A Brief Historical Analysis of the Roots of the Protracted Social Conflict in Syria

Geneva II, and all other efforts to resolve the conflict, are doomed to fail because they do not account for one fundamental principle: the communal content of the Syrian crisis must be understood and analyzed carefully and thoroughly in order to identify situations and factors that resulted with the deprivation of certain identity groups from their non-negotiable human needs. When this understanding has been fully cultivated and placed in its proper historical context, it can then be linked to issues related to governance and the state, and international factors. The four components (communal content, human needs, governance, and international linkages) that form this principle cannot be analyzed separately and should be viewed as an interconnected set of variables that can lead to both understanding the conflict and designing methods to end it.

To Edward Azar, “Protracted Social Conflicts (PSCs),” are generally characterized as “the prolonged and often violent struggle by communal groups for such basic needs as security, recognition and acceptance, fair access to political institutions and economic participation.” This seemingly self-evident characteristic of protracted social conflicts seems to illude analysts who base their analysis solely on a narrow view of the interplay of international relations and major power interests in the Arab world. However, “[t]his new type of conflict [i.e PSCs]” – a qualification that he chose in order to clarify its difference from the traditional categorization of social conflict – is “distinct from traditional disputes over territory, economic resources, or East-West rivalry,” and “revolves around questions of communal identity” [my emphasis].

Azar’s assertion and the standards that he employs in order to qualify this assertion hold true when measured against the social and political parameters presented to us by the conflict in Syria. Despite the importance of taking into consideration the significance of the international contribution to the escalation of violence in Syria, this factor cannot be solely used in order to explain, and ultimately attempt to alleviate suffering, or even resolve the conflict. The four parameters (communal content, human needs, governance and international linkages) must be taken into consideration at the same time, and must be viewed an essentially interconnected set of variables that can, to a certain extent, make more evident the factors that lead to the instigation of the conflict, its transformation into bloody violence, and the perceived illusiveness of any prospect of resolving it in the short run.

As the first unit of analysis in a protracted social conflict situation, the communal content serves to explain what Azar termed as the ‘disarticulation between the state and the society.’ This disarticulation (a quintessentially medical term that explains the disjunction that takes place between interdependent and connected body parts) can be seen in most ‘post-colonial’ states whereby the colonial legacy of ‘divide and conquer’ left communities with multi-communal identities fractured and fighting each other over desperate domination. After the departure of the colonial forces, the state (or whatever was left of it) was left to be “dominated by a single communal group or a coalition of a few communal groups that are unresponsive to the needs of other groups in the society” which “strains the social fabric and eventually breeds fragmentation and protracted social conflict.”

Indeed, the ‘post-colonial’ order brought to the Arab world an era of utter discontent and disarray whereby previous colonial structures were either restructured or replaced with dictatorships bent on entrenching their rule and prolonging their existence. The French strategy in Syria was to fully to repress the idea of indigenous self-rule in order to ensure the longevity of their existence in Syria. So instead of encouraging the creation of sustainable local institutions and the evolution of self-governance, the French opted for the ‘divide and conquer’ paradigm which, according to William Cleveland, began with the imposition of a political division through the creation of ‘Greater Lebanon’ in 1920. This division favored the Maronite Christians which gave rise to inevitable sectarian conflict. The second division took place in Syria proper whereby Damascus and Aleppo were also separated in 1920 to become two distinct states under the rule of French advisors. In addition to separation, the French actively worked on disseminating a new type of discourse that insisted upon the distinctiveness of Syria’s two minority groups: the Alawites and the Druze. This discourse became a physical reality when the French created two states for each minority in 1922: one in Northern Syria and included the coastal city of Latakia, and the other South of Damascus which included Jabal El-Druze. In 1924, whatever remained from the ethnic fragmentation of Syria was combined to form the Syrian state dominated predominantly by wealthy Sunni merchants and landowners. The result of all these ethnic, territorial and administrative divisions is the effective and institutionalized entrenchment of social fragmentation within the Syrian society.

Despite French efforts to subdue the Syrian population, the state of equilibrium that they tried to sustain was shaken by a revolt that began with an impressively executed military operation by a charismatic Druze leader called Sultan Al-Atrash. This revolt, which began in July 1925 resulted with the expulsion of the French from Jabal El-Druze, and the eruption of similar revolts in big cities like Homs and Damascus. Frustrated with thestatus quo and the rising power of the Syrian masses, the French used their imperial forces to end the revolt, which by 1927 ended with the death of approximately 6000 Syrians and the displacement of thousands.

