A Hobbesian Solution To The Syrian Refugee Crisis

Randall CollinsRandall Collins
University of Pennsylvania

The civil war in Syria has now killed a quarter of a million people, and driven over 4 million people to foreign countries where they wait hopelessly in the limbo of refugee camps. Half the people who remain in Syria are homeless. Out of a population once estimated at 18 million, about three-quarters have lost everything.

This self-destructive war began in 2011 in the Arab Spring, imitating popular demonstrations elsewhere that temporarily brought down authoritarian governments. But these were tipping-point revolutions, winning by contagious mass enthusiasm that brought a segment of the regime’s forces over to the revolutionary side. Tipping points work best when the action is concentrated in a capital city. But where struggles are dispersed, the regime fights back and battles take place across the country, the moment when a few army leaders can settle things by switching sides has passed. Concentration favors short and relatively bloodless transitions; dispersion creates lengthy civil wars.

Syria had two big metropolitan areas, each about 2.5 million. While fighting developed in Damascus in the south, Aleppo in the north tried to stay out of it. But neutrals soon become victims as conflict escalates. Rebels turned from peaceful demonstrations to guerrilla tactics. Since guerrillas depend on hiding in the civilian population, they made places like Aleppo into battlegrounds. Civilians were hit both by guerrillas’ weapons and by the regime’s counter-attacks. The cycle of atrocities had begun, each side motivated by hatred and revenge for what the other side did to them. In the atmosphere of polarization, neutrals are condemned as no better than enemies. This helps explain the callous disregard for the millions whose livelihood is destroyed because of somebody else’s fight.

What can the rest of the world do? The spontaneous sentiment in a world of mass communications is to support the good guys and help defeat the bad guys. The problem is that in this kind of war the good guys turn into bad guys too. Guerrilla war is intrinsically messy, and anti-guerrilla war carried out with air power tends to destroy everything on the battlefield, no matter who happens to live there.

Outside intervention makes things worse. A civil war that would wind down by running out of resources is kept going artificially, when outside regimes send in weapons and fighters to their favorite factions. Ideological wars are particularly vicious, since an ideology recruits the most dedicated believers. Today this is most obviously militant Islam, but the same destructiveness has been seen for ideological volunteers fighting for fascism, communism or democracy, as in the Spanish civil war of the 1930s.

And multi-sided conflicts are most difficult to settle. A two-sided war has a clear termination point. But three or more factions, especially when they have independent bases and external allies, make an intrinsically unstable situation, where the weakening of some factions opens up opportunities for others to form. In such a configuration, the rise of something like ISIS was predictable; and its potential destruction will not end the instability. Syria was not simply democratizers vs. Assad’s regime; but Sunnis, Shi’ites and sub-factions (Alawites, Druze), and Christians; Arabs and Kurds; plus tribal alliances. Superimposed on this are the outside interventions, some motivated by religious sympathies, others by geopolitical aggrandizement. High-minded outsiders like the US are not exempt; whether our motive is fostering democracy, countering terrorism, or just acting like a Great Power, we add one more source of fuel for the fire.

Is there any realistic solution? Hobbes proposed, apropos of the English civil war of the 1640s, that any strong regime is preferable to endless fighting of everyone-against-everyone-else. It is hardest to see this at the outset, when everyone is enthusiastic for their cause and sure they will win. But once a conflict has been going on long enough, many people realize that the fighting is worse than whatever we were fighting about. This is certainly the case in a civil war like Syria that has been going on for five years and destroyed three-quarters of the country.

The emergence of a sentiment for peace ushers in the most difficult phase of political conflict: the peace movement opposed by the hard-liners. There are hard-liners in different factions, but united in the emotion that their sacrifices should not be in vane, that they must continue to fight because victory by the enemy is unthinkable. The new axis of conflict becomes victory at any cost, against peace while there still is something to be saved.

Hobbes’ solution in Syria would be to let the Assad regime win. None of the fanatical religious factions would bring a stable government; the Assad regime at least has protected minorities like Christians. This solution would be unpalatable to many, especially to outsiders who have other concerns than the plight of the Syrian population. This includes presidential candidates in the U.S., who don’t want to look weak, and whose only idea is to throw more military force into the chaos. A really courageous diplomatic move, allying the US and Russia to end the war with an Assad victory, would save lives. The alternatives are to go on destroying what is left of Syria, and generating even more of a refugee crisis.

A U.S. general in Vietnam, after obliterating a village, said that in order to save the place it was necessary to destroy it. Can we learn enough from history to stop following this kind of rhetoric?

See Randall Collins, “Tipping Point Revolutions and State-Breakdown Revolutions,”


Randall Collins is a former President of the American Sociological Association, and author of Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.

