealing with them and preempting any disruption to the country’s recovery.
The first thing that must be done is to define the main concepts of the study:
Relatively unpredictable natural or unnatural (e.g. externally provoked and manipulated) change within a complex system such as a country which is disproportionately influenced by its initial conditions, chaos can either be weaponized in the destructive form of Hybrid Warfare or harnessed for constructive purposes by being guided in the direction of positive political and economic reforms in order to unleash a nation’s full potential.
The external provocation and directing of chaotic processes within a targeted society towards preplanned political ends that sometimes change depending on how the situation evolves, Hybrid War presents a new paradigm for understanding domestic and international events by asserting that actors sometimes intentionally unleash unpredictable forces in order to overwhelm their adversaries and organically create new opportunities for advancing their interests.
Having acquired a general idea of the relationship between chaos and Hybrid War, it’s now time to describe how they interact with one another during destabilization sequencing.
Hybrid Wars externally provoke identity conflict along the ethnic, religious, regional, socio-economic, and historical axes using NGOs, infowars, sanctions, and other means in order to catalyze a self-sustaining cycle of destabilization that leads to either Regime Tweaking (political concessions), Regime Change (leadership replacement), and/or Regime Reboot (constitutional change) (collectively, R-TCR) usually by means of transitioning a Color Revolution into an Unconventional War (though the reverse is also possible). The targeted population is often preconditioned through psychological (informational) and systemic (economic) means to take to the streets after a trigger event that could either be naturally occurring (a controversial political action or death of a leader) or manufactured (originating from fake news or after provoking the state into a controversial action). Most of the (proto-)Color Revolution participants are “well-intended” (if somewhat misguided) individuals that are exploited as human shields by provocateurs/terrorists who infiltrate the movement and hide behind civilians as they attack the state and try to trigger a violent response.
Some of the participants decontextualize, misportray, and then over-amplify the state’s reaction in domestic and international Mainstream and Alternative Medias usually through selectively edited video footage in order to encourage more unrest and create the “publicly plausible” pretext for presumably preplanned unilateral and multilateral sanctions and/or direct clandestine support to anti-government elements so as to assist in the creation of the self-sustaining cycle of destabilization (chaos) that won’t stop until a R-TCR is accomplished. Any disproportionate response by the state during this initial phase could inadvertently generate legitimate grievances where there previously weren’t any and thus accelerate the destabilization/chaos sequencing. Throughout the course of events, opportunities and challenges will naturally present themselves (outcomes of chaos, whether initiated by or resulting in “Black Swans” or “Dragon Kings”), so the offensive and defensive parties must be able to flexibly adapt to scenarios as they develop while keeping in mind the so-called “Law of Unintended Consequences” to avoid unwittingly making situations worse.
About that, it’s important for both sides to accept that they can never exert total control over events due to the inherent nature of chaos, but that they can try to guide the general inertia in the direction of their respective interests through differing degrees of interventions across various domains. Trying too hard, however, is oftentimes counterproductive because it simply leads to more resistance against one’s original aims or triggers unintended consequences. It’s for this reason why one of the most efficient approaches to managing chaos is to utilize network-centric tactics of decentralization and delegation of command in order to nimbly respond to ever-changing circumstances in kinetic (military) and non-kinetic (infowar, economic) ways. Blowback regularly occurs whenever those invested in preserving the state of pre-confrontational affairs or those who are overly zealous to change them overreact to developments (whether positive or negative) by trying to control each and every detail related to the campaign.
Hybrid War, which is the weaponization of chaos theory, can’t be understood unless one is aware of the all the moving parts within the battlespace.
Learning about a country’s Hybrid War variables of ethnic, religious, regional, socio-economic, and historic factors; the relationship between them and how they led to the present state of socio-political and economic affairs; and the most likely evolution of this complex system (both under natural circumstances and in reaction to external manipulation of the aforesaid factors) can be described as “Democratic Security”. Research is conducted in this field for the purpose of undermining the said system (waging Hybrid War/unleashing chaotic processes), reinforcing it (sustaining the status quo/resisting chaotic processes, though it could dangerously lead to stagnation if allowed to remain unchanged for too long), or constructively reforming it (guiding change/chaotic processes in a positive direction). Democratic Security studies require frankness and a willingness to defy “political correctness” in order to fully understand the strategic situation as it objectively exists, as nothing short of this can enable one to effectively influence chaotic processes in the direction of their desired interests.
