Author Archives: PolicyLabs

About PolicyLabs

Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in conflict affected situations. He has worked in Iraq (with USAID), Afghanistan (with UNDP), Bosnia and Herzegovina (with OSCE), and Azerbaijan (in academia and think tanks). He has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide policy initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels. Holds PhD in Contemporary History/Political Science. @ElbayPolicyLabs

Syrian ‘Perfect War’: A Game Changer

Children ride in carts on the third day of Eid al-Adha in the rebel controlled city of Idlib

Children ride in carts on the third day of Eid al-Adha in the rebel controlled city of Idlib, Syria September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

What is happening in Syria today is not yet ‘another violent conflict fought in the volatile Middle East’. It started five years ago in line with scenario played in many other places over centuries. However, due to internal political dynamics, regional rivalries and cross-border influences, competing geopolitical interests of many actors, as well as the active presence of global terrorist organisations this conflict has grown in something the world has not seen before—it is surely moving toward becoming a Perfect War, the kind of world war of the twenty-first century.

Ending the Syrian War by traditional methods is already impossible; it has been proven by numerous failures and the deterioration further into the abyss of uncontrollable fighting. New approaches must be explored and tested on the ground—this will demand new, unorthodox ways of decision making, cooperation, and implementation.


  • There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all have one thing in common—they are driven by political power and influence.
  • These wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, which no one can control and with no end in sight.
  • Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts, and implement sets of limited tasks to effectively address them, in order to progress toward the ultimate goal over time.

Looking Beyond the Events:

There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all of them are about political power and influence. Today, Syria is a battleground for a number of wars. Each has it its own contexts, underlying conflict drivers, prize at stake, and actors involved directly and covertly. They are fought by a large group of local, regional, national, and transnational actors. Many are involved in more than one war and the aims they pursue and alliances they make in each war are different. Therefore the phrase Syrian War refers to conglomerate of wars closely related to and reinforcing each other.

Three wars are fought for direct power control in Syria. One is civil war. It started from the violent confrontation between the opposition-turned rebels and the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, in 2011. The government does not intend to give up the power while the opposition wants to take it all. This zero sum game has a number of implications. More protracted it is, more resources it demands, more atrocities are committed, and fewer chances are left for its ultimate resolution (which extends to post-war stabilisation, reconciliation, and rebuilding the country).

Another war is initiated by militant Islamist groups who took advantage of power vacuum and mess created by civil war in pursuit of their own goals: ISIL to establish a self-ruled caliphate; al-Qaeda and other jihadists to exert influence over Syrian state. Originally it alien to Syrian political context, but in the course of five-and-half years managed to become part of it.

Initially in the shadow of these two but growing prominent and creating yet another set of proxy wars is the war of Syrian Kurds. The Kurds, too, aim at reshaping the power balance in Syria in their own favour—getting a recognised autonomous region. By establishing Rojava under their control in the north, they advanced their cause but further complicated the issues for external actors working to end the war (e.g. two NATO members, Turkey and the US).

Proxy wars derive from those three wars and are overlapping, confusing and conflicting with each other. Take a few examples. Regime of Assad is supported by Russia and Iran, while the opposition is backed by the US, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf countries. On the other hand US, Turkey, Russia and Iran fight against ISIL. Saudi Arabia also backs non-ISIL Islamist groups which in turn support al-Qaeda’s affiliate. It appears that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also backing jihadist groups that fight Assad. The US strongly backs the Kurdish forces, but Turkey has drawn its troops to the north to counter them under premise of fighting ISIL. And the list goes on and on, with these and many other smaller players entering the game.

The wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, with no end in sight. The wars overlap geographically and in their drivers, incentives, and aims. They overlap in terms of actors involved, from government forces, to various governments sponsored militia, to mercenaries and terrorists on almost all sides. They keep adapting to fast changing circumstances on the ground, pursuing their goals by multiple tactical means, switching sides, merging campaigns with those whom they have seemingly irreconcilable differences at strategic level—and thus contributing to increased integration of wars.