The post-revolt era which began in 1927 saw the rise of the ‘politics of the notables.’ These notables were the same landowners and wealthy merchants who were able to flourish under Ottoman rule. From their perspective, what needed to be done was create (or sustain) a structure that did not see it as beneficial to accommodate the needs of other social groups. So their approach was characterized with the three fundamental factors (the third being a conclusion of the first two, yet significant enough to also be a factor at the same time): 1) Ensure that the masses continue to see them as being aligned with their aspirations (from both a social and nationalistic perspective). And in order to do so, they needed to maintain this facade of “Syrian patriotism” (a loosely defined term that was often used interchangeably with the term “syrian nationalism”) through issuing various proclamations that at the surface appeared to be anti-French. 2) Ensure that the French continue to see them as being useful as a ‘colonial intermediary’ (a role that they previously held under Ottoman rule), whereby they would ensure that the public remain politically repressed (in that a revolt such as that one that began in 1924 does not reoccur), and that they begin to accept a some sort of compromise with the French colonial rule. 3) Ensure that the structure is designed so that their position as a colonial intermediary is sufficiently sustainable so that in the case of a French departure from their land, these notable would be in a position that allows them to smoothly transition to political power. These were the three characteristics that were very prominent in the period between 1927 (the end of the revolt) and 1939 (the re-establishment of full French control over Syria). So calls for national unity in that period did not mean finding a unifying foundation that Syrians can work within to build their newly-born nation-state; it meant creating a structure that ensures that their rule is sustained unencumbered by the incessant needs of the masses.

So the dominant discourse (which is the one that was disseminated by the notables) was that if Syrians were truly interested in reversing the French colonial legacy of ‘divide and conquer’ they must return to an order where divisions were less salient and cooperation was more feasible, and that can only be attained through the policy suggested by the notables. However, the leaders of the newly-born movement were less interested in unity, and more interested in strengthening their preponderant socio-economic position that they were able to attain under French colonial rule. This was especially true following the economic upheaval that followed the creation of the Grain Office as a mechanism to collect and distribute agricultural products. The state of chaos that Syria was in following the start of the second world war allowed people with money and capital from urban regions like Hama, Aleppo and Damascus to flood the countryside and buy land at very low costs. A short-lived economic boom allowed these new landowners to accumulate more wealth, mechanize agriculture resulting in less reliance on farmers and workers whose livelihood depended on working in these lands. Workers then started to move away from the rural areas and flood the urban areas working for less wages and subpar working conditions. The Kurds were affected the most by the mechanization of agriculture. Given than most arable land was in the Northeastern regions of Syria and in areas close to and surrounding the Euphrates rivers, Kurds had the most to lose. This in turn caused an interesting sociological transformation whereby Kurds were now more inclined to adopt communism and mobilize their communities through the creation of labour unions.

The Alawite minority in Western Syria was among the many social groups that were disenchanted with the new system. Because they could not compete with the Sunni majority over positions of powers within the government and various other political institutions, many of their youth resorted to the military. The military institution was effectively a French creation whereby in the beginning of the mandate in 1920, the French decided to adopt an approach that focuses mainly on the alienation of the Syrian public from positions of political governance and creating conditions to force them to join the army. According to Cleveland, by the mid-1930s, a Syrian Legion was produced by a cadre of newly graduated officers, and was composed of 6000 soldiers. This is very important because the development of the military was also along socio-sectarian lines. Cleveland notes that the Sunnis viewed the military with disdain and did not desire for their youth to join it.With this vacuum (especially that the Sunnis are the majority in Syria), other minorities took advantage of this opportunity and began to enroll their youth (which is a factor that was further exacerbated by socioeconomic conditions that favored the Arab Sunnis at the expense of other minorities). So the army, which grew substantially in the wake of the Palestinian crisis in 1948, was their only opportunity to gain prominence in an otherwise socially stigmatizing social structure .

So the French colonial rule ended with a situation whereby instead of celebrating the end of this devastating colonial era that caused a seemingly irreversible setback, Arabs and other identity groups (Kurds, Armenians, etc…) were forced to accept the rule of self-appointed Arab leaders under the banner of fighting imperialism and neo-colonial rule (often placed within the context of Cold War politics). Post-colonial Arab leaders were efficient at utilizing anti-imperialist rhetoric to create a facade of Arab unity that masked their real intentions: creating a hereditary structure that favors a specific social group while turning a blind eye to the social and economic needs of other groups.

A post-colonial Syria went through several socio-economic and political upheavals that saw the decline of the “politics of the notables” to be replaced with grandiose claims of Syrian nationalism. The departure of the French in 1946 meant that the Syrians must now undergo a complex transition from a colonial state to an independent post-colonial one; and in order to do so, they had to create a some sort of foundation based on Syrian unity, and revolves around internal legitimacy premised on developing a Syrian patriotism. So identity groups must relegate their identity-needs to a position of lesser importance to allow a less salient form of Syrian identity to emerge and legitimize the newly-born system of governance.

Alawite youth, and most notably Hafiz El-Assad and his comrades, rose within the ranks of the Syrian military and over time accumulated enough power and influence to mobilize a coup d’etat against the government. Assad rose to power and became the uncontested president until his death in 2000. Assad’s rule was characterized by a dual interdependent approach that relied on the repression of other social groups and entrenching the position of his social group. Over time, Alawite businessmen and military men became more powerful as they held prominent business and military positions in Syria. For example, the Makhlouf family, from which Assad’s wife hails, were in charge of large communications and construction companies. Assad’s brother, Rifa’at Assad was a powerful military strongman and the person responsible for the Hama massacre in 1982. His son Maher Assad grew to become a vicious army commander whose sole goal was to subjugate the Syrians and ensure absolutely no dissidence or any sort of real political opposition.

Despite Assad’s ability to generate a some sort of social equilibrium that was based on fear and oppression, and despite the appearance of social coherence between the various ethnic, religious, and cultural groups, tensions continued to grow within Syria where minorities, whose identity-needs became more actual, more salient and more valent, viewed each other with utter suspicion and distrust. Arguably, these groups would have been able to evolve to form a coherent interdependent society had the French not destroyed the bonds that existed for centuries.

The death of Hafez Assad, and the ascension of his seemingly moderate son Bashar Assad to power, gave Syrians the illusion that social, economic and political reform might actually take place. An ophthalmologist educated in Britain with a more “modern” worldview would surely abandon the old methods of his father, and introduce to an already tense society reforms that would allow Syria to join the 21st century. Despite the fallacy of this illusion, some Syrians convinced themselves of this reality. However, these dreams were quickly shattered after the onset of the Syrian revolution in 2011. Soon after the Syrians began their popular protest demanding tangible measures that would require constitutional and institutional reform, Bashar ordered his army to quell the protests. It did not take very long for the the Syrians to react negatively to this shock and transform what was a peaceful popular revolution to a protracted and armed social conflict.

Now the country is embroiled in a conflict that does not seem to have an end. Mainstream media have thusfar been very successful at confining the Syrian discourse to the limits of an international pontification where policymakers and politicians in Washington, Moscow and Tehran are commissioned with finding a solution to this intractable conflict. The primary international narrative is focused on finding a some sort of “political solution” to the conflict without necessarily knowing what that entails. The main opposition to the regime represented by the Syrian National Council (SNC) and Free Syria Army (FSA) seems to be interested in internationalizing the conflict without paying any attention to indigenous conflict resolution methods. Ignoring the fact that a solution cannot be designed around large round tables in Geneva, the SNC and the FSA have convinced themselves (and are trying to convince the rest of the world) that they have the authority and legitimacy to advance demands such as the resignation of Bashar and the formation of a provisionary government to lead the transition. The regime, which is heavily relying on manpower and armament from Hezbollah and Iran, is continuing their violent repression of the revolution despite their claim that they were interested in working with international players to lessen the death toll and human suffering. Other violent opposition groups like Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat El-Nusra (JN) refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the regime on one hand, the FSA and SNC on the other hand. Relying heavily on supplies from Saudi and Qatar, the Salafi-oriented militias have engaged in a war of attrition where persons they regard as insufficiently aligned with their worldview are often executed in public to make an example out of them.

Given that the intractable tensions which exist within the ranks of these self-appointed leaders are characterized with complete distrust, selfish and narrow political interests, and deadly manifestations that are causing further death and carnage, one can only reach a single logical conclusions which is: a sufficiently acceptable solution cannot be reached in Geneva (or any other international venue). Surely one cannot deny the international nature of the conflict, but focusing on this aspect, which has been the sole purpose of Western media, does more damage than good.

If we accept Azar’s criteria as valid, then our analysis must begin with the idea that the French colonial legacy of institutionalizing a divisive form of governance must be recognized and understood very carefully. Then the historical progression of events that came out as a result of French rule must be used to explain how social and identity groups came to prominence at the expense of other groups. The ascension of these groups to power, and increasing the cleavage between these powerful groups and other less influential groups, can explain why there had been over the last four decades a severe and seemingly irreversible disarticulation between the state and the society. Finally, this disarticulation, born out of complete distrust and negative attitudes towards other social groups, can be inserted within its international context, whereby the state often allies itself with other like-minded states such as Russia and Iran in order to maintain its control and power.

The analysis would lead us to two mutually exclusive results: either we recognize the colonial legacy and work towards reversing it, or we accept it as an irreversible historical fact and work within its confines. It is up to the Syrian citizen to reclaim his narrative and design methods to find solutions that would relieve from his unenviable deadly situation.

-Omar Chaaban

Omar Chaaban is a Palestinian-Canadian writer based in Vancouver. He blogs here.

-Photo: Untitled by Hani Zurob

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  1. Not Syria alone,the whole Arab Countries- the struggle is going on for the last century.

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