There are three basic steps that all practitioners of Democratic Security must follow:
- Identity the Hybrid War variables and discover their weaknesses and influences;
- Closely monitor the aforementioned and pay attention to trends and disruptions thereof;
- Intervene when necessary through the proper channels and means to guide events.
Students of Democratic Security would do well to approach the field from an amoral point of entry that ignores the ethical implications of their work and instead concentrates solely on delivering as objective of a product as possible to decision makers, who will in turn have the prerogative of inserting morals, ethics, and principles into their relevant policies if they so choose. Researchers shouldn’t blind themselves with their own subjective interpretations of right and wrong otherwise they risk “contaminating” their analyses and potentially making them less effective in practice. One needs to see matters as they are and could realistically become, not how they want them to be or end up, because that’s the decision maker’s responsibility and not the researcher’s. To aid with this, it’s recommended that students familiarize themselves with Robert Greene’s works and constantly expose themselves to contrarian views in order to challenge their own and break through groupthink and dogma.
The Contemporary State Of Affairs In Syria
Syria at this moment provides an excellent case study of non-kinetic chaotic processes in action and can enlighten readers about the mechanics of Hybrid War at this interesting phase.
Lots of literature has already been produced documenting the origins and evolution of the Hybrid War on Syria, but not much has been published about forward-looking Hybrid War risk assessments in the post-kinetic (political) stage of the conflict that the country’s rapidly approaching. The relative stability that’s set in over Syria following the Syrian Arab Army’s recent anti-terrorist successes shouldn’t deceive anyone into thinking that the war is finished because forthcoming developments could radically change the situation in the country and reverse the political gains that were made. It’s unlikely that large-scale kinetic exchanges of the sort that characterized this conflict over the past eight years will resume, but the non-kinetic (infowar, economic, “Weapons of Mass Migration”, etc.) ones will undoubtedly intensify as all parties compete with one another to “peacefully” promote their desired vision for the “New Syria”, kept “in check” as they are by the structural constraints that have set in as a result of the conflict.
To put the current state of affairs into the academic-theoretical context elaborated upon in this analysis, kinetic means have failed to achieve Regime Tweaking (breaking the Syrian-Iranian Strategic Partnership) and Regime Change (removing President Assad), so non-kinetic means as agreed upon by all parties (including Damascus) per UNSC Res. 2254 are in the process of being implemented for carrying out a Regime Reboot (constitutional reform and new elections), though it remains to be seen whether this will lead to substantial change or just superficial. Pertaining to the tenets of Democratic Security, neither the offensive nor defensive side fully succeeded in their respective goal of undermining the system or sustaining the status quo, though the resultant stalemate allows the state and its opponents to attempt to constructively guide the non-kinetic constitutional reform phase in whatever they understand to be a positive direction. Unlike before, this process is relatively under control because it’s occurring after hostilities have largely ceased.
Russia’s September 2015 anti-terrorist intervention could be described as a “Dragon King” event for most of the world because there were signs that something of the sort could transpire but they were generally dismissed as extreme scenario outliers until the very last minute. Nevertheless, this was an event of paramount significance and could literally be described as a game-changer, though Russia restrained itself from fully committing its military to helping its in-country counterparts regain “every inch” of Syria due to Moscow’s desire to solely eliminate internationally recognized terrorist groups such as Daesh and then leverage its pivotal position in the geostrategic state to become the supreme “balancing” force in regional affairs. Combined with the US’ occupation of northeastern Syria and the two Great Powers’ “gentlemen agreement” to not violate the so-called “deconfliction line” between them along the Euphrates River, Damascus is now forced to contend with the de-facto “internal partition” of the country through either “decentralization” or “federalization”.
There are several chaotic variables that emerged from the kinetic phase of the Hybrid War on Syria and which will exert the most influence on the future course of non-kinetic (political) events in the country:
The controlled return of millions of Syrian migrants and refugees has just started, though details such as the potential electoral participation of expatriates in states that haven’t resumed relations with Syria and the responsibly managed reintegration of these individuals into society haven’t yet been settled.
Reintegrating Religious Militants And Sympathizers:
The government’s reconciliation programs have been very successful in the military sense, but they haven’t yet been tested in the socio-political ones and it’s unclear what the real recidivism rate for religious militants and sympathizers will be if they’re not sustainably reintegrated into society.
