Syrian Civil War: What Would Hobbes and Locke Think?

One of the most prevalent global issues today is the state of the middle east and the various conflicts that are present in the region. One of these conflicts, the Syrian Civil War, took center stage last year and resulted in extensive media coverage of the events transpiring in the region. The cost of the war has been enormous and has taken a significant number of lives in the region. The U.N reported a death toll of 191,000 in August of this year, accounting for over three years of brutal war. This conflict has drawn the attention of the United States since its beginning, especially with the involvement of Islamist militant groups. Foreign military intervention has interestingly not been in favor of one specific side. The US has condemned both alleged terrorist groups acting against the government and the Assad regime itself for its use of chemical weapons and military force against civilian rebels. The conflict has been complicated by the involvement of ISIS in the region, with this group drawing most of the attention in the region from the U.S., who is attempting to stem its growth. 


A rebel soldier in Aleppo

In my opinion, this war boils down to a question of what the legitimate form of government is in the region. Rebel protesters, inspired by uprisings in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, began protesting the authoritarianism of the government in 2011, resulting in decisive military force and an extreme escalation of the conflict. Essentially, the war is being fought to preserve the power of a sovereign who the people want to oust. We have recently read the social contracts proposed by Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes. Out of these thinkers, I believe that Locke and Hobbes are the most applicable to this situation. On one hand, Locke believes in the power of a democratic social contract while Hobbes argues that a sovereign power is the most effective form of government. In this way, the two thinkers would advocate for two different sides in this war. It is difficult to look at this civil war from a Hobbesian standpoint as a citizen of the United States, one of the biggest advocates for democracy throughout the globe, however I think there is merit in using the situation to analyze both sides of the conflict.

In Hobbes’ view, the state would have been the most stable had the Assad regime’s power never been questioned. Had there never been any protests, it is certainly possible that Syria would have maintained a degree of peace, and in this way it seems that Hobbes would have a valid point about the benefits of a sovereign power. With such a system of government, there is little room for conflict. Locke, however, would be in opposition of the Assad regime and its authoritarian style of governance. Locke believes in the need for government to remedy human’s natural tendency toward partiality in decision-making. Locke argues that an impartial, democratic body is the best solution. However, should the rebels win and create this democracy in Syria, would the situation really improve for the people?


An area in Azaz after a bombing by the Syrian government

In my opinion, there are problems in the way a democracy would work in this situation. Islamist militant groups in the region would certainly create issues in the region and perhaps make a move to take power should the regime be toppled. In this case, the alternative would just be a state ruled by one of these armed militant groups, which would present citizens with no better of an outlook, and in some opinions, possibly a worse one. Even if democracy was secured and these jihadists were not a problem thanks to foreign intervention, would a successful democracy really arise out of this chaotic struggle between groups? The diversity in ethnic and religious groups in Syria could create a tenuous situation. It is quite possible the rebels would create a state even more chaotic and violent than one ruled by the Assad regime

Ultimately, it comes down to your view of what human nature is at its base. I support the cause of the civilian rebels because I, like Locke, believe in a more optimistic view of human nature that does not condemn humans as the fearful, violent beings that Hobbes describes us as. Time will tell what will happen in the conflict, but should democracy win out, it will be interesting to observe if it will ultimately prove better for the people of Syria.


One comment

  1. rplamp · November 7, 2014

    I really enjoyed this post because it connects well with the course and thinking about the topics we learn about in a contemporary way. I, however, do not see specific governments as being only one of the three theories that we discussed in class. There is always a mixture of the democracy in Locke and the fear of Hobbes in many governments around the globe. It is an interesting thought to think about what this very unstable region would be like if the theory of Hobbes had prevailed and there was no revolution, but it is not an ideal society that only follows one set of rules. I also see that if the rebels conquer this “civil war” and bring their own form of democracy to the nation that there will still be a fear prevalent in the public. As we watch from afar we cannot know for sure the overall mindset that either group has or what their planes will ultimately be if they gain power. Like you said, all we can do is wait out the conflict and see how it gets resolved in the future and whether or not foreign intervention will play a role.


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