On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Syrian uprising, the Syrian Observer is publishing a series of interviews with prominent academics and scholars working on Syria, including a historian, a diplomat, a political economist, and a member of the Syrian opposition.
Our interviewees, who have worked on Syria from well before the beginning of the uprising and who lived in, or traveled frequently to the country, bring to us their long-term and deep knowledge of Syria. They reflect on Syria’s pre-2011 dynamics and the events of the past decade as well as give us their perspective on how events may evolve in the coming years.
This week, we talk to Dr. Nadine Meouchy, a French historian who specializes in the history of Syria and Lebanon.
Considering Syria’s history, would you say that the outbreak of the revolt in March 2011 was foreseeable? And how is this revolt related to the historical experience of the country?
During great upheavals, historical and anthropological perspectives come to the surface. The Syrian revolt of 2011 did not occur ex nihilo. Since independence, the domestic politics of Syria have been marked by events revealing certain dynamics at play in a society that attest to the fact that Syrian state-building did not involve the building of a nation. Let us recall, for instance, the recent conflict between the Hauran Bedouins and the Druze in 2001, or the riots among the Kurds and Arabs in 2004 and 2008.
Furthermore, two realities should be taken into consideration:
- Long before 2011, a dual political opposition existed: one secular, and the other linked with the Muslim Brotherhood, which evolved largely behind the scenes.
- The periodic emergence of a new generation in politics is a recurrent feature of important moments of political mobilization.
At the outset of the uprising, political actors in the Syrian opposition sought to overlook ethnic and sectarian diversity. The concept of unity was of course a founding principle of Syrian political culture from the “first independence” (March-July 1920) until 2011. As in other Arab revolts, in Syria, there was a demand for freedom and dignity, but also for a shared national identity — at least until the end of 2013 in Syria’s case. This two-fold demand, which represents a continuation of the unitary Arab nationalist tradition, draws simultaneously upon a constituent value of Syrian Arab society (dignity) and a desire to be anchored in the present, with its associated notions of freedom and national identity. Since it envisaged a future without them, this demand proved intolerable to the Assad dynasty, unleashing limitless violence in response.
Syrians have been raising the banner of unity throughout the past century: unity of territory during the French Mandate era; unity of society under the Arab nationalist flag, and now unity in diversity under a shared Syrian identity. The novel element here is the recognition of diversity by civil society — a structural diversity denied by Arab nationalism. But, as the civil war attests, does unity mean the same thing to everyone?
What, in your opinion, were the main phases of this revolt?
Looking back over the past decade, we can divide the period into several phases corresponding with different times, places, and themes of mobilization.
- March 2011– April 2011: the time of the Intifada for freedom and against corruption, launched from the Syrian South, the Hauran.
- April 2011 – December 2012: the time of the thawra (thawra in Arabic means both revolt and revolution); a revolt that lays claim to a revolution by calling for the downfall of the regime and setting up its own defense army (FSA, July 2011). In this phase, the Syrian revolt breaks with the country’s political past thanks to the new generation, for nothing in the slogans or the mode of organization can be attributed to the political parties of the 20th century. Thus, the thawra draws at once on imagery already present in 20th-century mobilizations (unity, dignity), and on very contemporary references (free elections and democracy, for example). Incipient militarization played into the civil war strategy of the regime.
- December 2012 – September 2013: Islamist and Salafist movements grow, civil war sets in, and after the US retreated from its commitment to punish the regime following the chemical attacks of 21 August 2013, Syrians of the thawra realized they could not rely upon any meaningful international support.
- October 2013 – August 2015: following the US retreat, the Free Syrian Army, made up of some 80,000 fighters in September 2013, lost more than half its men, who joined jihadist groups. Radical movements gain ground, and – like the regime – worked to eliminate the secular opposition. The Islamic State entered Syria through the Iraqi border.
- September 2015 – 2020: the scaling up of foreign interventions fragments Syria territorially and along ethnic and sectarian lines. In addition, significant demographic changes take place in Western Syria at the expense of the Sunnis. The regime takes back lost territories, but at the cost of its military and economic sovereignty.
What were the driving motives and points of reference for the mobilization of Syrians?
When reviewing the slogans or rallying cries of the thawra, we perceive at first that social or economic factors, which may be underlying triggers for protest, are by no means the driving forces for mobilization in the long-run. Moreover, if we consider the list of names given by the opposition to each of the 249 Fridays between 2011 and 2015, we may discern their main concerns and their stance towards the broader situation at that moment (mentions of Nasrallah, Daesh, Moscow, the International Coalition, the Free Syrian Army, etc.). We also see many references to solidarity between cities and locations, which is in fact a constant theme of contemporary Syrian practice. In January 1936, for example, harsh repression in Damascus immediately prompted Aleppo to call a strike. The names given to 18 Fridays also make mention of or refer to Allah. Then come the motives for the mobilization: dignity, pride, honor, and martyrs, all of which feature in the roster of Arab and Islamic values.