Resolving Issues Of Local Self-Governance:
Many municipalities that were earlier occupied by anti-government militants practiced forms of local self-governance, which while not inclusive of the general population in most cases, still opened up the Pandora’s Box of municipal “decentralization” that might be impossible to close at this point.
Concluding A Deal With The Kurds:
The American-occupied and Kurdish-controlled northeastern part of Syria is the country’s most agriculturally, hydrologically, and energy-rich region that the Pentagon won’t surrender, which necessitates that Damascus conclude a deal with its self-proclaimed administrators.
Finalizing The Details Of The New Constitution:
The issues of local self-governance and the future administrative status of the Kurdish-occupied northeast of the country will be decided upon in the new constitution, as will provisions related to the new elections that are also mandated by UNSC Res. 2254, including President Assad’s eligibility to run.
Holding Democratic Multiparty Elections:
Syria hasn’t ever experienced democratic multiparty elections of the Western sort envisioned by UNSC Res. 2254 where the ruling Ba’ath Party will compete against recently legalized opposition parties like the SSNP and predictably also forthcoming ones representing the Kurds, religious elements, and others.
Determining The Future Of The Ba’ath Party:
One of the greatest uncertainties is the future of the Ba’ath Party and its members in the state’s permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”), who understandably want to retain their positions but might be forced by the terms of a peace agreement into leaving them.
The Structural Determinants Of Democratic Deal-Making
The future of Syria will be decided by democratic deal-making during the constitutional reform process and then the people’s will in the country’s first post-conflict elections.
Democracy, however, needs to be reconceptualized in the context of this research as the embodiment of chaos because of its complex nature and inherent unpredictability when practiced in its theoretically purest form. The uncontrolled and rapid transition to Western-style Liberal Democracy by Eastern Hemispheric states is irresponsible and often a trigger for kinetic chaos, though that’s the point and one of the main reasons why the US committed itself to “spreading democracy” after the Old Cold War. The regular cycling of leaders through the public’s participation can also be easily influenced from abroad, especially in today’s interconnected society through infowars and NGOs, hence the prevalence of low-intensity Hybrid Wars in that half of the world and particularly in “Global South” nations. “Externally managing” democracy is the US’ strategic specialty, which is why it’s so masterful at practicing Hybrid Wars and eager to “proselytize” its manipulatable (or as Trump says, “rigged”) model to other countries in order to dominate them.
Syria must keep this in mind at all times and recognize that the upcoming constitutional reform process represents the commencement of yet another chaotic process, albeit a non-kinetic one, in which the initial conditions will disproportionately influence the eventual outcome, one that’s intended to be the indefinite law of the land and the new “rules of the game” after this Regime Reboot. Damascus can enter these negotiations more confidently than before after liberating most of the its territory, though the fate of Idlib will ultimately determine whether or not the Islamist opposition is capable of pressing forward with some of their own demands such as potentially pursuing “judicial decentralization” in order to “legitimize” sharia in their “sphere of influence”. It’s presently unclear whether Russia will, or even can, successfully broker a deal between Syria and Turkey in this so-called “de-escalation zone” like it indirectly did between Syria and “Israel” in the southern one, so its future is up for grabs.
As for the American occupation zone around al-Tanf and the Turkish-occupied areas of the north, both Great Powers might withdraw if Damascus enacts preferential “compromises” during the constitutional reform process probably dealing with a “balanced” combination of Washington’s wish for legally enshrined Kurdish autonomy and Ankara’s opposition thereof. One of the most pragmatic solutions might be to reach a generous revenue-sharing agreement with the Kurds in exchange for them allowing the Syrian Arab Army to re-enter the renegade region and at the very least patrol its international borders with Turkey and Iraq, all the while pretty much giving the PYD a free hand to govern the political and economic affairs of their self–declared “federation” in accordance with the parameters defined in the new constitution. Ideally for Damascus, the only region that will have devolved autonomy will be the Kurdish-run one so long as Idlib is liberated, though the rest of the nation will probably experience some degree of decentralization.
Post-Election Transition Scenario
Nearing the end of the research, it’s worthwhile to explore one of the most likely post-election transition scenarios that will transpire in Syria.
