A Population and Its Discontents: Grounding the Syrian Civil War in its Local Realities

With the civil war having brought back the nostalgia of Cold War politics, the situation in Syria has only been analysed and dissected with an international relations lens, distracting scholars and security experts alike from the actual underlying causes of the civil war— the domestic factors that led to the war, and which continue to fuel it till date.

Syria is one of the few countries that outlasted the domino effect of the Arab Spring, which began as a revolutionary wave of protests in Tunisia on 18 December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street merchant, on having been mistreated by the local police, set himself on fire as a mark of protest against the state. The Arab Spring, because of the omnipresence of social media (Brown et al 2012), became a concomitant phenomenon in the entire West Asian region, leading to spillovers across the globe— one of the major concerns being that of mass migration and the resulting xenophobia in Europe (de Haas 2018). However, the major issues that led to region-wise, albeit country-specific, protests was the form that on-ground sociopolitical structures in Arab societies were taking  (Farooq et al 2017). For instance, there was a prevalence of authoritarian regimes, human rights violations, corruption, unemployment, high rates of inflation and economic decline, all resulting in a dissatisfied young population (Farooq et al 2017). 

These ground realities, and the protests they eventually sparked, can be viewed from the lens of the relative deprivation theory, as emphasised by Ted Robert Gurr (Gurr 2016).  The theory looks at social and psychological factors as the root cause of political violence in the society. That is, when a certain community or a group with a particular political identity perceives that they are being deprived of the social goods that are otherwise available to other competing political identities living in the same state, it leads to collective political violence. Essentially, the gap between expectations vis-à-vis reality causes people to rise against the state. One of the main reasons for the Arab Spring, thus, was this sense of relative deprivation in terms of socio-economic goods as well as a lack of social justice, which came about as a result of the oppressive and authoritarian regimes ruling the countries in the region (Plakoudas 2017). 

On the other hand, the Syrian conflict, currently in its eighth year, has been ongoing without any conclusive end on the horizon (Carey et al 2019). It would be justified to employ Edward Azar’s protracted social conflict theory in the Syrian context. The protracted social conflict theory, as propounded by Edward Azar, theorises the prolonged and often violent struggle by communities for basic needs, such as security, recognition and acceptance, fair access to political institutions and economic participation (Ramsbotham 2005). Azar notes that there are distinct competing communal identities operating within the bounds of the state and across, and more often than not, it is this domestic rivalry that is the main source of perpetually never ending civil wars. He identifies four clusters of variables in the volatile political mix of any civil strife as preconditions for their transformation to high levels of intensity (Ramsbotham 2005). These are communal content, deprivation of human needs, governance and the state’s role, and lastly, the role of what Azar refers to as  “international linkages.” As we further delve into the quagmire of sociopolitical dynamics of Syria, we investigate and find out if at all the aforementioned paradigms of the two theories fit into, and potentially explain, the Syrian Civil War. 

Challenges of Economic Inequality in Syria

A country’s economic prosperity can be understood by several key measures such as the gross domestic product (GDP), employment levels, literacy, etc. However, there is another variable that can be factored in to understand where a country stands in terms of its economy, and that is its quality of housing. Syria has interestingly characteristic features vis-à-vis the housing it provides to its citizens. It has an astonishing lack of the vast conurbations of acute deprivation, which one would recognises as archetypal third-world slums. However, whilst largely slum free, it is, nonetheless, a country where informal housing—that is, substandard property built without legal permission—has become increasingly dominant, and the main destination for Syria's rapidly expanding population (Goulden 2011). In contrast to the widespread informal housing  is the vast amount of capital investment before the beginning of the civil war, which was poured into developing affluent gated communities. This was to house the newly forming minority of ultra rich Syrians, seeking to ward themselves off of the reeking poverty of the rest of the population. 

This is where the relative deprivation theory comes into play in the Syrian conflict. The Syrian economy, since the 1980s, has been engaged in a process of economic infitah (opening up), which was accelerated by Bashar al-Assad’s accession to the helm of powers (Goulden 2011). His economic drive was one guided by neo-liberal capitalistic principles, which meant that the state increasingly rescinded from its role of providing social goods in favour of free market principles (Goulden 2011). The rollback of the state and the growing inequality has been most visible in the housing sector (Goulden 2011). 

As per the Syrian Economic Center, housing is considered as one of the chief concerns in the Syrian sociopolitical milieu, and it represents a brewing crisis that has been ongoing for several decades  (Goulden 2011). While there was a clear lack of supply of adequate quality housing to the Syrians, the government was busy channelling major capital investments into building luxurious hotels, apartments and resorts under the garb of boosting the economy and generating employment. This led to a perceived difference between the expectations and the reality of the majority of the Syrian people (Goulden 2011). A sense of resentment towards the Syrian elites and the government became one of the latent anxieties that were only waiting to erupt like a volcano; all it needed was a catalyst, which the Arab Spring provided perfectly (Goulden 2011).

Despite having one of the lowest GDP growth rates not just in the region, but worldwide, the fact that Syria has kept itself largely slum free is something worth recognising. However, from the perspective of the Syrian people, what matters is the striking difference in the quality of living between the rich and the poor. Although there are roads to these informal housing belts, they are poorly maintained, supply of electricity is intermittent, and there is gross inaccessibility to medical services (Goulden 2011). An estimated $24 billion was required to upgrade the quality of life for all Syrians living in the informal housing sectors; instead, approximately $20 billion was poured into infrastructure projects meant for the rich (Goulden  2011). A sense of relative deprivation, thus, has prevailed among the people (Goulden 2011). This inequality has further been exacerbated by the fact that Syria’s political economy at the time was drastically changed under the Assad regime. As it transitioned from being a Ba’thist developmental state to one that embraced neo-liberalism, the seeds of perceived deprivation and discontent consequently laid fertile ground for the civil war that erupted in 2011 (Goulden 2011). 