Freedom is included in the headline slogan of the thawra: Allah, Suriyya, Huriyya wu bas! (God, Syria, Freedom, and that’s all!). “Humiliation” and “martyr” also appear in slogans and on placards.
While one might assume religious references to be dominant in the names given to Fridays after 2012-2013, we see that the call for solidarity between different places is in fact more prevalent until 2015, affirming the unity of the Syrian people.
What about the minority issue, which seems to have played an important role in the crisis?
The Syrian regime has cemented the division between minorities and the Sunni majority by classifying Sunni Muslims as a threat (as jihadis or salafis). By assigning the monopoly of a tolerant Islam to himself while demonizing the widely Muslim Sunni opposition, Bashar al-Assad was able, from the outset of the protests to discredit both the revolt and the official opposition, including members close to the Muslim Brotherhood, in the eyes of most Christian, Alawi, or Druze populations. Yet the Muslim Brothers belong to the Syrian political landscape, having emerged from the cognitive renewal of contemporary Islam. Besides Arab nationalism, they constitute the other aspect of Syrian political modernity of the 20th century revolving around the concept of unity. The Baath Founding Fathers considered Islam and Arabism to be in historical interaction. For the Syrian regime, however, it was expedient to conflate conservatives such as the Muslim Brothers with radical Jihadis. The Syrian opposition meanwhile failed to unify itself politically; there has not been a true engagement between the heirs of Arab nationalism and socialism on the one hand and the Muslim Brothers on the other, even though religion and even religiosity are in the “historical DNA” (in the words of Michel Winock) of Syrian society. Let us not forget that since 1918 at least, Syrian political practice has ordinarily been embedded within everyday Muslim symbolic practice: the central role of the mosque, mobilization around important dates in the religious calendar, etc. Whatever the reasons for the divisions within the opposition, the regime used them to its own advantage.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has advanced its campaign against the Sunni Muslim population in three ways:
- Destruction of houses, property transfers, and the displacement of populations;
- The destruction of the “symbolic house”: raping women in front of their fathers, children, or family in prison, for example. This form of torture takes deliberate aim at a core value of Syrian society since the woman’s honor (‘ard) embodies the honor of the father’s house. The castration of adolescents constitutes a physical destruction of the father’s house and beyond a will to destroy the Sunni community;
- Destruction of built Islamic heritage (Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Daraa), as though the regime wanted to destroy Sunni Islamic history and memory in Syria.
The latter two points would of course require further elaboration.
The objective here is not only to force the “other” into submission but to undertake its eradication, both symbolic and real.
How do you interpret the Islamic State’s rapid rise in Eastern Syria?
The Syrian East, a marginal territory, drew little attention until 2014, which marked the entry of the Islamic State into Syria. Even then, observers were not interested in the Syrian East per se. We must however insist on the importance of margins and peripheries in the contemporary history of Syria. As in key moments of the anti-colonial struggle of the 1920s, let us highlight the initiative taken in the 2011 mobilization by a rural periphery of the country (Daraa).
Margins are often inhabited by sectarian and ethnic minorities or tribes, and bring us to porous borders, in particular the three historical borders whose delineation, roughly between 1920 and 1923, is disputed: the Syrian-Turkish border, which allowed passage to regime opponents, jihadis, and Turkish troops; the Syrian-Iraqi border which divides tribal lands and opened up to Daesh in 2014; and the Syrian-Lebanese border which was turned into a private fiefdom of Hezbollah until 2017, and across which it moves back and forth daily. Smugglers and traffickers, refugees, and weapons also traverse these borders.
The Jazirah and in particular the Euphrates areas were incorporated into Syria by France and considered a military periphery. The center of power in Damascus showed little interest in the development of these provinces, with the exception of Raqqa owing to the strategic Dam Project, seeking to control local hierarchies. From 2014, the Syrian regime increasingly came to regard the Eastern territories as a geography that could be exploited with the effective complicity of the Islamic State. The Sunni Euphrates would constitute an invisible frontier or buffer for Assad’s Syria with its center of gravity in the west.
Left to languish in economic and sanitary under-development, and looked down upon by western city dwellers, the majority of the Euphrates’ Bedouins give precedence to their dual identities as Muslims and tribesmen over and above their Syrian identity. The Islamic State played upon both Sunni and tribal allegiances to conquer the Euphrates areas without a fight and subsequently prioritized tribal affiliation.
What about the image of the West among Syrians?
