Is Syria a Failed State?

A Syrian flag in Homs

A war-ravaged Homs, Syria in May 2012. Photo credit: Freedom House (Creative Commons license).

Remember the Arab Spring? In March 2011, peaceful protests against the Bashir al-Assad government erupted in Syria, following closely the political upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Initially, protesters called for policy changes; after massive repression, they began mobilizing for regime change. Since March 2011, Syria’s civil war has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths and nearly half a million refugees. And with recent territorial gains by the opposition forces, it seems unlikely that the war will de-escalate any time soon. Even with all this violence, is it appropriate to call Syria a failed state? The clear answer is “not yet.”

The Syrian war is fundamentally a struggle for control of state institutions. The Free Syria Army is seeking to overturn the decades-long rule of the repressive Assad dynasty. The opposition is striving to take over control of the Syrian state, not to undermine state institutions. Unless the civil war drags on for many more months, Syria will re-emerge as a critically weak, but not failed, state.

In 2008, the Brookings Institution released an excellent global assessment of state fragility. Co-authored by Susan Rice, current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the assessment identified Syria as a “state to watch”:

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has failed to promote economic prosperity, despite having promised reform of the country’s state-run economy. Syria’s low score in the economic sphere derives primarily from slow growth and inadequate regulatory quality. In the political arena, repression and government control of the media continue to stifle political opposition and dissent. (pp. 20-21)

The last sentence seems quite prescient, given the events of the last two years. Even so, the key crossroads state of the Middle East was not labeled as a failed state or a critically weak state, and for good reason.

In the Rice report, and in more recent data, Syria fares well in terms of human development indicators. The country boasts an adult literacy rate of over 85 percent. Before the war, adult life expectancy was four years above the world average of 70 years. Infant mortality was comparatively low for a developing country. And Syria’s Human Development Index score was about average for its region, and much higher than most failed states.

Yes, more than a year of war is beginning to exact a heavy toll on the country’s population, economy, and infrastructure. Syria will not instantly recover from this dark era. It is, however, worth recalling another post-conflict state that many wrongly called a  failed state in the 1990s.

In years immediately before and after the genocide of 1994, Rwanda was not a failed state. It was a state afflicted by widespread atrocities, but the country had and has relatively effective governmental institutions, and most Rwandans deem state institutions as legitimate. Just as Rwanda’s (economic) development has surprised many in the post-1994 period, post-civil war Syria could surprise many with an era of rapid reform and progress. With or without Assad, post-war Syria will have key advantages that most failed states do not have.


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