Welcome To Another Episode of “Reality Is Complicated”

One of the best things I’ve read so far on the Syria civil war is actually this short, introductory blog post by Max Fischer in the Washington Post. He presents an astounding map of ethnic groups in the Syrian region:

I’m getting the feeling the coast is a bit more cosmopolitan.

Even if you’ve read a lot about the ethnic tensions in Syria, that map seriously hammers home the complexity of the situation. Then he presents two ways of thinking about this map, which is the part I really like:

The first is what you might call the Fareed Zakaria case for why Syria is imploding (he didn’t invent this argument but is a major proponent). Zakaria starts with the premise that Syria, like many other Middle Eastern (and African) countries, has highly artificial borders that were created by European colonial powers. Those powers also tended to promote a minority and rule through it. This tactic badly exacerbated some preexisting sectarian tensions. It also forced countries into unsustainable power imbalances, with minorities ruling over majorities. That’s not actually how Assad came into power — his father seized it in a coup — but Zakaria’s thesis is that what we’re seeing in Syria is in some ways the inevitable re-balancing of power along ethnic and religious lines, with the Sunni Arab majority retaking control from the Alawite minority. He compares the situation to post-2003 Iraq, when members of the Shiite majority violently took power from the Sunni minority that, under Saddam Hussein, had ruled them. That would explain why so much of the killing in Syria has been along sectarian lines. It would also suggest that there’s not much anyone can do to end the killing because, in his view, this is a painful but unstoppable process.

The other way to look at this is that it’s a war first and a sectarian conflict second. Religious and ethnic antagonisms have been around for many, many generations in the Levant, including Syria. Maybe what’s happening is that the war began for political reasons — people protesting dictatorship, the dictatorship overreaching in suppressing those protests by force, things spiraling out of control until it’s civil war — but that the fighting is causing people to retreat to sectarian identities and antagonisms, to make the old divisions deeper and more vicious.

I like the second case Fischer is making here (though as I mentioned earlier, Zakaria is making a lot of sense here, too). We have a tendency to over-explain and under-understand violence by referring to ethnic identities. It’s a simple way of thinking that we instinctually grasp: oh, right, those guys are fighting these guys because of racial hatred. Usually, however, I find that the ethnic conflict is really a mask put on some deeper political, resource, class or power conflict. Socialists and other lefties like myself have a tendency to ignore ethnic and cultural tensions and look for the “real” conflicts beneath them. This is often a good strategy, but we need to be aware that other things are always going on as well.

That’s why I like Fischer’s second explanation. It reminds me of some research by, among others, Clifford Stott which I was checking out a year or two ago. He does research into crowd psychology during riots. It seems intuitively very sound, and seems to better predict what happens during demonstrations:

Their study suggested that during the early stages of a demonstration against a new form of taxation, participants’ collective identity was defined in terms of non-violence and differentiation from those understood to be seeking disorder. However, the police held a view of the crowd based upon “classic” theory. Therefore, a small sit-down protest during the demonstration led the police to see the crowd as being “whipped up” by a small band of extremists and therefore beginning an inevitable slide toward “disorder”. In order to try to restore control, the police then drove into the crowd using relatively undifferentiated force (e.g. baton charges). Such indiscriminately coercive tactics changed the inter-group context for the crowd. Consequently, demonstrators redefined their collective identity in terms of the illegitimacy of their inter-group relationships with the police. This in turn led to a widely shared understanding among demonstrators of the legitimacy of conflict with the police and shared psychological group membership with those prepared to confront them. The redefined psychological unity of demonstrators also led directly to a sense of collective empowerment which meant that conflict with the police was not just seen as legitimate but also possible social action.

The blog Mind Hacks has another good way of putting Stott’s research:

Imagine you’ve just got on a bus. It’s full of people and you have to jam into an uncomfortable seat at the back. There are people going to work, some vacant students heading home after a night on the beers, some annoying teenagers playing dance music through their tinny mobile phone speakers and some old folks heading off to buy their groceries.

You’re late and you missed your train. You feel nothing in common with anyone on the bus and, to be honest, those teenagers are really pissing you off.

Suddenly, two of the windows smash and you realise that a group of people are attacking the bus and trying to steal bags through the broken windows.

Equally as quickly, you begin to feel like one of a group. A make-shift social identity is formed (‘the passengers’) and you all begin to work together to fend off the thieves and keep each other safe.

You didn’t lose your identity, you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.

I suspect that something similar is happening in Syria. Under violent pressure and fears of post-victory genocides, people are gaining or strengthening collective identities along ethnic lines, aligning with people with whom they suddenly have a clear and present external foe against. This kind of regression to isolated communities is dangerous not just for the cohesion of the rebel movement, but for any hope of a peaceful postwar Syria. Whatever the international community does, I suspect that an important part of it has to be giving all the ethnic groups in Syria know that they will be protected against genocide in some way.

  1. Laura Cole said:

    Really interesting insight into the psychology of the dialogue today.

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