It has become well-known that Syrians did not build their state in the second quarter of the last century through the usual struggles or agreements on which states are based. Rather, they inherited the institutions of a state established by French colonialism. For this reason, it was easy for a leadership put in place by a coup several years after independence to convert the state into an instrument of rule rather than an institution intended to administer public life and pursue Syrians’ shared interests. The evolution of the Syrian state in this direction became more visible with Hafez al-Assad’s ascension to power, and with the consolidation of his long-lasting rule. The institutions of the state quickly evolved into apparatuses of tyranny, which the politico-military leadership used to subjugate Syrians and transform them into ra’ayah [a flock of domesticated animals, or the subjects of a monarchy] – not only in the economic meaning of the term, but in its social and political meaning as well: Syrians became mere objects of rule, and their status was vastly different from that of true citizens.
Following three decades of rule by Hafez Assad, and more than 10 years of rule by his son Bashar, the state had become, in the mind of the Syrian public, a paradoxical entity: Syrians tried to satisfy it, stole from it, cheated it, feared it, hid their opinions from it, and behaved toward it in a way that confirmed in every way that they were not a part of it. Syrians even understood public funds to belong to the state, meaning to its leaders – public funds were neither from nor for Syrians. For this reason, when the leader spent this money for public services, his work was officially called “an act of charity” because in the public imagination and the laws imposed by the leader, the leader was able to do as he wished with these funds, and even grant it to his relatives and those around him. Thus public property, in the public imagination, was the property of the state and not of the Syrian public. For this reason, Syrians were not interested in that money’s protection or preservation, but the opposite: they have come to think of public money as spoils to be exploited or looted. In short, the state is not a lived concern for Syrians. Informed discussion of this subject needs wider study.
Building on this understanding of the state, and despite the relationship Syrians have with it, we note that when the Syrian uprising drew near and began in March 2011, independence from the state became one of the demands of some of the regions that rebelled. At the beginning, this demand was embarrassing and surprising. Discussion of security and judicial independence from the state emerged at the time. Some military leaders informed the delegation of Kofi Annan of their demands in the spring of 2012 during their discussions. Yet at that point, military leaders had not fully committed to this idea, especially given that they intended to achieve this form of independence gradually, and within a unified Syrian state.
Likewise, we can determine that even the armed opposition movement, which emerged from confrontations with the security services, generally remained regionally-based. Most armed groups stayed in their regions after they took control and removed regime forces and state institutions. They did not attempt to venture out of the areas in which they emerged, and were satisfied with limited skirmishes with the regime bases surrounding their home town or region. For them, the slogan “fall of the regime” was meant at a regional and not a national level.
With the development of communication between local activists and Western government and non-government actors, and with the widening of the territory outside of the authorities’ control, the idea of establishing local councils responsible for administering the affairs of the people in each region on its own began to appear and grow among Syrian activists and these Western actors. These councils operated at the level of regions and towns, and were formed by civilians and soldiers or militiamen who were selected as leaders by the reality of the conflict with the authorities by demonstrating their strength and capacity to deal with the exigencies of the conflict. The formation of these councils especially favored those individuals who managed to establish a fixed relationship with foreign actors.
One of these councils’ first tasks was to oversee the sources of food and medical aid, as well as weapons and ammunition. Although one of these councils’ main flaws of is that they were formed independent from one another, this independence marks the demise of the need for the state.
With the passing of time and some council members’ confidence that funding from donors could be maintained permanently, proposals for total independence from the Syrian state began to emerge, moving from the foundation of the police and the judiciary to include services and political representation. These proposals for independence from the state were justified by claims that this independence would be temporary, and that Bashar Assad’s rule would end. But it is more likely that as these councils become well-rooted, it will be difficult to reintegrate the regions in which they operate within the central state until after Assad’s departure.
It is natural for such proposals to be made in the absence of any legal connection of these populations to the Syrian state, and for their lack of feeling that they are citizens. But Syrian patriotism, which is absent, could have provided a common ground connecting Syrians to one another, based on values that Syrians know, accept, and would defend.
In addition, in recent decades the Syrian regime has worked to crush the previous social bases of the state, including tribalism and sectarianism, without building – or without allowing to be built – a national framework based on a relationship of citizenship between the citizen and the state. For this reason, in the furnace of this harsh conflict Syrians have not had any social organizations – tribal, clan, or even sectarian – to which they can belong. This loss of affiliation opens the door to any group that can provide something like protection, or some services, even if that group is fundamentalist and its constituents do not consent to its edicts.
This allows us to understand why political proposals based on the shared interest of all Syrians, or in support of national unity, have not received any noteworthy positive response from the citizens of the regions that rebelled, nor even in the other regions that failed to achieve a stable and continuous protest movement.
This situation provides evidence of the collapse of the Syrian state, and is also a sign that the Syrian polity is in danger of disintegrating. Confronting this situation is no longer incumbent on Syrians. Rather, it is the responsibility of those who have placed themselves in positions of political leadership. They must pursue national unity and a centralized state in all of their programs, positions, and statements. Yet this does not conflict with the administrative decentralization that has become a clear necessity in constructing a modern Syrian state. Fate has given us a historical opportunity to end this crisis and build a national state that achieves justice and equality for all Syrians.