The surprising ways fear has shaped Syria’s war

Wendy Pearlman writes: As negotiations continue in Geneva, international observers and analysts struggle to comprehend the violence of the Syrian conflict. But how do Syrians themselves make sense of the horrors that have befallen their country? Since 2012, I have carried out open-ended interviews with more than 250 Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The people I meet vary by age, class and region, but the large majority oppose the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite their differences, I find that their individual stories coalesce into a clear collective narrative. This narrative highlights many themes, from hope to resilience to crushing disappointment with a world that has abandoned them. One of the most central themes, I argue in a new article for Perspectives on Politics, is the overwhelming role of fear in shaping the lived experience of politics. I identify four different types of fear, each of which has different sources and functions.

Syrians’ stories about life before 2011 call attention to a silencing fear that served as a pillar of the authoritarian regimes of Hafez al-Assad and then Bashar al-Assad. People consistently describe a political system in which those who had authority could abuse it limitlessly and those without power found no law to protect them. As one man explained: “We don’t have a government. We have a mafia. And if you speak out against this, it’s off with you to bayt khaltu — ‘your aunt’s house.’ That’s an expression that means to take someone to prison. It means, forget about this person. He’ll be tortured, disappeared. You’ll never hear from him again.” [Continue reading…]

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