The image of Western states and international institutions has been severely damaged in the eyes of Syrian populations. There is no need to recount Western impotence since 2011; it is quite enough to recall that the international community has not only proved incapable of finding a way out of the conflict that excludes Bashar al-Assad, but also that during ten years of civil war, neither the UN Commission on Human Rights nor the International Criminal Court have managed to open proceedings against the perpetrators of the appalling crimes committed by the regime, whatever the legal reasons may be.
Moreover, the Syrian crisis constitutes a watershed in the humanitarian field: there will be a before and an after Syria. All the contradictions and limitations of the UN and international institutions have played out in the open. Humanitarian multinationals pursue policies designed first and foremost to serve their own interests. They have become self-centered bureaucracies with staff focused on career advancement and setting numerical targets for the management of so-called beneficiaries. Divorced from the field, these humanitarian actors apply an ethnocentric questioning to “beneficiaries”, who are rendered anonymous. It is indeed a policy of a neo-imperialistic nature which divides its relief programs, always on a short-term basis, into categories (for example, Livelihood, Capacity building, Wash –Water, Sanitation and Hygiene – etc.) whose outcomes lose their impact: thus, for example, a “beneficiary” family might be selected to receive hygiene products assistance and at the same time be left with no food because the category “Livelihood” is not included in the category “Wash”. In many cases, there is more concern for training women on gender issues than for feeding their children. The discourse on Syrian refugee women in Beirut, for example, has been monopolized by urban women from diverse backgrounds, all of them employing gender-reading grids developed in London or in New York. One could give examples ad infinitum…
And now, what future for the Syrians?
To begin with, we must distinguish between the Syrians of the inside and the Syrians of the outside.
- Inside Syria, we have, on the one hand, people who favor the regime – mainly Alawis, and more generally, minority communities who are kept in a state of fear towards Islam, and feel they deserve compensation for their sacrifices and those of their sons fallen in battle. Members of this constituency have distanced themselves mentally from the rest of the population. Moreover, the fallout from the civil war has created areas (neighborhoods, towns, or regions) where inhabitants are grouped on the basis of sectarian affiliation. Finally, disastrous economic and sanitary conditions have preoccupied everyone with concerns about their individual fate.
Syrians, displaced or returning to their homeland from exile, found themselves in a state of extreme deprivation. In view of the complete abnegation of individuals, and the misery of the Sunni majority both economically and in terms of morale, it is difficult to see how a fragmented, devastated Syrian society could plan for a shared future. Some observers even question whether Daesh could return to the Euphrates as in 2014, disregarding the fact that tribal populations, though deprived and forgotten by Damascus, have a bad memory of life under Daesh.
- The Syrians of the outside number roughly five million and a half, of which just over three million are distributed in the countries neighboring Syria. If as Syrians they all carry the memory of violence and dispossession, they find themselves in different daily realities depending on where they have taken refuge. The tendency to withdraw into themselves, to look inwards, is negated by the need to adapt to their host place and country. Syrians from all backgrounds freely debate and analyze the situation in their country and deliberate on the Syria of tomorrow. Many of them are young and seek legitimacy through social networks and their cohorts rather than opposition figures. For all these reasons and others, it is perhaps from the Syrian diaspora that those who raise the banner of the thawra once more will hail.
In this context, international negotiations for a transitional government and a new constitution, legitimizing the Assad dynasty’s hold on power, are mere castles in the sky. Maintaining the present Syrian regime excludes any possibility of a settlement of the civil war and of national reconciliation. Never in the contemporary history of Syria has such a societal breakdown taken place; beyond traditional sectarian competition, the civil war has spread hatred, blood, and dispossession among the population. In order for Syrians to remake their society, justice must be served, and the perpetrators of war crimes prosecuted and convicted. The issue of reparations for victims and the right to return of refugees must also be addressed. Last but not least, all sectors of society should be able to project themselves into a shared future. How, for example, could the Sunni inhabitants of Mliha, in the Ghouta, whose belongings have all been plundered by regime gunmen and sold at the “Suq al-Sunna” (Sunni’s market) of Jaramana, face the inhabitants of this Druze and minority suburb, in the name of a common future?
This revolt is part of the tide of 21st-century history and its revolutionary flame has not died out. The remarkable uprising of 2011-2015, which for a time restored pride, hope, and dignity to Syrians and released creative forces across the country, has indelibly marked civil society’s memory. This memory is preserved and stored thanks to the impressive documentary work of the Syrian website “The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution”, among others. It is this memory living in each Syrian that drives the Syrians of the inside to maintain living social bonds with each other and the exiled Syrians to work for an inescapable future. This memory can constitute the basis of a common history that allows a nation to exist by projecting itself into a shared future.
The thawra is indeed a revolt and not yet a revolution. It is the historical trigger of a long-term revolutionary process that will continue to advance in the basements of society until the day a revolutionary process reignites again.
Nadine Meouchy was interviewed by Jihad Yazigi.