"On that day, (15 March, 2011) I felt as if I was flying, I thought that we did the impossible. Today, I have realized how naive we were. We did not imagine that the whole world would watch us dying. Regardless of all the losses I have had, I will never regret it. 15 March, 2011 will remain the most beautiful thing that has happened to me". This is what one of the youth who organized the first protests against the regime in Damascus said while recalling that date.
It was almost noon time when dozens of secular youth ventured into the old town in Damascus chanting for freedom and democracy. They were university graduates in their mid-twenties belonging to different religious and ethnic identity groups. They all believed in a democratic secular Syria and kept chanting “the Syrian people are one". The scene on that day looked ideal. Alas, reality was very far from this, indeed, it was the exact opposite. As we all know, the peaceful protests morphed into a geopolitical war among the Great Powers, which according to the United Nations resulted in the ‘worst humanitarian crisis since WWII’. And which also catalyst Identities clashes, a massive and a bloody one that put various identities against each other; religious identities (Sunni vs. Alawite); ethnic identities (Arabs vs. Kurds). Prior to the war, these identities seemed to function properly in a harmonious balance. Nevertheless, the Syrian conflict proved that this balance was extremely fragile and was constructed in a way that eventually backfired. Henceforth these identities were subjected to an enduring process of reconstruction by discourse directed from above which interacts with discourse from below. This process establishes the power of identity and provokes the clashes. Four variables are responsible of this circle; state and non-state political entrepreneurs; material structure (e.g. arms, media, education), symbols; (e.g. flags, speech, and low culture), and the security dilemma.
Throughout this seven year conflict, state and non-state actors strove to reproduce a particular identity that establishes their hegemony and legitimacy; this instrumentalisation of identity reproduces clashes on a daily basis. Both materialistic and symbolic factors empower a specific identity in opposition to the other and were utilized by political entrepreneurs. Also, symbols operating horizontally at the grassroots level fueled the conflict.
Paralleling the developments of the war, each of these variables was intensifying every year and in turn, it drastically accelerated the reproduction of identities. During the first year of the conflict, identity clashes looked containable. Although the regime unleashed sectarian forces Shabiha and non-state actors sent militias to shadow the regime forces, whereby on the other hand, Sunni state and non-state actors were funding rebels and establishing militias. And regardless of the fact that each group started to wave its own flag and evoke symbols and myths of its own, the security dilemma was still at its lowest level and many secular voices were pursuing to counter identity clashes. However, in 2012/2013 this changed drastically as more sectarian militias (Shitte from Pakistan, Sunni from Afghanistan and some Gulf States) poured into the country, and various sectarian mass massacres (e.g. Houla and Karm al-zaitoun) were committed stirring up animosity among locals of same towns. Whereby radicalisation of Sunni rebels was incited with the establishment of Nusra Front. As a result, the security dilemma was accelerating inflaming the identity clashes. The year after (2013/2014) appeared to be the worst in terms of radicalizing Sunni rebels, as the so called ISIS was formed in eastern Syria. Horrific footage was being streamed on a daily basis from Aleppo of parents digging in the rubble of their homes while seeking to rescue their beloved ones. In 2015/2016 the Russian forces military intervention shifted power toward the regime on the ground and henceforward applied the evacuation policy, or as the regime labels it ‘reconciliation agreements’ that allowed civilians and fighters to evacuate to other rebel held areas (Idlib or suburbs of Aleppo). Such evacuations came after years of siege and bombardments. Deals have taken place in the suburbs of Damascus (Daraya, Yarmouk Camp), Homs, and Aleppo. Undoubtedly, this was an inflammatory approach which emphasized the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ geographically and demographically. Yet, 2017/2018 proved to be even worse than all the years before it, the security dilemma reached a tipping point. A glance at the Syrian map would show identity clashes all over the country (in the north Kurds vs. Arabs, Americans and the Turks are engaged) in the east different radical and moderate Sunnis are struggling for hegemony. In the west, Sunnis and Alawites embarking on vehement battles, in the South intra Sunni clashes and Sunni Alawite clashes are presented.
In this context, the Syrian war opens its seventh chapter in which identities continue to be as powerful as weapons and identity clashes are inflaming any road map for the conflict. However, there is no doubt that identity clashes would sustain in the aftermath of the war and this would pose fatal implications not only for Syria’s future, but for the entire region. Great Powers that are engaged in the Syrian drama should bear this in mind. The daily reproduction of identity clashes would not stop as long as the security dilemma is presented among various identity groups. Once the fear of the ‘other’ has been decreased, a status quo can be established between identities. Accordingly, the daily reproduction of sectarian and ethnic identities can be altered to a reproduction of a civic identity which includes members of all identity groups. This identity would be the alternative to the Arab national identity that prior 2011 was an umbrella for all identity groups (except the Kurds). Such an identity could be constructed via material and symbolic factors. For example, emphasizing shared history and myth (like for instance, the Aramaic and the Ugarit history and myth). Surely enough, any attempts to reproduce a mutual identity would be futile if the violence continues. Besides, central to any process of constructing a civic identity is the accountability of war lords. Bringing war criminals to justice courts is very questionable, and further a very elusive term. Many lords of the Lebanese civil war are enjoying high positions in their government today, same applies to some African countries. Yet, bringing criminal figures of all sides to justice would be an inevitable step toward reconciliation. In addition, empowering notables (wujaha) in local towns, and those secular youth who formed tansiqyyat, and were the backbone of civil resistance, would help to overcome hurdles facing the creation of a strong identity balance.
In December 2012, I interviewed the prominent writer (Hazem Saghiegh) in his office in Beirut, it was the starting phase of what was back then a ‘revolution for democracy’. When I asked him about the factors that provoked identity clashes in Syria he grievously replied; “Today Syria looks like a very old house that needed renovation, but while cleaning up the dust over its furniture, the entire house collapsed”.
In truth, the identities' balance among the various groups in Syria has proven to be tremendously brittle. This is due to the state-building approaches that instead of aiming at balancing identities, put identities at odds with each other, inflaming identity clashes that prior March 2011, were operating in the dark. Nevertheless, seven years ago, those brave youth who protested in central Damascus were aiming to enhance the civic identity among Syrians, all Syrians. Alas, their attempts were thwarted by many actors and due to a myriad of factors, but most importantly, it was because of some of their fellow Syrians who are held captives in an identity box created by political entrepreneurs. And here, it would be worth quoting the great Syrian philosopher Abo Al-alaa Al-maari (D. 1057): Inama hazihi al-mazahib assbab li jalb al-dunia ila al rou’asaa. 'These sects are only reasons to bring about life for leaders’.
*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.