Understanding the Causes of Civil War in Iraq and Syria


The civil wars in Iraq and Syria are the most catastrophic and worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The two main causes of civil wars in Iraq and Syria are authoritarianism and sectarianism. This essay will examine the causes and comparative analysis of two contemporary civil wars: The Iraqi civil war from 2006 to 2008 and the Syrian civil war from 2011 to 2013, with the aim of seeking to identify why each conflict erupted. Firstly, the essay will look at the nature of undemocratic and authoritarian regimes in both Iraq and Syria that were consequently categorized as failed states, where the incubation of civil war was inevitable. Secondly, the paper will discuss how sectarian violence in both Iraq and Syria caused ethnic and religious unrest that eventually led to civil wars in both countries. Finally, the essay will conclude by explaining why authoritarian regimes and sectarian violence were perceived as salient vis-à-vis civil wars in Iraq and Syria and its implications within the wider Middle Eastern region.

Authoritarianism in Iraq and Syria

The similarities between the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad’s regimes were authoritarian in nature. In an authoritarian regime, fundamental democratic principles, such as participation, competition, and liberty, are very limited (O’Neil, 2013). In addition, in such a regime the government is above the law and no one holds them accountable for their misconduct and violations. However, to stay in power, the rulers need some sort of alliance with military or religious leaders as seen in Iraq and Syria.

The element of “greed” in a civil war could be measured by the theory of “cost-benefit analysis,” which is a systematic process for calculating and comparing the benefits and costs of a decision, policy, or action (Rodreck, Patrick & Adock, 2013). A case in point is how and why authoritarian regimes in Iraq and Syria came into being. For example, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki’s regime was hungry for power to take control of the country’s natural resources and commodities, such as oil. Alternatively, ordinary people engage themselves in rebellion in Iraq and Syria, where they are driven by economic motives they could attain self-enrichment and material gain.  Hence, greed that led to authoritarianism can be perceived as one of the causes of the civil war in Iraq and Syria.

As noted by Collier and Hoeffler (2004), in Iraq’s political landscape, there was an increasing amount of struggle for power and resources. There was an insatiable desire to take control of state institutions through authoritarian regimes. At numerous times in Iraq’s recent history, political leaders have sought to expand their influence over government ministries, security forces, and civil society groups as means to increase their power.  According to Marisa Sullivan (2013):

Since 2007, Prime Minister Maliki has used the creation of extra-constitutional security bodies to bypass the defense and interior ministries and create an informal chain of command that runs directly from his office to the commanders in the field, allowing him to exert direct influence over the both the targeting of individuals and the conduct of operations. Chief among these are the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC) and provincial-level operations commands. OCINC reports directly to the prime minister and is staffed by Maliki loyalists. The extra-constitutional body has no legal framework to govern its existence and therefore no accountability or oversight, yet it has significant powers and resources. Maliki has also attached Iraq’s most elite units to his military office, and has used them for political purposes (p.6).

This battle for power has also become extremely personalized for political triumph in Iraq, which is mainly tied to personal survival. Although, according to realists’ school of thought, an anarchical system in world politics is advanced by statism, survival, and self-help (Baylis, Smith, and Owens, 2014), in Iraq’s case, however, power is highly centralized and the regime is extremely corrupted. Political mobilization at the national level in Iraq has completely jeopardized the role of the judiciary as an independent check on the other branches of government. Prime Minister Maliki’s growing influence over and limitations on supposedly independent institutions have weakened the legitimacy and efficiency of these bodies, particularly the judiciary and the parliament. The judiciary has been an accomplice to the centralization of power by Maliki through a series of provocative rulings that have empowered the executive power and restrained or removed his political rivals. Through his emergence of power, Maliki destabilized the system of checks and balances that were proposed in the constitution (Sullivan, 2013). Therefore, such an undemocratic regime as Iraq is prone to violence and disorder due to animosity and resentment of the general populace, which eventually led to civil war.