Follow us and share

6 thoughts on “A Hobbesian Solution To The Syrian Refugee Crisis

  1. Wow. I don’t know if we want to be taking the treatment of Vietnamese towns by American soldiers as a *model.* Nevertheless, this is an important viewpoint, especially as one of the lessons of comparative historical work on state formation is precisely about the Darwinian process by which the stable states of the west emerged, and in this particular case it’s not even clear what the humanitarian position is, as victory by either side means refugees and instability. I think the only thing we can say clearly is that the role of other countries is to get Syria to a point where Syrians themselves (including the diaspora) decide whether Assad stays or goes, through elections rather than fighting.

    1. Collins was saying the opposite of what Prasad thinks he has said in her reply: that we don’t want to do what the US did in Vietnam; we don’t want to destroy Syria to save it from Assad. Collins is correct about the dynamics of that war, and he is offering a ‘real sociology’ to counter the real politik pushing by the US military and diplomatic establishment on Obama or the willingness of US Republicans to back using groups of fanatics to counter the more successful fanatics of ISIS. Unfortunately, at this point Assad is the only viable contender for a stable post-war government unless the US were to occupy the country, and even that is no guarantee of an alliterative as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course it would be nice if Syrians could decide on Assad for themselves but steps by outsiders to “get Syria to that point” will only lead to more death and destruction.

      1. Ah, thanks for clarifying the point of the Vietnam quote!

        But what do you mean that steps by outsiders will lead to more death and destruction? Are you saying the US should do nothing? Randy does not seem to be arguing that, he’s clearly arguing for a US/Russian role.

        1. Randy is suggesting that the US and Russia help Assad to win. He argues, and I think he is right, that Assad is the only contender with a realistic chance of creating a government that can impose stability and protect minority rights (or at least prevent the massacre of minorities). Basak is correct that Assad would be, as he has been, a dictator, but there is no realistic path to a democratic government (thanks in good part to Assad’s massacres of peaceful opponents at the start of the protests against him). While Assad obviously failed to impose order in the past, Randy’s argument is that most Assad opponents (except for the fanatics who would need to be killed by Russia and Assad with US acquiescence) at this point would prefer to live in peace under Assad than continue to live in the midst of an endless civil war. Syria faces a grim future, but a cowed population living under an Assad dictatorship is less terrible than the other realistic alternatives.

  2. Collins is not the only one who holds this view. Many policymakers and scholars, across the political spectrum, are converging on the view that any resolution to the fighting in Syria will have to involve Assad. Over the past few months, this point was made by the United Nations envoy to Syria, as well as the leaders of the EU.

    I personally find this view a bit problematic. This is not the first time that the rule of strong leaders in non-Western countries is being justified on the grounds that they provide stability. The history of the MENA region is full of examples that attest to the failure of this logic, however. The rule of these “strong” leaders has been the very reason why ethnic and religious divisions have become deeper over time rather than being resolved in a democratic framework. In other words, what we are seeing right now is the painful outcome of yet another failed Hobbesian realism, rather than evidence for its inevitability/desirability. Even if we accepted the proposition that a Hobbesian solution is the only one left, is Assad the Leviathan that would provide order and stability? Has his regime not failed precisely in those terms? As David Ignatius has articulated in his recent piece in the Atlantic, ISIS and other fundamentalist groups have been filling the vacuums of political legitimacy that Assad regime has itself created.

  3. Moreover, what does it mean for a regime if public need for security and safety is the main foundation of its political legitimacy? As Corey Robin writes in the Jacobin, people will obey only if and when they think that those very things are at risk. “Relying upon a simple fear of danger to underwrite obedience” will not be enough, however, for “dangers can slip from view, and when they do, obligation is thrown into question.” The rulers of this regime will then have to keep the threat alive. They will have to remind the ruled of the threats awaiting, and more often than not, they will produce those very threats and dangers themselves- which actually is the historical context of the situation that has not turned into an international and humanitarian crisis.

    This is not exactly what Hobbes had in mind- as Robin articulates:

    “Hobbes assumed that “the sovereign would be able to act on behalf of an impartial, disinterested, and neutral calculation of what truly threatened the people as a whole and of what measures would protect them. Because the sovereign’s power depended upon getting these calculations right, he had every incentive not to get them wrong. The reality of modern state power, however, is that we have inherited some of the worst aspects of Hobbesian politics with none of its saving graces. Governments today have a great deal of freedom to define what threatens a people and how they will respond to those threats. But far from being removed from the interests of and ideologies of the powerful, they are often constrained, even defined and constituted, by those interests and ideologies.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *