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Arab Spring, Syria

Debunking the mainstream narratives on Syria’s uprising

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This past month, Syrians marked the two-year anniversary of the start of their uprising. What started as peaceful demonstrations quickly turned into a messy and bloody civil war. Syria gradually descended into chaos and self destruction and there is a growing sense of despair and wariness regarding the future. Daily footage of entire neighbourhoods destroyed, of atrocities committed by both the regime and the rebels and of increasing number of refugees and IDPs are as much testimonies of Syria’s agony. As I spent some (too short) time in Syria, this country occupies a special place in my heart and I very often try to persuade myself that all this isn’t real and that it is just a nightmare…

I won’t try to point an accusatory finger towards any of the warring parties. As much as the regime (and its violent initial crackdown) bears a great deal of responsibility regarding the current situation, the so-called opposition and the rebels are far from being blameless. My aim here is to try and dive at the roots of the problem and thereby undermine the two dominant explanations of the Syrian crisis.

The first and widely accepted analysis of the Syrian crisis is that it is part of the Arab Spring, that the Syrian situation is a replica of previous events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. As much as the Syrian uprising presents similarities with these fellow Arab states, there are clear differences. It is true that Syria like Egypt or Tunisia was a dictatorial state with high unemployment among a very young and disenfranchised population. But a key difference is in the revolutionary process. Syria didn’t have a Tahrir momentum like Egypt. Between March 2011 and the end of the summer (which roughly marks the period where the contestation turned into an armed movement), the main demonstrations were taking place in peripheral cities like Deraa, Jisr El Shughur, Banias or Deir az-Zor. Overall, Damascus and Aleppo remained quiet. We didn’t witness huge demonstrations and Damascus’ Umayyad Square (the main square of the capital) didn’t turn into a new Tahrir. Overall, one of the main and differentiating aspects of the Syrian unrest in these first months was that Aleppo and Damascus, the two most populous cities and the historical centres of power in Syria didn’t wholeheartedly join the protest movement. A model that could have been emulated by Syria was Libya. There, while Tripoli remained on the side of colonel Qadhafi’s regime, Benghazi, the other centre of power, embraced the revolution and allowed it to gain steam and legitimacy. Aleppo didn’t turn into a new Benghazi and on the contrary we now know that its population didn’t see with kindness the storming of parts of the city by the rebels coming from the towns and villages of the region. The thing is that Aleppo like Benghazi (maybe even more than Benghazi) had every reason to turn against Damascus. Syria’s history is build around the dynamics created by the rivalry between these two cities. This has been the case since the time of the famous enemy brothers Radwan and Duqaq. At the time of the first crusade at the turn of the 11th century, Radwan ruled Aleppo and the north and his brother Duqaq Damascus and the south. Their enmity didn’t have limits and both of them didn’t shy from allying themselves with the crusaders states in various plots against one another… From this sibling rivalry was born a deep mistrust between Aleppo and Damascus. When Gamal Abdel Nasser merged Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic, it was Aleppo that first raised concerns about Egyptian domination. When the Baath party promoted a socialist economy, Aleppo jealously tried to defend its liberal and business-minded traditions. When the zealously secular regime in Damascus battled an Islamist insurgency in the beginning of the 1980s, Aleppo turned into a refuge for Muslim Brotherhood operatives. And the list goes on… Thus, despite all this Aleppo didn’t embrace the uprising against the regime in Damascus and the Syrian uprising settled in for towns and villages in its first phase…

Another way of explaining the Syrian situation is through the sectarian lens. We are witnessing a revolt of the Sunni majority against the Alawite-dominated regime. This view is notably defended by Professor Joshua Landis an expert on Syria (I highly recommend checking his Syria comment blog):

