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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures : Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies

Postgraduate Course: The Syrian War and the Strategic Meltdown of the Middle East (IMES11089)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Literatures, Languages and Cultures CollegeCollege of Humanities and Social Science
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThis semester-long course on the Syrian conflict, approaches the latter as the most deeply transformative development in the Middle East since the end of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, beyond the Syrian war itself, students will learn about the broader Middle Eastern dynamics (rivalries between regional and international powers, Sunni-Shia sectarianism, Jihadi militancy, Kurdish nationalism) that feed the Syrian war and are transformed by it.
Course description Syria's war is arguably the most destabilising conflict the world has witnessed since the end of the Cold War. Currently the only country worldwide where war constitutes the first cause of mortality, Syria has seen half of its population displaced. The resulting outflow of refugees has overwhelmed neighbouring countries, while putting a strain on European unity. Initially fought among Syrians, the war has attracted intervention on the part of regional states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, the American and Russian superpowers, as well as Sunni and Shia foreign volunteers fighting alongside the two warring parties. The colonial border between Syria and Iraq has de facto cease to exist, while new quasi-state entities have emerged under the aegis of the Islamic State and the Kurdish PYD. Studying the Syrian war is not only a means to understand one of the most transformative developments in contemporary world politics, but it also offers a window into broader Middle Eastern fault lines that have nurtured the conflict.

While acquiring general knowledge about contemporary Syrian and Middle Eastern political dynamics through the lectures, readings and presentations, each student will also actively develop expertise and research skills on a particular aspect of the conflict that will be assigned to them. This process will be supported throughout the semester by the creation of an individual portfolio that will serve as the basis of the student's participation in a simulation of peace talks at the end of the course, in which each student (or group of students, depending on the number) will represent one of the warring parties. The portfolio will contain a detailed analysis of that warring party's interests and strategies, in addition to resulting demands and red lines this party would be likely to formulate in negotiations.

After reviewing the social, economic and political dynamics that have paved the way for the collapse of the Syrian political system in 2011, we will see how an uprising that started as part of a region-wide revolutionary wave turned into a civil war characterised by extreme military escalation and, on both sides, foreign intervention and the proliferation of non-state armed groups. We will analyse the reasons for the fragmented character of the opposition, the factors behind the rise of Jihadi factions, and the rise of militia governance within the power vacuum created by collapse of state control, leading to the establishment of new quasi-state entities run by the Islamic State and the Kurdish PYD. After discussing the factors behind the unprecedented level of population displacement in the Syrian conflict, we will study the impact of the refugee crisis over Syria's neighbours, as well as the reasons behind the increase of the number of refugees trying to reach the European Union from 2015 on. Finally, we will analyse the successive diplomatic initiatives aimed at solving the conflict, identify the political agendas and analytical assumptions that have driven them, and analyse the reasons for their failure.

Learning experience

The course will involve
- Lectures by the course organiser (1st half of each session)
- Independent reading and reflection as part of team-prepared weekly presentations
- Independent research for the preparation of the portfolio
- Informed role-playing in the simulation of peace talks
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Not being delivered
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Identify the main drivers of the Syrian conflict and the conflicting interests involved
  2. Evaluate and critique the relevant literature in the light of conflicting narratives about the conflict
  3. Situate and analyse current developments in the conflict with regard to the appropriate analytical tools
  4. Identify, critique, and exploit primary sources (including social media material) on the Syrian conflict
  5. Demonstrate written and presentational skills through presentations, constitution of a portfolio, and participation in the simulation of peace talks
Reading List
- Harriett Allsopp. The Kurds of Syria: Political Parties and Identity in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2015).
- Leon Goldsmith. Cycles of Fear: Syria's Alawites in War and Peace (Hurst, 2015).
- Michael Gunter. The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War (Hurst, 2014).
- Émile Hokayem. Syria's Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (Routledge, 2013).
- Michael Kerr and Craig Larkin (eds.). The Alawis of Syria (Hurst, 2015).
- Charles Lister. The Syrian Jihad: al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Hurst, 2016).
- William McCants. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (St Martin's Press, 2015).
- Thomas Pierret. 'Salafis at War in Syria. Logics of Fragmentation and Realignment' in Francesco Cavatorta and Fabio Merone (eds.), Salafism After the Arab Awakening. Contending with People's Power (Hurst, 2016).
- Thomas Pierret. 'The reluctant sectarianism of foreign states in the Syrian conflict', USIP Peace Brief 162, 2013.
- Thomas Pierret. Religion and State in Syria. The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 6th chapter.
- Phillip Smyth. The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects (Washington Institute, 2015).
- Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. Burning Country. Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto Press, 2015).
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills A. Research and enquiry: students will acquire new knowledge through lectures, independent reading and reflection, and independent research
B. Personal and intellectual autonomy: throughout weekly presentations and the creation of a portfolio, students will be provided with guidance to acquire new skills for independent research and critical enquiry
C. Communication: relevant skills will be developed through weekly oral presentations, the creation of a portfolio, and participation in simulated peace talks
D. Personal effectiveness: the simulation of peace talks will provide the students with the occasion to improve their ability to react to unexpected challenges on the part of other role-players
KeywordsSyria,politics,conflict,war studies,Middle East,international relations
Course organiserDr Thomas Pierret
Tel: (0131 6)50 4148
Course secretaryMrs Alisa Wilkinson
Tel: (0131 6)50 4465
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