Wrestling With Syria's War
Two new books examine the complexities and divisions which bedeviled Syria's rebels
Ora Szekely, Syria Divided: Patterns of Violence in a Complex Civil War (Columbia University Press, 2023)
Dipali Mukhopadhyay and Kimberly Howe, Good Rebel Governance: Revolutionary Politics and Western Intervention in Syria (Cambridge University Press, 2023)
Syria’s popular uprising which erupted in the heat of the Arab uprising of early 2011 transformed all too quickly into a highly internationalized civil war of exceptional complexity and intensity. There have been a few academic books which attempted to grapple with the dynamics of the war’s escalation, fragmentation, interventions, and brutality, including: Kevin Mazur’s Revolution in Syria, a deeply researched and analytically innovative study of the conflict’s first year; Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay’s Civil War in Syria, an ambitious effort to theorize the war’s dynamics; Samer Abboud’s Syria, still one of the best short theoretical and analytical overviews of the conflict; Salwa Ismail’s Rule of Violence, a theoretically sophisticated and harrowing account of Syria under Asad; Christopher Phillips’ The Battle for Syria, the best account of the international diplomacy and interventions into the conflict; Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, an innovative oral history based on interviews with refugees; Lisa Wedeen’s Authoritarian Apprehensions, a brilliant reading of the political culture underlying Syria under Bashar; (and there’s also my The New Arab Wars, if you’re into that sort of thing).
Two fascinating new books now join that shelf: Ora Szekely’s Syria Divided and Dipali Mukhopadhyay and Kimberly Howe’s Good Rebel Governance. They focus on very different aspects of the war. Szekely centers the war of narratives, examining the implications of the very different understandings of what the war was about among different actors and audiences. Mukhopadhyay and Howe focus on the unintended effects of Western efforts to support local governance in opposition controlled areas. Both shed light on the drivers of the fragmentation and in-fighting which plagued the opposition, the limitations of efforts to support the insurgents from abroad, and the tragic outcomes which will haunt Syria for decades to come. Taken together, they present not just interesting arguments but also reflections on the limitations of researching conflicts from afar and the ethical challenges of writing about complex civil wars.
Szekely’s Syria Divided makes a strong case to take seriously the intense battles to control the narratives about the meaning and nature of the war, both within Syria and for a wide range of different international audiences. Anyone who followed Syria’s war on social media will be familiar with the visceral nature of those discursive struggles as partisans fought to define the war and to establish narratives about what it meant. Those battles ranged from contestations over the facts of specific events — just recall the blistering arguments and rampaging propaganda campaigns over the chemical weapons attack on East Ghouta in 2013 — to the identity of the combatants (peaceful activists or jihadist radicals) and the very stakes of the conflict. Szekely argues that those narratives had very real consequences, whether binding frightened Syrians to the regime or inviting (or deterring) American interventions or mobilizing Islamist support from across the Gulf. What’s more, she argues, those narratives offer clues into puzzling patterns of violence over the course of the war, attacks that should have happened but did not or battles staged for the cameras, or the extreme performative violence of the ISIS.
Mukhopadhyay and Howe’s Good Rebel Governance turns the gaze on the forms of governance which emerged in the areas of Syria which came under rebel control, and the perverse consequences of Western efforts to support what the authors call their “competitive state building.” American support to rebel governing councils built on the premise that the provision of services and effective governance would win legitimacy for the rebels and credibility as an alternative to the Asad regime. But that aid, as Mukhopadhyay and Howe make clear, could have a range of unintended effects. Put in the hands of unaccountable leaders, aid could encourage corruption and incipient local warlordism (even if wasn’t stolen along the way). What’s more, the availability of aid created the conditions for the emergence of a class of middlemen (“five star hotel revolutionaries” was one of the nicer terms for them) far from the conflict on the ground but conversant in the language of NGO grant applications. They argue, drawing creatively on Ibn Khaldun’s notion of ‘asabiya, that the most effective local rebel governance was led by people who shared the struggle of the people and suffered alongside them. But such people might be ill-suited to compete in the aid marketplace and thus lose the material support which might have cemented their authority. That paradox haunts well-intentioned aid providers, with important lessons far beyond Syria, and helps to explain the deep dysfunction and failures of the various Syrian political leadership bodies organized abroad.
Both books grapple openly with the difficulty of writing about Syria’s war from afar. By 2013, it had simply become too dangerous for most researchers to enter even rebel-controlled areas of Syria. Some journalists did, of course, continue making trips, but academics (with a handful of deeply problematic exceptions) who hoped to publish their research didn’t have that option even if they had wanted to: no serious university IRB would authorize academic research in a context like Syria where the risks to both the researcher and interview subjects were catastrophically high. Szekely adapts to these limitations by focusing on narratives and rhetoric, much of which could be accessed online, supplemented by interviews with Syrians outside the country and an online survey of Syrians on the inside. Mukhopadhyay and Howe took multiple trips to the Syria-Turkey borderlands, where they could directly research the “good governance bazaar” which is central to their book. In addition, they obtained access to a treasure trove of tens of thousands of interview transcripts and opinion surveys conducted by USAID for project administration inside rebel controlled Syria — a really unique and useful data source, despite its limitations.
Both books also demontrate the high levels of variation across Syria during the war, geographically and politically. Syria contained multiple overlapping but distinct conflicts within its broader warscape, with residents of different areas experiencing radically different wars. Szekely shows how these differences manifested in terms of the stories people told themselves and others about what the war was about: a struggle for democracy and freedom; a sectarian struggle; an Islamic jihad; a counterterror operation against radical jihadists; a Western-inspired war of subversion; and so on. Whether people genuinely believed these narratives is difficult to know, of course, in Syria or in any other context, but she does a great job of showing just how wide the epistemic chasm was — and is — among those fighting, observing or suffering through the war. Mukhopadhyay and Howe, for their part, focus in on four cities to show the very different experiences of external aid and local governance: Rakka, where ISIS could deliver services effectively but not win legitimacy from those it ruled through terror; Saraqeb, where aid at first helped win the local council support but ultimately corrupted its recipients; Daraya, where limited aid and collective suffering built strong bonds between the council and its starving constituents; and Aleppo, where vast amounts of Western aid poured into a city deeply torn by rival factions and armed groups.
Syria Divided and Good Rebel Governance are welcome additions to the literature on one of the world’s most important and complex conflicts which should appeal to a range of disciplinary and general audiences, and help to push forward new approaches to the research agendas with which they engage.
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