Violence, Mobilizations and Competing Social Orders. Questions to Adam Baczko about the Civil War in Syria

City of Homs, Syria. Copyright Shutterstock

Adam Baczko is the author, with Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay, of Civil War in Syria. Mobilization and Competing Social Orders (Cambridge University Press). The French version of the book (Syrie. Anatomie d’une guerre civile) has just been republished in paperback (Collection Biblis, CNRS Edition). Read our interview with Adam Baczko about the fieldwork, the emergence of violence in demonstrations, the anonymous demonstrators, the role of women, and more about the conflict in Syria.


In the introduction, you write that the field allowed not only to confront, but also to think, in situ, a certain number of hypotheses that form the framework of your book. On the basis of this observation, can you tell us about the origins of this research project on the Syrian conflict, given that it is in a field outside the authors’ usual specializations ?

The genesis of the project came from a sense of urgency about the situation in Syria, but also from our comparative perspectives on other armed conflicts, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. What journalists and humanitarians in Syria were reporting echoed certain issues that we were dealing with in our own research and that seemed to be neglected in Syria: the emergence of a multiplicity of armed groups following a social movement, then a competition dynamic between these armed groups leading to a progressive simplification of the military map, the establishment of civil and judicial institutions by armed movements, and profound transformations of social and identity hierarchies. Our attention to the civilian institutions set up by the Syrian insurgency and the PYD—the Syrian branch of the PKK—proved to be a fruitful approach, but other dynamics that we did not anticipate also appeared to be essential.

In particular, our initial interviews allowed us to see the extent to which the 2011 demonstrations were organised outside past protest against the regime's historical networks. They involved Syrians who were mobilising throughout the country anonymously to avoid targeted repression by the regime that would have meant imprisonment and torture not only of demonstrators, but also of their relatives. These mobilisations without mobilisers, these anonymous protests, played a fundamental role in the structuring of civil and judicial institutions and produced a social revolution in the areas held by the insurgency. In a country where inequalities had been blatant, a small business accountant became mayor of Aleppo, a Koranic school teacher was appointed judge in Al-Bab, and a corn farmer found himself at the head of one of the largest military units in northern Syria.

Being present at that time was necessary to capture these dynamics, especially with the recent Damascus regime's conquest of the areas held by the armed groups that emerged from the peaceful demonstrations of 2011. This event means that the documentary traces of these dynamics are diminishing and, in order to cope with what they are experiencing today, many people reconstruct a posteriori what happened in those years.

How did your previous fieldwork help you engage in this one?

The comparative perspective was essential for several reasons. First, it led us to ask specific questions, as most people living in a context of civil war tend to stress that the situation they are experiencing is absolutely exceptional. For this reason, they refute the term civil war. On the contrary, our comparative experience allowed us to see many commonalities: territorial fragmentation, implications of transnational groups and regional powers, ethnic and confessional mobilisations. The homology between the different situations illustrates the extent to which armed conflicts are structured by the international system, which conditions international recognition and the resources related to the control of the capital city, prohibits any modification of borders or secessionist aims (e.g. that of the Kurdish movement), and favours forms of localised international intervention that further fuel the conflict. In fact, the internationalisation of the Syrian conflict with the involvement of Western countries, Turkey, the Gulf, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, the PKK, and the Islamic State is relatively typical of a civil war.

On the other hand, researchers tend to see only what they are looking for. For example, our attention to the establishment of courts by the Taliban in Afghanistan led us to pay close attention to initiatives in the judicial field in Syria, which proved to be numerous and to have decisive social and political effects. In particular, the most radical Islamist groups have imposed themselves on the armed groups deriving from the 2011 mobilisations specifically around the issue of who delivers justice. Conversely, putting Syria in perspective with other armed conflicts has led us to see what makes it distinctive. Compared to the Afghan or Iraqi conflicts, the bombings of civilian targets were especially numerous. This allowed us to clearly see the extent to which the Damascus regime, responsible for 90% of the civilian victims of the conflict, had a strategy of terror that was at odds with the policies of the belligerents in other armed conflicts.

You write that the shift to violence on the side of the protesters during 2012 sparked a sectarianisation of the conflict that was exacerbated by external, foreign actors. Can you tell us how this trend is specifically a result of foreign interventions, and about the nature of these interventions?

In the book we show that the sectarianisation of the conflict is linked to two dynamics. On the one hand, the Damascus regime used ethnicisation and sectarianisation as a strategy for demobilising people from minorities who were in favour of the protests. Thus, in 2011 Bashar al-Assad delegated the repression of demonstrations in the Kurdish regions to the PKK, he avoided repressing Druze and Christian participants in marches, and finally, he accused the protesters of being Islamist terrorists.