 Competing Communal Identities

Azar’s protracted social conflict theory asserts that the relationship between identity groups and states is at the core of the problem of any political violence (what Azar called the “disarticulation between the state and society as a whole”) (Ramsbotham 2005). He further notes how membership of social groups is used as a tool to negotiate individual needs and interests. Azar links the disjunction between the state and society in many parts of the world to a colonial legacy (Ramsbotham 2005).

The Syrian Civil War, then, cannot be analysed without discerning its population’s  sectarian divisions. Despite ostensible cultural unity, the Syrian society is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. The religious diversity of Syria includes Alawis, Druzes, Isma‘ilis and the Greek Orthodox Christians who constitute the majority of the Christian population in Syria (Carey 2018). The other division is on the basis of ethnicity, that is, Kurds, Armenians, Turcomans  and Circassians. The majority of the populations subscribes to the Sunni school of thought, whereas the ruling elites, as in the Assad family, are Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia school of thought (Khoury 1991). 

Furthermore, Syria came under the French Mandate after World War I, and the colonial administration at the time divided the country into three major districts— that is, the Alawite Mountains in the north-east, comprising the sub-Shia sect of Alawites; the second district down south in Jebal Druze, which was inhabited mostly by the Druzes;  the rest of Syria, which was kept as one large district, with Damascus as its capital. These separations widened and institutionalised the divide in the population. Several policies introduced by the French eventually ended up altering the sociocultural fabric of Syria, resulting in deep radicalisation (Baltes 2016).

Deprivation of Human Needs

One of the major causes of the protracted nature of any conflict is the deprivation of needs that are absolute and non-negotiable (Plakoudas 2017). Azar points out that grievances resulting from a need deprivation are usually expressed collectively, and failure to redress these grievances by the state cultivates a niche for a protracted social conflict (Ramsbotham 2005).

Syrians have been deprived of not just their economical needs for the longest time, but also their social, political and identity needs in the sphere where the state and its citizens operate. Government repression against any dissent or freedom of expression has been heavy-handed to say the least, and this has bred a sense of animosity towards the state as well as the rich minority that belong to a particular sect. 

Reducing conflict in this long-drawn-out war would then require a lot of creative thinking as to how the underdeveloped can be ameliorated and brought to par with the rest of the Syrian society. Peace is development in the broadest sense (Ramsbotham 2005). 

Governance and the Role of the State

Governance issues become a major concern for the state with respect to handling political violence (Ramsbotham 2005). Satisfactions or frustrations of individuals as well as identity groups are a critical factor. And, most long-term conflicts are characterised by fragile, parochial and authoritarian regimes that usually fail to satisfy even the most basic human needs. In most postcolonial states, power tends to be a monopoly of a certain dominant identity group or a coalition of hegemonic groups that leads to resentment among the people. 

This is precisely what the situation prevailing in Syria is: the Assad family and its acolytes are Alawite Shia Muslims that have held onto the reins of power in Syria since the 1980s. In a country that is predominantly Sunni Muslim, the lack of basic infrastructure, human rights, education and employment opportunities for the majority has greatly contributed to the civil strife. The Assad government, owing to its bent towards neo-liberalism, has failed to deliver social goods and only facilitated economic gains for Syrian elites. The monopolising of power in the hands of a minority Shia group and limiting the access to social goods for other identity groups has led to a situation of a “legitimacy crisis” that serves as a crucial linkage between the interplaying factors in this long-drawn-out conflict (Khaddour 2015).

International Linkages

No state in the 21st century can operate in isolation any longer. In such a political theatre, states, especially the economically weaker ones, are rather susceptible to the international forces that operate, often, with ulterior motives.

In the case of Syria, there are multiple international actors at play in this geopolitical hotbed. With America and Russia playing out the nostalgia of Cold War politics, Turkey is a crucial factor, as it is the only NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member that is in the closest geographic proximity to Syria. Moreover, its foreign policy is directed by its wish to get rid of Kurdish adversaries operating in Syria. Interestingly, the Kurds have been working in tandem with US forces to get rid of any remaining ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria) leftovers in the region, which is vehemently opposed by Turkey as well as the current regime in Damascus. Thus, the competing and overlapping interests of international  forces has managed to aggravate the Syrian conflict and sustain it till the present day (Carey et al 2019).

Conclusion

It has been a constant struggle of the academic community to be able to assertively determine the specific factors that give rise to instances of collective political violence. The Syrian Civil War is one such case of ongoing political violence that has failed to reach any conclusive end due to a plethora of reasons and factors, however, the theories of relative deprivation and protracted social conflict fit rather well into the context. There are empirical justifications that substantiate the fact that the Syrian conflict was not simply a one-off event of collective violence, or a victim of the cascading effects of the Arab Spring, or even a geopolitical playfield of the powerful international forces. On the contrary, it is an issue of identity, needs deprivation, with a heady mix of religious and  sectarian flavours that have been brewing underneath the sociopolitical milieu of the Syrian society since a long time. Thus, multiple factors, over the years, have had a domino effect in concentrating pre-existing latent anxieties that finally found an outlet in the form of the civil war. What needs to be understood here, via the theoretical analyses of the civil conflict in Syria, is that people’s indulgence in violence in Syria is neither meaningless nor merely a puppeteering action. It is, in fact, grounded in the attempt to bring forth structural changes in the social, political and economic dimensions of the state of Syria.

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