The uncompromising stand of Syrian government and opposition only strengthens the hand of those who want to proliferate from this situation, by offering them an opportunity to dig deeper into political process at the expense of Syrian moderate opposition groups. Jihadists gradually become part of the civil war, mix with rebels and thus pose a risk of highjacking the political contest.

Syrian opposition movement has not been homogeneous from the outset. However, certain categorisation of them, in terms of ideologies and the means they employed was still possible. Today, it is very difficult to distinguish between ‘moderate’ rebels and ‘extremists’ as the former are increasingly radicalised and in desperation many of them join forces with jihadist groups.

The result of this integration is that, by compensating each other’s limitations, the Syrian wars evolve into one self-sustaining conflict—the Perfect War—that is fought for its own sake, is self-sufficient in terms of attracting resources and satisfying its needs, and can last permanently.

Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts and develop and implement a series of limited tasks to address them. The situation in Syria is out of control and there is no such power in the world—individual or collective—that can control it. Before the full integration of Syrian wars a fundamentally new approach to finding solution must be employed.

In complex situations with high risk and uncertainty, many alternatives, and small information available the decision making shall be simple and tactical. For that, small manageable tasks are adapted to environment and then multiple moves carried out simultaneously or subsequently, in various places and directions. Another condition is that the tasks shall be decoupled (but well coordinated) to extent possible so that to isolate their failures from affecting other tasks. This is where less becomes more, in terms of outcome.

Interestingly, this approach is already being tested in the Syrian war framework. Take, for example, the successful attempts of US and Russia (in spite of principal differences in stands with regard to the future of Assad) to establish a ceasefire in Aleppo, to allow delivering humanitarian aid and to share the US intelligence in order to target Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Or consider the recent deal between the Syrian government and the rebels, on surrendering the Damascus suburb Daraya. These examples prove that small-scale, localised tasks are manageable.

The adversaries have been ahead of the game in terms of decoupling, though. Their recent manoeuvring with rebranding Jabhat al-Nusra into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (thus pretending to dissociate from al-Qaeda) and subsequent ‘defection’ of a fraction from it to create their own group clearly demonstrate that.

The goal of establishing lasting peace in Syria can be achieved by redefining the engagement strategy. Large scale military campaigns are one of a means to an end: pulling out ISIL form occupied territories and decapitating militant groups are necessary but not sufficient. Neither are high-level (presumably representative and all-inclusive) peace talks. The daily job of progressing toward the desirable end-state in Syria is through numerous, random, tactical interventions aimed at searching for, understanding, and building on the existing opportunities for peace and strengthening local resilient capacity.

Full version of this post was published on PolicyLabs: A Potential Game Changer in Syrian ‘Perfect War’.

For the analysis of scenarios see: The Syrian War: How to Move from Chaos to Peace  

Ending the War in Colombia: Understanding Conflict, Preparing for Peace

On 24 August, Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) have reached a comprehensive peace agreement. It is too early to celebrate the end of the long-lasting war—the deal has to be ratified through referendum and even then its success will be conditional on implementation. At this point, we can reflect on some insights from this 52-year-long conflict and looking forward try to anticipate what we have yet to learn from the Colombian experience.



Each conflict has its own internal dynamics (which are shaped and fed by local political institutions and contemporary contexts). Any conflict therefore may take as long as its internal logic dictates, be iterative, with many failed attempts to establish peace.

Whatever external influences they will have an effect on the conflict as long as its contextual fabric absorbs and localises them. This makes any given conflict unique, and therefore no imported solutions will work without being first adapted to and ‘digested’ by local contexts. The same goes for ‘lessons learned’.

Interventions of external actors tend to complicate the situation and make the conflict’s natural maturation process confused. Active interventions (except for humanitarian aid and facilitation of peace talks) complicate the conflict for many reasons; they also tend to transfer into proxy wars, given different interests and agendas of external actors.

Military interventions of external (individual or collective) actors must be avoided, except for limited tasks by international stabilisation forces. Even then, the UN mandate should be limited to such tasks as ensuring cessation of hostilities, maintaining ceasefire, enabling delivery of humanitarian aid, etc.