The other essential dynamic is linked to the regional powers that pursued strategic agendas that they framed in sectarian terms: the Gulf, starting with Saudi Arabia, which has a ferocious anti-Shiite policy and financed Syrian armed groups that took up this agenda locally; and Iran, which has been setting up Shiite militias throughout the region, from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq. In the Syrian war, as in the other armed conflicts we have observed, sectarian or ethnic logics become more and more compelling as local events (a massacre, the ransacking of a place of worship) align with the rhetoric of armed movements and the strategies of the external powers that fund them. This is what eventually happened in Syria.

You write that the Syrian demonstrations fall into the category of mobilisations without mobilisers in line with the events in Iran in 1979 and East Germany in 1989. You also refer to the “revolution of the anonymous” and you show the role of not only social networks but also international media in identifying the Syrian power to Arab regimes that have been crushed during events related to the Arab Spring in other countries. In the end, in light of what was going on in other countries, for all these anonymous demonstrators, “the impossible became possible”. What can you say about this tipping point?

There is something extraordinary in these mobilisations that explains why it was difficult to imagine such protest in previous research on Syria, as on other Arab countries. In the 2000s, for example, there were many analyses on how these populations had internalised the domination they were undergoing. In practice, the mobilisations in Syria went through decentralised and anonymous modalities that made it possible to circumvent the repressive practices of the regime. But the difficulty stemmed from the fact that the repressive techniques were generally aimed at preventing communication and coordination. Social networks and media such as Al Jazeera played a decisive role in this respect. But even more importantly, the example of other countries provided spaces for debate where opinions that everyone had avoided saying out loud could in fact be expressed. Thus, in Syria, images of Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan demonstrations replaced football matches in cafés and family homes from January-February 2011. Everyone started talking about politics, which represented a form of protest in a regime that punished people who dared speak out against the president and that prohibited the meeting of three people in the public space, as a way to prevent the beginning of any movement. In fact, when, in March 2011, the protests became massive, it had been several weeks since the Syrians had begun, through subversive forms, to protest. It is in these micro-actions and with the example of the fall of Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak, that the unconceivable has become conceivable.

How can you explain that demonstrations remained peaceful for months despite a violent repression by Bashar al-Assad’s regime?

Demonstrations remained peaceful at first, as the people who challenged the regime followed the non-violent imaginaire that characterised the Arab Spring in 2011. As they had been making the analogy for years between the Arab presidents, and since Ben Ali and Mubarak had fallen, many imagined the inevitable fall of Bashar al-Assad, all the more so as the intervention in Libya against the Gaddafi regime raised hopes of an intervention in Syria that would put an end to the repression. Additionally, demonstrators did not belong to a political party and were therefore not organised. They lacked the means to wage an armed struggle. Faced with the repression of the processions, the protesters improvised forms of organisation, and in particular an order service that summarily armed itself (with sticks for instance) to confront the militias that the regime sent them. The movement obtained weapons when units of the Syrian army mutinied, as the army did not in fact have the means to effectively suppress the demonstrations that were multiplying throughout the country. The collapse of some army units forced the regime to concentrate on the vital axes for survival, the major cities and main roads, leading to the withdrawal of the army from a large part of the country. It is in these areas that mutineers, people wanted by the Syrian secret services, or demonstrators who now believed that only armed struggle could bring down the regime took refuge, organised, and armed themselves.

You refer to the life stories of three women who took an active role in the revolution and who, because of these actions, went through “biographical breaks/ruptures” that were more important than those of men. The three women you cite are part of upper, or urban social classes and their engagement does not seem to be one of taking arms. Have you been able to identify the ideological reasons—or others—that would exclude women, generally, from taking part in the fight?

First of all, it is necessary to mention that we were able to speak to very few women. But these few women who agreed to talk to us told us about the very significant changes in their lives as a result of the demonstrations and their involvement in the civil institutions that resulted from them. The excellent documentary "For Sama" provides a very good illustration of these "biographical ruptures". Women participating in the fighting were very much in the minority: however, there are a few cited as examples in the Syrian uprising, and there were far more women's units on the side of the Kurdish PYD.

But, in general, women who were heavily involved in the 2011 protests found themselves marginalised during the transition to civil war. This is a logic that can be found in almost all armed conflicts, even in the cases of El Salvador or Colombia where armed movements recruit women. This is evident in the case of Islamist movements calling for women to be confined to the domestic sphere, but it is also evident in Marxist movements which, despite the involvement of women in the organisation, reproduce or, at best, allow gender inequalities to persist.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI

Photo: City of Homs, Syria. Copyright: Shutterstock

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