In fact, Pr. Landis develops the sectarian analysis and gives it more weight and depth. I find his thesis on the falling of all the post-ottoman minoritarian regimes across the Levant very interesting and thorough. He gives to the sectarian explanation a historic and deterministic approach emulating in a way Pierre Bourdieu’s Longue durée prism to understand transformations and socio-political events.  But here is where I disagree. The sectarian analysis can’t be an explanation to the Syrian uprising. It is rather a characteristic but not a cause. If the uprising was sectarian in its origin, you would have had all Sunnis from all social class from the beginning behind the opposition movement. But a large part of Sunnis (mainly urban and fearful of an Islamist takeover) remains behind Assad or neutral.  Moreover, you wouldn’t have had demonstrations in the Alawite heartland (in Baniyas for example at the beginning of the uprising) against the regime.  If the uprising was sectarian in essence, you would have had Ibn Khaldoun’s Asabiyah (literally bond in the sense of clanic cohesion) playing full swing in the minds of Sunnis all over Syria and motivating them in their protest against the regime. But the truth is that there is no strong Asabiyah in the Sunni community to rally it against the regime. If there was one, the regime would have been defeated a long time ago. In a way, this is natural: minorities stick closer together than majorities. The truth is that the sectarian analysis can’t give us a definitive explanation regarding the roots of the Syrian uprising. It is true, sectarianism isImage growing in Syria but this is largely linked with protracted civil strife and foreign meddling. It is becoming more visible because the Syrian state is slowly retracting and losing control.  This is a common phenomenon: wherever you have less state power and institutional presence, people tend to reassure themselves within the family, tribal or sectarian circle symbol of stability and order…

In reality, the root causes of the Syrian uprising are simpler and in a way more down to earth. They are economic and are the result of a violent but unseen shock. To understand this shock one has to return to Syria’s recent history. As discussed previously, Syria has always been ruled by its two power centres: Aleppo and Damascus. These two cities produced the elite (mainly Sunni and Christian) that presided over the country’s destiny until the arrival of the Baath party to power in the mid 1960s. Pan-Arab and Socialist, the party quickly introduced collectivist measures that encroached on the interests and positions of the Damascene and Aleppine bourgeoisie. The Baath party build its power base outside the traditional commercial and political networks of Damascus and Aleppo. Indeed, its militant socialist doctrine prompted it to build alliances in the rural and poor areas of Syria. The Baath was the only party in Syria that had a strong presence in remote areas of the country. Civil servants and high ranking officials began to come from places like Deir Ez-Zor or Al Raqqa. Hafez Al Assad arrival to power only reinforced this trend by adding the Alawite remote mountain land into the equation. This clientelist approach allowed the Baathist regime to secure, control and gain the allegiance of these regions. Nevertheless, by the time Bashar took over, this system was in crisis. Indeed, thanks to this egalitarian policy, Syria experienced a steady demographic growth troughout the 1970s-80s and completed its demographic transition only by the mid 1990s. The baby boomers of Bashar’s father were knocking on the door for the same welfare state experience that their fathers had experienced. Only by the time Bashar took over, the Syrian economy was in crisis and had huge difficulties adjusting to the new post cold war global market realities. The state couldn’t continue providing the same largesse as before. Add to this the fact that Bashar was increasingly under pressure by an impatient business class for liberal reforms. He quickly made up his mind and dumped the old power basis in favour of a “hyper” one. Thus during the decade between 2000 and 2010, the regime disavowed its former power base in a move that had dire consequences on peripheral areas of the country. Indeed aggressive liberal policies coupled with successive droughts were like a shock therapy for a population that increasingly felt abandoned. A case study to understand this is the Hauran region south of Damascus. An agricultural region, it had greatly benefited from Baathist policies only to irreparably decline these last years. Back in 2009, the first time I entered Syria was from the Jordanian border. During the ride between the border and Damascus, I was puzzled by the fact that the country I crossed seemed empty. Indeed a great portion of the Hauran inhabitants had left their miserable life and swelled the ever increasing number of Damascus suburbs. No surprise then that in 2011, it was in Deraa that it all started…

The Syrian uprising is a complex situation sharing some characteristics with other Arab uprisings but having its own dynamics. As it enters its third year, the uprising itself has evolved and mutated into a full blown civil war where sectarianism and foreign interventions are threatening to destroy the country. I remember now a quick chat I had with an old shop keeper in Damascus years ago. I was on my way to Beirut and we were discussing Lebanon’s civil war. Sabah Fakhri’s famous Ya mal el Sham echoed in the background while the old man said to me “Listen ya habibi this will never happen here… We all feel like him… We all love too much this country”

PS: For anyone wanting to go further in the analysis of the process behind the Syrian uprising I highly recommend Fabrice Balanche’s essay Géographie de la Révolution syrienne.

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