• Omar Imady

Reconstruction & Other Syrian Myths

Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

Joseph Campbell would speak of myths as constituting ‘clues’. When it comes to Syria, mythical narratives are precisely that; clues that point to what is really being said, to what is really being attempted. From the very beginning of the Syrian Uprising in March 2011, both the regime and the opposition have invested significant energy in the production of mythical narratives, and in the process have provided us with clues to what they are truly after.

Take for example the first myth, that the spontaneous protests that emerged in February and swelled in March were manifestations of a foreign conspiracy. This wasn’t difficult to discredit. After all, according to Syria’s official media, Syria has always been the target of conspirators, a price it pays for its ‘patriotic’ positions against Israel and other enemies. Why would thousands of the inhabitants of Dar‘a suddenly choose to join the enemies of Syria in an unprecedented show of popular resistance? Why would voices, deep inside the regime, from Faruk al-Shar‘ to Muhammad Salman, make it very clear that this is not a manifestation of a conspiracy? But to dwell on discrediting the myth is a distraction. The point here isn’t whether or not this myth is easy to discredit, the point rather is what ‘clues’ this myth provides. In advancing this myth, the regime wasn’t counting on people believing in it, the regime rather was providing regional and international players, and more importantly Syrians, with clues on how it planned on reacting. If a government accuses a certain movement of constituting the pawns of a conspiracy, then one should expect that it plans on fighting this movement till the very end. The president’s speech on 30 March, 2011 wasn’t meant to be convincing in so far as the conspiracy narrative is concerned, rather it was meant to provide clear clues on how the regime planned on responding; clues, that were sadly ignored or cast aside by many.

Myth-production is by no means exclusive to the regime. Another myth which is very difficult to stay clear of is the personalization of what is taking place in Syria. This is all about Asad, we are constantly told: it’s Asad’s regime, Asad’s army, even Asad’s bombs — all terminology which I and many of my colleagues have used but which I am increasingly philosophically against. The problem with personalization is that it is an act of oversimplification. The implication here is that one person is behind all of this, when in fact the crimes committed by the regime are possible only because of a ‘system’; a system which is ready to be activated even if Asad is replaced tomorrow. As I tried to explain in a recent interview, it is dangerous to make this about Asad, because if a day arrives when Asad is replaced (without the initiation of a process that structurally modifies the system that makes such crimes possible) then it will be nothing more than a cosmetic change. In the same manner that the conspiracy myth provides clues, so too does the Asad myth. Here the clues point to the fact that what many in the opposition truly want is to get rid of a person, rather than to change a system. If they were to be in charge, they may leave the system intact, or even use it against their opponents. If this was about a system, then the emphasis would be on UN-monitored presidential elections in which all Syrians, including refugees, take part. Ironically, the Asad-myth is mutually cherished. The regime embraces it just as much as the opposition does. To the regime, it’s far easier to respond to calls to exclude Asad as unacceptable and impinging on sovereignty than it is to respond to calls that emphasize fair presidential elections and place no conditions on who can participate. Here, the myth not only provides clues, it also sets a trap.

‘Victory’ is a more recent myth. We are now constantly told that the regime won, and the opposition has been defeated. Here the myth is based on the assumption that this was a story about a battle between the Syrian army, and the militias that support it and the various rebel groups on the ground, from the moderate to the fanatic and extreme. If this assumption is accurate, then it naturally follows that a military victory means the story is over. Early in the Syrian Uprising, the common word used by regime loyalists was ‘khalsit’, meaning ‘it’s over’ in the Syrian dialect. The counter response to this, of course, is that this wasn’t about a military battle for it to ‘end’ in a military victory. This was about thousands of young protesters (who for the most part are not even represented by the armed rebels) who believed in a different Syria, a Syria where freedom, dignity and reform was possible. How then can a regime military victory in Idlib, or anywhere else for that matter, change any of this? The transformation of the Syrian Uprising into a myth about a military conflict provides clues on how the regime wants us to understand this. If this is a military conflict, then it will end when a military victory is achieved. Ironically, the myth of ‘victory’ is yet another myth that is cherished by both sides. Members of the opposition constantly speak in a manner that implies accepting that the armed rebels somehow represent them, and hence their defeat means the end of the story. To the thousands of young Sunni, Christian and even Alawite protesters casting the story as a military conflict is to marginalize everything they tried to achieve. Here the myth is an act of betrayal.

Finally, though the list of myths is far more extensive, we now have the myth of ‘reconstruction’; a more recent myth, but one which appears destined to become more popular. The idea here is that Syria is largely destroyed and now that the story is over (see previous myth) it is time for reconstruction. The myth immediately gives birth to two opposing groups, as it frequently does: those who are for reconstruction (now, and before a political settlement) and those who are against it (until a true political transition is agreed upon). Both sides ignore historical precedent and the lessons we have learned from Spain, Lebanon and more recently Bosnia; namely, that reconstruction is seldom about the rebuilding of structures destroyed during the war. Reconstruction, rather, is about the recreation of identity, the invention of memory, and the reward and punishment of allies and enemies. Reconstruction may even constitute an act of violence using cement and tractors. An act of violence because of who it chooses to exclude, and what it deliberately chooses to give prominence to. To speak of reconstruction as though it is the mere act of rebuilding which either requires or does not require a framework of political transition, is to embrace the myth that there is a way for reconstruction to be inclusive and Syria-driven when in actuality, even under the best of conditions, reconstruction will involve regional and international companies making billions of dollars in profit as Syrians continue to suffer in refugee camps. Here the myth becomes a tragedy.

*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


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