In realism, it should be noted that the states are not equal and are placed in a hierarchical order as per their power. In an anarchical system, the only way to defend and survive is to use the military power (Slaughter, 2011). Evil and egoistic passions are given primary emphasis by the realists, as Donnelly mentioned in 2000 “the tragic presence of evil in all political actions” (Morgenthau, 1946: 203). This outlook necessitates that politics is viewed as a struggle for power with the “shadow of war” ever-present (Aron, 1970: 36); mainly due to the irreconcilable aspirations of the states (Carr, 1946). According to this, every state would try to obtain as much power as possible. But in case there is an imbalance power, the likelihood of war becomes high primarily, because the stronger state may attack the weaker state without sanction or any loss of itself. However, this idea about power and equipoise is not only encompasses the military power, but also encompasses the economic power. This means that states whose economies are growing are also gaining more power. Therefore, attention of realists is focused on the economy of a state as it is related to its power (Mearsheimer, 2016). Moreover, realists believe that the non-governmental organizations do not possess the military power to compete with states in the international system. This means that the role played by the UN is limited (Dunne and Schmidt, 2017: 106), as the main actors (states) in the international system are not only concerned in achieving absolute gains, but also in obtaining relatively higher gains than the others involved.
Considering all of the above, strategies like mutual mistrust, selfishness, power-seeking, recklessness as well as survival-securing are considered to be capable for producing anarchical structures amongst polities along with security dilemmas, unrestricted politics of national interests, violence and threats of war.
In the specificity of the Syrian case, the current and complex Syrian conflict can be analysed using the theoretical formulations of realism. In this regard, the al-Assad government’s support from Russia, China and Iran (together with its ally Hezbollah) can be viewed as an effort to limit the USA’ power in the international system. These polities aim to effectively prevent the USA from gaining any sort of advantage over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by forming alliances with Syria and vetoing any involvement of the United Nations Security Council (Yan, 2013).
The role of Russia since the start of the conflict has been to supply al-Assad with technical and military advisers as well as weapons. At the end of September 2015, Russia has been involved in direct military operations targeting al-Assad’s opponents, although they claim their intervention is aimed at eliminating ISIS (Spaulding, 2015). With Russia’s clout in world politics waning since the Cold War, it seeks to act as an antagonist to the USA’s influence in the region, under the framework of a “zero-sum” competition for power (Dunne and Schmidt, 2017: 110). Additionally, Russia’s interests lie in holding influence and stabilising both the Eastern Mediterranean (Litsas, 2017) and Syria itself with its Russian-dependent economy. This further poses a question regarding whether or not Russia can be sure about its position and safety of its economic interests if the Syrian state would collapse (Freedman, 2010).
The USA’s influence in the region has also seen the inclusion of another actor in the conflict, Iran, as there was a breeze of uneasiness in between the USA and Iran government “it is clear that Iran is now a centrepiece of American Policy” (Sick et al., 2008: 1). Iran’s wariness of the United States has been defensive, focusing mainly on the acceleration of their nuclear development and achieving the internal balancing. Iran’s interest in the Syrian conflict is therefore one of state security and managing any potential threats that might come in the form of the USA, Israel, Turkey, and the Sunni Gulf states (Laub, 2017). In addition, a religious motive has also played a part in Iran’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War. The first Supreme Leader of Iran, Imam Khomeini, has previously proclaimed that Allah commands Muslims to defend each other against external threats. This has also justified Iran’s support for Palestinians whom Iran regards as being oppressed by Israel (Segall, 2012). Iran thus holds a strategically powerful position in the conflict, having allied with Syria, Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.