Syria, Somalia, and State Failure

Damascus, Syria Skyline

The city of Damascus in a quieter time. The photo shows part of the capital city’s skyline in 2006. Photo credit: RabunWarna (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Two years after widespread anti-government protests began in Syria, the situation there is rapidly deteriorating. Last week’s issue of The Economist marked the deterioration  with a cover story declaring “the death of a country.” Indeed, the numbers tell a story of humanitarian catastrophe: 70,000 killed; 150,000-200,000 political prisoners; 1 million refugees; and 2 million displaced within Syria. These are staggering figures for any country, but especially so for a relatively small country  of 21 million people. In the three months since I last focused on the situation in Syria, this crossroads state has taken troubling steps toward state failure.

Here it is worth quoting from the The Economist’s editorial:

As the world looks on (or away), the country jammed between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel is disintegrating. Perhaps the regime of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, will collapse in chaos; for some time it could well fight on from a fortified enclave, the biggest militia in a land of militias. Either way, Syria looks increasingly likely to fall prey to feuding warlords, Islamists and gangs – a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant. [emphasis added]

In certain respects, the comparison of Syria with Somalia is warranted. Both states suffered long under authoritarian rule prior to their descent into catastrophe. Both states have experienced fragmented civil wars, with rival anti-government groups targeting each other. Both states have been influenced by Islamist militants. Both states have significantly destabilized neighboring countries.

Syria, though, is not Somalia. And Syria is not likely to become another Somalia anytime soon. The fundamental breakdown in this comparison is the contrasting experiences of these two places with modern statehood. Those who know Somalia best (e.g. Ken Menkhaus) argue that resistance to centralized government has been a hallmark of this part of the Horn of Africa. Despite linguistic, religious, and ethnic homogeneity, most Somalis have adamantly resisted centralized government. The lack of legitimacy accorded modern state institutions led to the failure to construct a state after independence in 1960. Decades after independence, the central government had still not established basic state institutions such as courts and an effective police service. The ineptness of the Siad Barre government (1969-1991) and the turmoil associated with the end of the Cold War led to deeper problems for Somalia in the 1990s and 2000s. Somalis are still struggling to accept some form of Westphalian-type statehood, 53 years after independence.

The situation in Syria is strikingly different. Even with the deep ethnic and sectarian divides in Syria, a strong majority of Syrians embrace the concept of modern statehood. The anti-Assad forces – though divided – are struggling to capture Damascus and establish a new government for Syria. The Syrian rebels – now recognized in many foreign capitals as the rightful political representatives of the country – are seeking a rather conventional agenda with their war.

So, even if Syria soon becomes a “failed state,” the prospects for rebuilding the state are at least fair. Somalia, in contrast, has never really had a functioning state, despite the fiction of world political maps and the country’s seat at the United Nations.

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