The Perils and Promise of Wartime Analysis: Lessons from Syria

Ghaleb Attrache

After five years of conflict, many Western observers continue to describe Syria as engulfed in a civil war between “the regime” and “rebels”. It’s a narrative that profoundly misunderstands the revolutionary project of re-making Syrian civil society.

CC BY 2.0 Mark Turnauckas

To write about the moving target that is Syria today often feels like a futile endeavor. No sooner does the ink on the page dry than the situation on the ground changes (to say nothing of the stories of human suffering that make the very act of writing seem trivial in the first place). Almost weekly, sometimes daily, alliances between and among political and military factions are made, broken, re-made; militias formed and disbanded; towns taken (back); new leaders cultivated, seasoned ones detained, disappeared, murdered; village after village abandoned, whole neighborhoods flattened, thousands displaced and/or made refugees.

For many, the “Syrian tragedy” is a prime example of the dashed hopes of those who had placed their faith in the recent wave of uprisings. An example of popular aspirations gone disastrously awry, the “revolution-turned-civil-war” has left many wondering whether any of this was really worth it. Only Syrians can answer this. My contention, however, is that there remains much to learn from the Syrian uprising, five years on. The argument I develop below highlights how we might draw lessons from an analysis of the debates on Syria, not only for knowledge’s sake, but for clarifying the dynamics of revolutionary struggle for those committed to Syria as well as social movements elsewhere.

My discussion is organized around an engagement primarily with the analytical narrative of Samer Abboud’s recently-published book, Syria, and secondarily with Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami’s Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. With Syria, Abboud sets himself a rather modest aim: “to help the reader understand the broader dynamics driving the conflict, why it has persisted, who the main actors are, and why it has evolved in the way that it has.”[1] But the book actually accomplishes much more. Not only does it cover substantial empirical and temporal ground, but it also implicitly reminds us of the need, now more than ever, for a critical analysis of the prevailing discourse on Syria. That discourse, I will show, obfuscates more than it reveals. I demonstrate this in two interrelated ways: by problematizing analyses of the trajectory of the conflict and analyses of the main actors involved. In both instances, the terms and categories of the debate shroud the complexity of the relevant actors, institutions, and dynamics. This risks reproducing some of the misguided premises upon which external decisions about Syria’s fate are based. It also risks precluding the establishment of solidarity with Syrians at a time when many of them are returning to the streets to reassert the uprising’s original demands.

From popular mobilization to civil war?

In the mainstream Western (as well as some Arabic) press today, Syria is described almost unanimously as a case of civil war (state versus insurgents), sectarian war (Shiites versus Sunnis), and/or proxy war (Russia versus the US; Iran versus Turkey and the Gulf states). Five years on from the day the uprising began in earnest in the southern province of Dar’a, the images of valiant Syrians holding demonstrations and sit-ins in streets and public squares throughout the country seems a memory from a bygone – and perhaps naïve – era. In its place are images of bearded Islamist insurgents on the frontlines, AK-47s in hand; of refugees fleeing across borders and seas; of buildings leveled. Amid the death and destruction, in all senses of the word, one is led to feel foolish for asking whether we can still call this a “revolution,” in any sense of the word.[2]

The most fundamental of Abboud’s arguments, contra mainstream accounts, is that the conflict in Syria has never really had a “linear trajectory.” In other words, the common reading of the situation as having “morphed from a revolution to a civil war” is misleading, perhaps even dangerous. Among other things, it blinds us to the dynamics, actors, events, and processes that remain central to on-the-ground developments (as well as to broader questions about statehood and violence in the 21st century, as I briefly discuss below). In this light Abboud reminds us that Syria, even today, “is a conflict in which a revolutionary project to restructure society remains present”[3] ; amid shelling and gunfire, individuals, organizations, and activist networks across the country remain embroiled in a struggle both to dismantle authoritarian institutions and constitute alternative, inclusive civil society institutions. That struggle, however, is actively erased when we speak only of civil war. Such an erasure, it should be noted, is not merely (or never only) discursive or symbolic; quite significantly, it helps reproduce these actors’ marginalization from the current political process and perhaps also any future settlement and reconstruction phase.

Despite the potential stakes involved, some on the American and Western left have largely been caught incapacitated on Syria. Even throughout 2011 and 2012, when Syrians were taking to the streets in full force, leftists relied on trite binaries to answer the question of who to throw their (emaciated) weight behind: Asad or imperialism was the binary of choice. (The more unforgivable among them regarded Asad as the region’s last bulwark against Israel!) Intentionally or not, this view upheld twin fallacies: first, that Asad and imperialism are mutually exclusive. Such a claim not only refuses to see imperialism outside of the American empire (what, after all, are we to make of Iran’s and Russia’s interventions?); it also refuses to recognize Asad’s role, however indirect, in the most recent American imperial venture: the invasion and occupation of Iraq (during which Syrian prisons became hubs for American extraordinary rendition programs). The second fallacy reflected the belief that there wasn’t a third (or fourth, etc.) route worthy of the left’s support and solidarity – namely revolutionary civil society in its various forms.

Today the Western press, on practically all sides, continues to “ignore the travails and achievements of the Syrian people in favour of the terrorism story and proxy-war chess.” (Only as refugees are Syrian civilians ever discussed, and even then only when they are knocking at Europe’s borders.) It is no surprise, then, that the debate about Syria’s immediate future has been recast in the familiar “lesser of two evils” frame: Asad on the one side, terrorists on the other. Better the devil we know, as the saying goes. Yet, herein lies the irony lost on these amnesic pundits: To the extent this dichotomy has merit, it is due in no small part to the fact that the internal politico-civilian alternative (save for the Kurdish PYD, whose ambitions are regional) has been driven into oblivion by way of systematic threat, detainment, displacement, and murder – by none other than the “two evils” we now supposedly have to choose between.

None of this is to downplay the magnitude or extent of the “civil war” part of the story. Nor is it to romanticize Syria’s revolutionaries while ignoring their fundamental organizational shortcomings (more below). Rather, it is precisely because the “civil war” part of the story is so salient – empirically and discursively – that I am emphasizing here the “revolution” or grassroots story (after all, the revolution first has to be recognized in order for it to be scrutinized). In doing so, however, I also echo Abboud’s reminder that each is precisely that: a part of the larger story. Reducible neither to one nor the other. This is a crucial lesson of Abboud’s Syria.

The grassroots mobilization: Local Coordination Committees and revolutionary civil society

The ability of Syrians to sustain mass mobilization in the early days of the uprising is quite remarkable in light of the strangulation of political and civic life before 2011. Indeed, Syrians had little in the way of formidable preexisting institutions to build on; political parties, labor unions, and professional syndicates were all coopted, and no independent alternatives existed. But this didn’t prevent them from organizing “spontaneously,” as both books put it (future research will have to further scrutinize this claim of spontaneity). Quite early on, grassroots networks, consisting of students, professionals, tribal leaders, workers and organizers of various stripes, were formed throughout the country. These coalesced formally into the tanseeqiyaat, or Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), which constituted “the first form of revolutionary organization and would remain the nucleus of civil resistance.”[4]

The LCCs started off “as small gatherings of one or two dozen activists,”[5] but, depending on the locale, soon expanded into the hundreds. Their “mission was to organize resistance in their local communities.”[6] As such, their initial work centered “on street action, preparing slogans and banners for demonstrations, barricading areas to protect protestors, and documenting events which they uploaded on social media.” Even as elements in the uprising militarized, the LCCs still “promoted non-violent resistance and rejected sectarianism and foreign military intervention.” But their roles expanded significantly as repression intensified and violence spread; as more communities were under siege and constant bombardment, “their focus would turn to setting up makeshift field hospitals and collecting and distributing food and medical supplies.” This multitude of roles placed the LCCs and other local popular councils at the center of attempts “to organize and govern society along revolutionary lines” in parts of the country where state institutions collapsed.[7] Along with other civil society initiatives, both inside Syria and in nearby towns on the other side of its borders, these groupings have provided humanitarian relief, social and medical services, administration, and legal adjudication.

The Kurdish Rojava project is another, more noted example of an experiment in autonomous government (though it emerged under distinct political and security conditions). Spearheaded by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the project currently consists of three administrative units in Syria’s northeast (Western Kurdistan), where many Syrian Kurds reside alongside Arabs, Yazidis, Armenians, and Turkmen. The PYD and allied groups have established a quasi-constitution, and in each canton, “councils and public institutions have been established through direct elections.”[8] These institutions include “security, service provision and justice.” In addition, communes and cooperatives have been set up, and women and minorities integrated into councils. To be sure, the PYD is not without its critics, both Kurdish and non-Kurdish, some of who allege the party has been harnessing authoritarian practices.

While the protest movement and various local councils spread and emphasized national unity, they remained “highly dispersed and decentralized, precluding effective coordination.”[8] A shared language emerged, but a central command or coordinating structure remained absent. While this sometimes enabled the LCCs to dodge regime repression, it also meant local committees often (though not always) remained disconnected from each other; their work was thus concentrated in villages, towns, or particular neighborhoods. Moreover, prominent council and committee leaders were prevented from having a voice in the mainstream Arabic press and in foreign-sponsored settlement talks (both of which, backed heavily by Gulf monarchies, preferred older elites and religious figures). In 2013, for example, the LCCs and other revolutionary bodies “demanded – but didn’t receive – at least half of the seats” in the Syrian National Coalition, the fractious, internationally-backed body of mostly exiled Syrian opposition figures.[10] These internal and external factors have inhibited the existential matter of national political representation from being taken up methodically by the LCCs.

In addition to political marginalization, local grassroots networks have been increasingly caught in the violent crossfire between the various warring factions. As bombs have rained relentlessly on many parts of Syria, local administration has become increasingly untenable. In some areas, moreover, militant Islamist groups have “stopped the work of local councils, or set up parallel sharia commissions” to undermine governance experiments.[11] But while conditions have gotten worse, the work hasn’t stopped. However debilitated they may be, local councils in various pockets throughout the country continue to coordinate aid, hold local elections, provide services, and stake a claim to the revolution’s original demands of regime downfall, freedom, and dignity.

(Everywhere in-)between insurgent and regime forces

The misleading characterization of the elements and trajectory of the Syrian conflict extends also to descriptions of the warring factions. In the chapters “The Emergence of Armed Opposition” and “When the World Wades In,” Abboud identifies and dissects the main actors involved in the militarization of the conflict, either on the ground or from afar. A principal takeaway here is that the warring sides cannot be reduced to distinct “Islamist,” “rebel,” and “regime” camps. This is not only because each of these amorphous categories contains within them a multitude of actors, with disparate loyalties and fluid motives, but also because the exercise of violence between and among them extends in numerous directions, often simultaneously.

Among “rebels” and “Islamists,” one can identify a diverse range of ideological and pragmatic motives. Religious convictions drive fighters in both camps, but political aspirations vary; some espouse demands consistent with the uprising, others openly diverge; some are national, others transnational. Moreover, it is not unusual for fighters to migrate between different (rebel or Islamist) groups, some of which rival each other. Not surprisingly, the leader most disciplined and able to provide food, weapons, and timely compensation to fighters is the one most able to maintain their loyalty. Along these lines, some groups have adopted Islamic discourse as a way to procure arms from external funders, mostly from the Gulf, who prefer supporting “Islamists.”

In addition to hostilities, tracing lines of cooperation also reveals the futility of attempts to slot actors into exclusively antagonistic rebel, regime, and Islamist categories. Indeed, while in many places rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) openly battle “Islamists” (and sometimes even other FSA groups), such hostilities are geographically variable; in the south, for example, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and FSA fighters have cooperated much more than anywhere else (though, as Abboud reminds us, “cooperation should not be confused with solidarity, cohesion, or centralization of command”).[12] Moreover, in areas run by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Asad regime cooperates with ISIS to ensure the flow of gas and electricity to both sides’ territories; one report, for example, notes the Asad regime continues to pay the salaries of engineers at ISIS-controlled gas plants.

From the “regime” side, Abboud discusses in detail how the state’s formal coercive apparatuses – the army and security forces – are “becoming increasingly peripheral to the execution of violence.”[13] He attributes this decline to “a combination of low military morale, rampant defections, loyalist discord about rising deaths, disintegration … and mistrust” among military and security ranks. In the latter’s place have emerged “privatized, civilianized forms of violence”;[14] perhaps the most notorious are the popular militias, or shabiha (thugs), which have largely been institutionalized as the National Defense Forces (NDF). Consisting of civilians from various sectarian and regional backgrounds, the shabiha and NDF operate mostly in specific locales and are only loosely connected to each other or a central command. Other civilian militias – some sectarian, some non-affiliated – also operate locally and “receive weapons and resources from the regime.”[15] And then of course there are the non-Syrian fighters, mostly from Hezbollah and Iran but also Iraq and Afghanistan. Hezbollah in particular is credited with enabling the Asad regime to maintain control over important parts of the country. In some areas, Hezbollah fighters have commanded Syrian soldiers and civilian militias; in others they’ve played a more “complementary role.”[16]

Only when we begin to unpack the category of “regime forces,” as above, can we really grasp the dynamics of violence on the ground. When we see that the regime’s “reliance on decentralized, privatized violence has dispersed decision-making power to centers potentially outside” its control, we confront the paradox that “as militias become more central to the regime’s survival they are exercising more autonomy from central regime command.”[17] We might say, then, that claims in common parlance about “regime advances” actually signal regime weakness in analytical terms (insofar as “regime” implies a bounded coercive body comprising the army and security services). Thus, for example, a recent BBC report that Russian airstrikes have assisted “Damascus to regain control over more than 10,000 sq. km (3,860 sq. miles) of territory” misses that that control is, in some places, rather nominal.

What this brief discussion suggests is that the most salient categories in the discourse on Syria actually obfuscate the reconfiguration of violence occurring at the heart of the Syrian state, at least as regards the fundamental component of the conventional definition of the modern state: the (claim to a) monopoly of legitimate violence over a given territory. Indeed, we might even say the unreflexive use of the “regime” category partially does the work of (re)constituting the appearance of that monopoly, at least in the international arena.

The grassroots reemerges?

In late February 2016, Russia and the US announced a ceasefire agreement between Syria’s warring factions (ISIS and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front remained fair game). Not many had high hopes that the agreement would hold. Still fewer could have predicted what was to come in the days – and now weeks – following the ceasefire’s implementation.

Since the ceasefire began, Syrians have taken to the streets, in numbers not witnessed since the early days of the uprising, to reclaim the revolution. Monitor groups recorded over one-hundred demonstrations/sit-ins on the first Friday of the ceasefire, March 4th. Banners and chants have announced widely: The revolution continues (al-thawra mistamerra), along with the call for regime downfall, freedom, dignity, and unity. To those who saw only a civil war left, the protests and display of popular will came as a huge surprise. The grassroots, it seemed, “reemerged” out of the dust.

But the grassroots never disappeared. The ceasefire has reminded us that public demonstrations, on the scale we are currently witnessing, had become too dangerous with barrel bombs and ballistic missiles falling ‘round the clock. But activists, students, professionals, workers, family members had never stopped working. Perhaps conceiving of a country barren of civilians may have been the only way to corroborate Moscow’s claims that Russian airstrikes never targeted innocent Syrians. But this was never true. The militarization of the uprising never meant the erasure of the civilian grassroots mobilization.

The question to ask, then, is not whether this is or isn’t a popular uprising, or whether rebels are or aren’t Islamists. Such questions demand and impose a singular essence that simply does not exist. The question to ask is where is the popular uprising, and who – institutions, organizations, and individuals – is involved in leading it. The answers may be neither simple nor satisfactory, but they must be sought. As Hazem Kandil put it,[18] “Revolutions break our heart whether they fail or succeed.” Syrians have been discovering the inevitability of this heartbreak for five years, and so refuse to hang their heads on the perils of the present. It is time we recognize this and stand with those still carrying the revolution. Their victory is far from inevitable, but, in the words of one Syrian, “they are the only way forward.”


Ghaleb Attrache is a PhD student in sociology at UC Berkeley. His main research interests are in political sociology and the sociology of culture, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa.


References and Footnotes

  1. Samer Abboud. Syria. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. p. 2.
  2. My use of the term “revolution” to describe the Syrian uprising does not rest on political sociological definitions or theories of revolution. I consciously use the term, however, insofar as the loose movement I discuss here has sought – and is still seeking – to dismantle key elements of Syria’s authoritarian regime, and to reconfigure and constitute civil society institutions.
  3. Syria, p. 2
  4. Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. London: Pluto Press, 2016, p. 57.
  5. Syria, 67.
  6. Burning Country, 59.
  7. Syria, 68.
  8. Burning Country, 73.
  9. Burning Country, 73.
  10. Burning Country, 188.
  11. Burning Country, 72.
  12. Syria, 99.
  13. Syria, 116.
  14. Syria, 109.
  15. Syria, 112.
  16. Syria, 115.
  17. Syria, 116.
  18. Hazem Kandil, 2012, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt's Road to Revolt, London: Verso, p. 1.