The political geography of Syria’s war

Aron Lund interviews Fabrice Balanche, an assistant professor of geography at the Université Lyon 2 and the director of its Groupe de Recherches et d’Etudes sur la Méditerranée et le Moyen-Orient.

Lund: In the December 2011 edition of Outre-Terre, a French geopolitical journal, you wrote an article entitled “Géographie de la révolte syrienne.” It described a Syrian conflict predetermined by social and sectarian factors, with an armed opposition almost entirely rooted in the Sunni Arab majority population — particularly among disaffected social groups such as the rural poor — whereas minority and upper- and middle-class areas either remained passive or actively supported the president. It was one of the first comprehensive studies of the sectarian and socioeconomic dimensions of the conflict, published long before such arguments became commonplace in the media, at a time when both sides were still in complete denial about Syria’s sectarian problem. How did you arrive at these conclusions?

Balanche: I wasn’t surprised by the outbreak of crisis in Syria. Rather, I found it surprising that the country hadn’t exploded a few years earlier, given that its socioeconomic indicators were all in the red. There were social tensions related to poverty, territorial tension between the center and the periphery, and sectarian tension—and they all overlapped.

The 1991 Infitah, or economic opening, and the accelerated liberalizing reforms under President Bashar al-Assad created a social inequality that proved impossible to manage for Syria’s rigid bureaucracy, while simultaneously increasing sectarian frustrations, notably against the Alawites. The old Baathist system had by then been exhausted. Syria’s economy was in urgent need of some breathing space, but the young president could not turn Syria into a “tiger economy.” It would have challenged the entire system of power that had been methodically constructed by his father.

We therefore moved into a civil war that would quickly shatter Syria’s fragile sectarian coexistence, which had in the preceding years relied more and more on repression and less and less on the redistribution of Syria’s national wealth.

Lund: But why didn’t the mainstream media and political debate in the West pick up on these problems until much later?

Balanche: The media refused to see the Syrian revolt as anything other than the continuation of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, at a time of enthusiasm over the Arab Spring. Journalists didn’t understand the sectarian subtleties in Syria, or perhaps they didn’t want to understand; I was censored many times.

Syrian intellectuals in the opposition, many of whom had been in exile for decades, had a discourse similar to that of the Iraqi opposition during the U.S. invasion of 2003. Some of them honestly confused their own hopes for a nonsectarian society with reality, but others — such as the Muslim Brotherhood — tried to obfuscate reality in order to gain the support of Western countries.

In 2011–2012, we suffered a type of intellectual McCarthyism on the Syrian question: if you said that Assad was not about to fall within three months, you would be suspected of being paid by the Syrian regime. Members of the exile opposition’s Syrian National Council went on TV, one after the other, to assure us that the rare sectarian mishaps were all the work of Assad’s intelligence services, that the situation was under control, and that the Syrian National Council had a plan that would avert any risk of civil war. And with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs having taken up the cause of the Syrian opposition, it would have been in bad taste to contradict its communiqués. As Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot note in their new book, Les chemins de Damas: “it’s better to be as wrong as everyone else than to be right alone.”

Lund: Was the Syrian conflict influenced by sectarianism from the beginning or did the sectarian issues emerge later?

Balanche: From the beginning, the Syrian conflict was sectarian, social, and political. These three factors were interrelated, because sectarian divides are everywhere in Syria. The revolt started in an attempt to get rid of Assad, the state bureaucracy, the Baath Party, the intelligence services, and the general staff of the Syrian Arab Army. But all of these bodies are packed with Alawites, over 90 percent of whom work for the state.

You could follow the sectarian patterns across the map. In mixed Alawite-Sunni areas, the protests only took place in the Sunni areas. In Latakia, Banias, and Homs, the demonstrators clashed with Alawite counterdemonstrators. This pro-Assad mobilization was not simply organized by the government. Rather, it was part of the phenomenon of urban asabiyya (communal solidarity) that has been so well described by Michel Seurat in the case of Tripoli. In the Daraa Province, the population is almost exclusively Sunni and the demonstrations naturally spread — but they stopped right at the border of the Druze-populated Sweida Province, which did not sympathize with them at all. In Aleppo, the divisions were mainly social, between the well-to-do and poorer people, and between indigenous city dwellers and new arrivals from the countryside who lived in the slums. But the sectarian factor was present in Aleppo too, with Christians remaining staunchly pro-regime and the Kurds playing their own game, as we have seen with the autonomous cantons in Afrin, Ein al-Arab (Kobane), and Qamishli.

In the end, sectarianism began to overshadow the other parameters of the Syrian crisis. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “The political geography of Syria’s war

  1. Louis Proyect

    I am not surprised that Arun Lund would find this research amenable since he is a long-time associate of Joshua Landis, a scholar who always sought a solution in Syria that amounted to Assadism without Assad. The interview refers continuously to Baathist “control” of 50 to 60 percent of the population. In a society that imprisoned, tortured and murdered all opponents of the dictatorship, including activists who advocated non-sectarian politics, naturally it will be difficult to determine where control begins and ends. I suspect that Syria had much more in common with the rest of the Middle East and North Africa despite Balanche’s facile explanation of hardened sectarian divisions, which is not to say that the task of democratic change would have been simple. But at least it would have been possible.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Louis — Maybe the places where would most expect to find advocates of non-sectarian politics are in a sectarian environment.

    Much as Joshua Landis gets frequently slammed by a segment of Syria watchers, if his analyses over the past four years are judged on the basis of his predictions, he seems to have had a keener sense of the trajectory of the war than most other observers.

    Balanche has spent roughly 12 years living in Syria and Lebanon and I’m willing to credit him with having learned a thing or two during that period.

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