Like Prime Minister Maliki’s government in Iraq, the Syrian republic is also ruled by the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Asad. Asad was recognized as president for his second term in a 2007 referendum that was not free or fair by international standards. The president made key decisions with counsel from a small number of security advisors, ministers, and senior members of the ruling Baath Party. Alawites, the ruling religious sect, were dominating the regime in a disgraceful way in Syria, particularly in the military, in the appointment of officers, and even recruits. The constitution mandates the predominance of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society. President Asad and party leaders dominate all the branches of government. Security forces report to civilian authorities. According to Raymond Hinnebusch (2012):

By the end of 2010, the outcome of Bashar al-Asad’s authoritarian upgrading had become apparent. He had used the external threat to generate nationalist legitimacy, enabling him to marginalize the old guard and ward off pressures from democracy activists. This was combined with an economic opening used to mobilize financial capital as a substitute for declining oil rents. He had positioned himself as balancer above a divided society, propagating an image of himself as both a modern reformer and a pious Muslim. Compared to those of other Arab republics, the regime enjoyed a foreign policy congruent with public opinion, a young President still enjoying the benefit of the doubt and seen as preferable to alternatives in the regime, security forces more loyal and effective than elsewhere, a weaker civil society and a more fragmented opposition (p.106).

Even though Syria’s civil society is weakened by militarization, demands for democratic reform by nonviolent demonstrators began in March 2011 and continued throughout the year. When the protests began, local committees emerged and took responsibility for organizing events within their own communities. The Asad regime responded with indiscriminate and deadly forces to suppress such protests, including military attacks on several cities. For instance, in April 2011, the regime blocked supplies to the southern city of Daraa of electricity, water, and medical services, and it constrained entry and exit for almost 20 days while shelling the city’s soft targets, such as mosques, hospitals, schools, markets, and other public places. The regime continued the use of deadly military force against its citizens despite its agreement to an Arab League plan to engage in reforms and to end killing civilians in November 2011. The UN reported that more than 5,000 civilians were killed between 2011 and 2012 (Hinnebusch, 2012).

It is against this backdrop that both Iraq and Syria fall under the category of failed states. The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy Magazine conducts research and collects data to indicate whether a state is fragile or failed. Such factors as economic instability, human rights violations, and security issues, are some of the many elements that are taken into consideration when determining the status of a state (The Fund for Peace, 2016).  Furthermore, according to the study, Iraq and Syria are ranked on a very high alert for possessing the characteristics of failed states during the years between 2006 to 2008 as well as 2011 to 2013 respectively.  For example, failed states have minimum security and sovereignty and may not collect taxes regularly. In addition, contrary to Max Weber’s definition of a state, a failed state does not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory (Weber, 1919). As such, both in Iraq and Syria, the outbreaks of civil wars were inevitable given the nature of undemocratic authoritarian regimes and subsequently failed states.

Sectarianism in Iraq and Syria

Before proceeding further, the term “sectarianism” needs to be clearly defined. As Fanar Haddad (2011) notes, sectarianism is a form of bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group. It is, therefore, one of the causes of the civil war in Iraq and Syria that can be explained under the pretext of sectarianism between Shia and Sunni factions in both states. The Shia Muslims of Iraq is an Arabic-speaking majority group, which is comprised 60%-65% of the Iraqi population. They were politically marginalized under the Saddam Hussein regime. Alternatively, the Sunni Muslims of Iraq are an Arabic-speaking minority group, which is comprised 32%-37% of the population. The Sunnis have been politically dominating Iraq for centuries until the American invasion of 2003 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016).

The element of “grievance” in a civil war can be viewed by the “relative deprivation theory”, which is a view of social change and movements whereby people act for social change to acquire opportunities, status, or wealth that others possess in which they believe they have the right to obtain (Townsend, 1979). For instance, rebellions in Iraq and Syria have sprung when people cannot bear the misery of their life, such as a feeling of injustice and inequality, ethnic and religious hatred, denied dignity and freedom, and political exclusion and repression; mainly due to sectarian violence. The notion of grievance that led to sectarianism can thus be perceived as prominent vis-à-vis civil wars in Iraq and Syria.