To be clear, the word “transition” doesn’t imply Regime Change because there’s no reliable indication whether or not President Assad will be allowed to run (though if he is and decides to do so, then he’ll certainly win), but if the finalized constitution is modelled off of the Russian-written “draft”, then the upcoming UNSC Res. 2254-mandated elections will probably herald in the formal transition to a “New Syria” characterized by a weak executive symbolically presiding over a strong parliamentary system that will probably necessitate coalition-building depending on the outcome of the vote, which is the polar opposite of what pre-war Syria was like. It needs to be stressed that the most important person in this political framework wouldn’t be the President (whether Assad or anyone else) nor even the parliamentary legislators deciding on domestic political matters, but the Ba’ath-aligned officials of the “deep state” whose work will continue to ensure the state’s stable functioning.
As systemic transitions have a tendency to do, however, there might be extremely heavy pressure put on these figures by the US and its in-country political allies to resign from their positions or be “administratively removed” in order to make way for a new “deep state” elite as part of a peace deal, though the successful implementation of this lustration policy would rapidly destabilize the state just like what happened in Iraq and Libya and therefore lead to its collapse. Ironically, the same individuals who helped win the war would end up as some of its chief losers, after which the entire country would suffer too once inexperienced and unqualified individuals are placed in these very important decision-making positions as probable puppets of foreign powers. It’ll probably be impossible to avoid this highly politicized issue in the near future, which is why it must urgently be confronted head-on with an actual strategy to make the best of a difficult situation.
The most responsible thing that the Ba’ath-aligned “deep state” elite can do is prepare for the gradual and orderly transition to a new cadre of officials whose loyalty is first and foremost to Syria and not any other country. It would immensely help if the ruling party partnered itself with a genuinely popular opposition one such as the SSNP which might boast impressive results during the upcoming elections, as this could ease the eventual transition from the Ba’ath to something else, seeing as how it would be unrealistic to assume that the old “deep state” order of business will indefinitely continue. Rather, it’s best for the authorities to partially embrace the chaotic change that was already unleashed and which is bound to affect this non-kinetic phase at the conflict’s close. This could enable it to get “ahead of the game” by practicing Democratic Security and constructively reforming the state of affairs in order to take ownership over its final outcome.
The Hybrid War of Terror on Syria saw the weaponization of chaos theory lead to profound changes in the country, though not all of these are necessarily negative and some of them could instead be used to lay the basis for a stronger state in the future. By rejecting the irresponsible aspects of change (caliphate, separatism, terrorism), embracing the positive ones (decentralization and democratic multiparty elections), and accepting those that are irreversible (sphere of American influence in the northeast and an inevitable but not necessarily rapid “deep state” transition away from the Ba’ath Party), Syria can learn from its extensive experiences with chaos in order to develop along the lines of a “chaordic” state, or one that “blends characteristics of chaos and order” by managing both to its ultimate advantage. Chaords, as they’re called, are flexible in the face of ever-changing challenges, adapting as needed in order to survive and emerge stronger from each struggle.
They embody the concept of “antifragility” by actually gaining from periodic disorder instead of obsessively trying to retain the status quo for as long as possible, making changes when necessary and sometimes “going with the flow” (but only to a certain extent) when confronted with uncontrollable processes so as not to advertently grow stale and become more vulnerable to sudden shifts. As an example, the Ba’ath Party could undergo a superficial “face-lift” in the domestic political sense in the run-up to or after the upcoming elections by more openly partnering with some of the responsible and legitimate members of the opposition, after which some of them could be taken under its wing and trained as eventual “deep state” replacements. No party lasts forever, and the post-election transition to a “New Syria” should be seen as an opportunity for the Ba’ath Party to rebrand itself so as to improve its members’ relevancy under these new situational conditions.
Through this manner, the very essence of the Syrian state would largely remain unchanged in the “deep state” managerial and personnel senses, therefore ensuring a strong continuity of its most important domestic and international policies despite the changed appearance of the government. Flexible adaptation must occur in order to confront new challenges, of course, though there’s a convincing argument that can be made for retaining the same individuals who successfully saved the country behind the scenes and maintained its stability than to suddenly replace them with new faces just for the sake of it. One of the most important strategic facets of chaos theory is that the initial conditions disproportionately influence the outcome of any chaotic process, and accepting that change in complex systems such as countries is natural, then the “New Syria” is just another name for the next phase of history that the country will experience, therefore making these decisions all the more important for its future.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.