For a comprehensive peace deal to materialise the conditions must be ripe, first of all the goodwill of both sides along with their readiness to make concessions. Not an easy task considering that there is never full agreement in either camp, as ensuring coherence is always a challenge.

It also takes a leader who is brave enough and ready to put his/her political career at risk of concluding the deal—which is always subject to imperfection, scrutiny, disbelief, and controversy, and won’t be met by all people positively.

Challenges ahead

There are many questions and many concerns. Not many answers. Quite understandably—only practice will provide them (and even then, these would not be timeless truth).

– Does the peace agreement mean the end to hostilities between Colombian security and all rebels?

  • Bilateral permanent ceasefire between FARC and the government became effective as of Monday, 29 August.
  • Other rebel groups are not part of the peace deal and some will seek strengthen their ranks at the account of FARC members who disagree with disarmament. Parallel talks are planned with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second-largest guerrilla group.

What are the peace deal’s success factors? Once ratified, the sustainable peace will depend on:

  • how all the agreed reforms and reintegration points are delivered by the government;
  • how effective transitional justice works, for all sides;
  • how society accepts ex-combatants and their supporters;
  • how population of formerly FARC controlled areas accepts the government’s legitimacy; and
  • how FARC members go through the process of reintegration into society.

– What are challenges faced by the Colombian government? Most immediate are:

  • political opposition undermining the process;
  • population not happy with special treatment offered to ex-combatants and with softness of measures against crimes committed;
  • financial problems with regards to investing into reintegration, public services and rebuilding infrastructure in former FARC areas.

– What kind of dilemmas will FARC face? They have to be understood along the drivers of conflict:

  • politically: accepting that they have to become part of political system they have fought for ideological reasons;
  • economically: making transition to licit income generation, learn new skills;
  • psychologically: overcoming self-aggrandisement but also frustration from the change in social status;
  • socially: adapting to new places if relocated (especially with families), finding their new role in community life.

– What are the issues for citizens to overcome? Different groups of stakeholders to peace and reconciliation will have to cope with common dilemmas (such as overcoming mistrust and forgiving) but also specific to them problems:

  • changing allegiance but also the lifestyle (areas formerly controlled by FARC);
  • accepting former fighters as equal community members, whatever past experiences and grievances (localities of resettlement);
  • repossession of property and land, reintegration (returnee population);
  • overcoming envy as ex-combatants and returnees, as well as former rebel areas will receive financial support from the government (domiciles of resettlement localities; people in remote rural areas across country who won’t receive additional investment);
  • complying with transitional justice measures (former guerrillas but also security officers facing prosecution).

– What are some tough tests before the international community? There will be at least three challenges, neither of them new to international affairs:

  • diplomatic: after decades of taking side of the government to adopt a balanced approach in order not to distort a very fragile balance necessary for integration and lasting stability;
  • political: to respect the democratic process and choice of Colombian people in terms of new government priorities (including in foreign policy), as influenced by FARC’s participation in the legislative and executive.
  • aid coordination: to ensure maximum possible level of coordination between development agencies, sponsors, implementers in order not to confuse and harm the otherwise sensitive political processes of disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration.

– What are challenges to international development experts deployed to Colombia?

  • working in the field (and this is where the real job is done): will be under pressure of all sorts—life conditions in remote rural areas, security, and above all unpredictability of developments. Decisions often-time shall be taken spontaneously, urgently and with limited prior knowledge. Exhibiting highest levels of impartiality, integrity, political and cultural sensitivity to navigate through at times turbulent local waters while keeping the delivery of assistance at expected professional standard is not easy;
  • project owners: development specialists shall be allowed more independence in decision making, thoughtful experimentation, and flexible forms of planning, delivery and monitoring—adapted to local circumstances.

There is a long way to go for Colombia in terms of peacebuilding, and for all those who want to make violent conflict there and elsewhere on the face of the Earth part of history, not future. Understanding local contexts, making timely adjustments, and focusing on the drivers of change can greatly help making this path more effective.

The full version of this article was posted on PolicyLabs: The Colombian Peace Accord: Food for Thought

About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. He has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Azerbaijan. Being posted in the field (such as office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international projects and missions, he has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.