As pointed out by many scholars, the 2003 American invasion of Iraq paved the way for sectarian violence between Iraqi Sunni and Shia factions due to the establishment of a pro-Western Shia government in Baghdad. The Sunnis’ spiritual and emotional struggle in accepting Iraq’s Shia government is awkward. Shireen T. Hunter (2014) explains:

The most significant factor behind Iraq’s problems has been the inability of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and its Sunni neighbors to come to terms with a government in which the Shias, by virtue of their considerable majority in Iraq’s population, hold the leading role. This inability was displayed early on, when Iraq’s Sunnis refused to take part in Iraq’s first parliamentary elections, and resorted to insurgency almost immediately after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein. All along, the goal of Iraqi Sunnis has been to prove that the Shias are not capable of governing Iraq. Indeed, Iraq’s Sunni deputy prime minister, Osama al-Najafi, recently verbalized this view. The Sunnis see political leadership and governance to be their birthright and resent the Shia interlopers (p.1).

After hundreds of years of rule, both under the Ottoman empire and after independence, and then during Saddam Hussain’s era of marginalization of Shias as atheists of society, the Sunnis have difficulty accepting the Shia rule. The peak of sectarian violence in Iraq was probably when the February 2006 bombing of one of the holiest shrines of Shias, the al-Askari Mosque in the city of Samarra, by the Sunni militants. This led to a wave of Shia retaliation against Sunnis followed by Sunni counterattacks. Consequently, in October 2006, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Iraqi government estimated that more than 370,000 Iraqis had been displaced since the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque, bringing the total number of Iraqi refugees to more than 1.6 million (Katzman, 2009). By 2007, the conflict intensified over the next several months and a United States Government Accountability Office Report (2007), described the situation as having elements of a civil war, quoting a US intelligence assessment.

Like Iraq, the ruling party in Syria belongs to Alawite, a division of Shia Muslims, that is comprised 13% of the country’s population. Moreover, President Asad and his most senior political and military associates are tied to Alawite, therein Asad’s regime is backed by Shia governments such as Iran in the region. Furthermore, similar to the marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq, the Asad regime in Syria is also politically and militarily oppressing the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, which is comprised 74% of the population. Consequently, the Sunnis in Syria are aligned with the Syrian opposition rebels and other regional Sunni states including the Persian Gulf States. Furthermore, external actors including Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia also largely impacted sectarianism in the Syrian conflict. Christopher Phillips (2015) argues:

Iraq’s civil war was felt in Syria. Regime news outlets manipulated the chaos in Iraq to raise the fear of sectarianism and present the regime as protector. Geopolitically Assad was determined to weaken the USA in Iraq, so he facilitated the transit of Sunni jihadist fighters across the Iraq frontier. Not only would these fighters later turn on their former patron, but their ideology spread, albeit in limited pockets. […] External elites also exploited sectarianism in Iraq. Saddam’s fall heightened tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The more Tehran’s influence grew in Iraq, the more Riyadh sought to undermine Iran’s play for regional leadership by emphasising its Shia character. Saudi Arabia’s ally King Abdullah II of Jordan warned of a ‘Shia crescent’ across the region, while pan-Arab satellite television, mostly indirectly owned by the Saudis and other Gulf states, offered a new forum to promote sectarian language (p.368).

