Despite the evident differences between the two outlooks, both constructivism and realism are not completely dissimilar. Both theories hold that states are the “fundamental actors in international politics” (Weber, 2014: 264). With regards to constructivism, this belief allows for the presence of non-state actors but places the greatest power in the constructed relationships between states in terms of the effect on the international structure. An additional shared feature between the two theories lies in an underlying commitment to an “epistemology indebted to positivism” which provides an outlook through which to understand the world (Fierke, 2016: 167).
Following the aforementioned overview of constructivism, including both its differences and similarities with realism, this theory can now be applied in the analysis of the Syrian conflict. Its emphasis on the non-material factors and inclusion of history, ideas and identity allow a structured analysis of the convoluted aspects of the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian protesters who peacefully demonstrated publicly for democracy were brought to the streets through the awareness of a new collective national identity. They became aware of the ‘self’ and its irreconcilability with the oppressive ‘other’. Assad forged a new ‘self-identity’ in response to the changing political climate, an identity of a legitimate ruler aiming to hold power despite the efforts of the ‘other’ (i.e. terrorists and dissidents). This led him to the brutal repression of protests. However, the new national identity constructed by the Syrian people is far more sectarian, with divisions along ethnic and religious lines. This explains the fragmentations amongst the opposition forces; which resulted in further complications.
Applying the constructivism theory to the Syrian conflict allows to understand the novel structure which emerged as a direct result of the mounting internal chaos and led to the formation of subnational identities. The initial protests saw the construction of the identity of the Syrian people who called for a new national order; this initial cohesion gave way and disintegrated into numerous identities along both religious and ethnic lines. The fragmentation of the anti-Assad faction resulted in a now disunited front, consisting of a rapidly growing number of groups who designated themselves under the ‘Sunni’, ‘Islamist’ or ‘Kurdish’ banners. Such groups regarded the ‘Alawite’, ‘Kafir’ or ‘Arabic’ groups respectively as the ‘other’ and hence, as enemies to be defeated. These new sub-national identities naturally came to oppose one another in addition to their initial common enemy. As such, the people were forced to engage in inter-subjective relationships which formed a key factor in the subsequent maelstrom that has characterized the Syrian civil war, moving towards ever increasing sectarianism along the Sunni-Shia, Secular-Islamist and Arab-Kurd splits. Such turbulence lends itself to Assad’s promotion of a self-image as the legitimately elected president and regional champion of the Arab and Shia identity. In accordance, those who had taken up arms against his reign were designated as ‘Islamic terrorists’ and ‘Sunni fanatical groups’ who have the illegitimate support of his Western and Gulf enemies. In summary, the contradictory ideas, identities and perceptions are succinctly explained using the constructivism approach as tools to understand the Syrian civil war internally between Assad and the various opposition groups.
The constructivism approach also provides an interesting interpretation of the various different external interventions into the Syrian conflict. The formation of opposing groups in the form of Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side; and Iran, Hezbollah and Assad on the other side, can be extrapolated as a continuation of the Sunni-Shia conflict, the roots of which stem from historic differences in the perception of Islam’s religious sub-identities. Similarly, historical differences in ideology also explains the antagonistic views of the USA and Russia on the Syrian conflict. The United States views itself as the international defender of peace, democracy and liberalism and hence opposes the perceived illiberalism embodied by the Russian, Iranian and Assad forces. On the other hand, Russia, along with China, view themselves as powers that champion national sovereignty and international law in contrast to America’s flagrant international interventions. Such self-constructed identity is evident in Russia’s use of its veto power, highlighting its anti-interventional stance (Averre and Davies, 2015).
Concluding the key aspects, the dual-natured Syrian conflict is both a civil war between Assad and the Syrian rebel forces, and an international war fought though proxies by external states supporting one or another of these sides. Realism can be used to explain the war’s international dimension as it highlights the material interests that reasonably give account for the intervention of external actors such as the USA, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, constructivism focused more on the effects of identity and ideology on behaviour, as well as how the protests turned into a civil war with religious and ethnic divides and how the war morphed into an international struggle. In short, constructivism provides a highly nuanced analysis of the Syrian conflict. This detailed account can be argued to be stronger than the realism approach due to its emphasis on social factors and the significance of ideas, allowing the explanation of factors which are beyond the scope of realism. Despite this, realism is still the theory of choice in terms of explaining international conflict, with a large backing of historical evidence in its favour. However, Michael Barnett takes an opposing stance and states that realism falls short in explaining the numerous vital factors which have played a part in the region, including the absence of large scale military build-up and arms races, the prominence of symbolism over frank military force, and the widespread regional instability (Barnett, 1998).