As the violence in Syria has deepened, outsiders have backed the different sides, and set the conflict into the background of a wider Sunni-Shia internal strife. For instance, due to the sectarian divide, Maliki’s Iraqi regime, which is made up of a majority of Shia factions, was pursuing a pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian regional policy despite American sanctions on Syria and Iran. This imbalance led other regional Sunni regimes to support the insurgency in both Iraq and Syria thereby exacerbating the civil wars in both states. Even though Bashar al-Assad’s government generally avoids sectarian language, the departure of many former supporters has left him ever more dependent on the Alawites. While anti-sectarian ideology turned out to be a main theme of the Baath Party, factions within it could not escape their sense of identity and still count on the external regional actors for who backed up whom. Thus, the Damascus government’s attempts to blame rebels and foreign fighters for the country’s turmoil seem to be legitimate.

In contrast, within the Syrian opposition, people talk about the other sects, including Christians or Alawites in their ranks, categorically rejecting the label of Sunni Jihadists. Or the Syrian government supporters will hint at the existence of non-Alawites in the higher echelons of the regime. That said, each faction meanwhile tries to undermine its opponent with the sectarian label (Urban, 2013). This tradition has left the Syrian nation largely undeveloped, strongly aware of sectarian identity, and open to the messages of those who justify Jihadism and create an opportunity for intercommunal violence that led to civil war.


The political, military, and humanitarian implications of civil wars in Iraq and Syria were largely caused by authoritarianism and sectarianism, which are not resolved, to date. While the only remaining superpower, the United States of America, supported the Iraqi authoritarian regime for a limited time, ever-present Russia is still supporting the authoritarian regime in Syria, both in the name of regional stability, which will have negative ramifications and only exacerbate tensions and divisions within the wider Middle Eastern region. On the other hand, Maliki’s Iraqi regime and Asad’s Syrian regime were responsible for sectarianizing the Sunni versus Shia conflicts within the wider region of the Middle East as well.  Ultimately, the international community must recognize that stability in the Middle East will only come through an inclusive, representative, and fair political system that protects the rights of all Iraqis and Syrians.

Image credit: gettyimages


Baylis, J., Smith, S. & Owens, P. (2014). The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (6th ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Central Intelligence Agency. (2016). Iraq. In The world fact book. Retrieved from             https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/iz.html

Collier, P. & Hoeffler, A. (2004). Greed and grievance in civil war. Oxford economic papers, 56, 563-595. Retrieved from: http://www.econ.nyu.edu/user/debraj/Courses/Readings/CollierHoeffler.pdf

Haddad, F. (2011) Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity, Hurst Publishers group.

Hinnebusch, R. (2012) Syria: from ‘authoritarian upgrading’ to revolution? International Affairs, 88(2), 95–113.

Hunter, S.T. (2014, June 17) “The Real Causes of Iraq’s Problems”. Retrieved from: http://fpif.org/real-causes-iraqs-problems/

Katzman, K (2009). Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security. Congressional Research Service.

O’Neil, P. H. (2013). Essentials of Comparative Politics (4th ed.) New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Phillips, C. (2015) Sectarianism and conflict in Syria. Third World Quarterly,36(2), 357–376, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2015.1015788

Rodreck, D., Patrick, N., Adock, D. (16 July 2013). “A cost-benefit analysis of document management strategies used at a financial institution in Zimbabwe: A case study”. Journal of Information Management. 15 (2). doi:10.4102/sajim. v15i2.540

Sullivan, M. (2013) Malik’s authoritarian regime. Middle east security report (10). Washington D.C, Virginia: Institute for the Study of War.

The Fund for Peace. (2016, October 19) The Foreign Policy Magazine and the Fund for Peace. Retrieved from http://fsi.fundforpeace.org/rankings-2016

Townsend, P. (1979) Poverty in the United Kingdom: A Survey of household resources and standards of living, Penguin Books

United States Government Accountability Office. (2007). Securing, Stabilising, and rebuilding Iraq: Iraqi Government Has Not Met Most Legislative, Security, and Economic Benchmarks. (Serial No. GAO-07-1195). Retrieved from: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-07-1195

Urban, M. (2013). Why there is more to the Syria conflict than sectarianism. Retrieved October 28, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22770219

Weber, M. (1919/2015) “Politics as Vocation” in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, pp. 129-198


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