The Struggle for Syria's Regions

by Kheder Khaddour , Kevin Mazur
published in MER269

In August 2013, as the United States was preparing to attack Syria over the use of chemical weapons, a chant echoed through ‘Alawi areas of Homs: “Strike, strike, buddy, we want to loot Tel Aviv” (idrab idrab ya habib, bidna n’affish Tall Abib). The couplet draws on a familiar position in Baathist discourse -- resistance to the American-Zionist project for the region -- but the means of resistance it espouses departs from the standard of national sacrifice in favor of something far more local. The term for looting, ‘afsh, is slang that comes from a word for furniture. After regime air strikes in 2012 destroyed many Sunni-majority districts of Homs and displaced their inhabitants, the pro-regime gangs known as shabbiha set about gathering the goods of their neighbors to sell in “Sunni markets.” [1] The actors on the two sides of this looter-looted divide largely array along sectarian lines, though not entirely -- Christian and Sunni shabbiha can be found in Homs as well as ‘Alawi ones. The implication of the regime supporters’ chants was that Syrians would do in Tel Aviv what shabbiha had done to their former neighbors. Those shouting these words were, in effect, redeploying the symbols of their local victory, a victory against fellow Syrians, to make sense of the threats they face on a world scale. Cynical wordplay is not the exclusive province of regime supporters. In areas of the northern Idlib province outside the government’s control, the term shawwal has come into use. Deriving from a word for bags of grain, to shawwal means to kidnap or arrest someone.

The rancorous sectarian battles in Homs and ongoing fighting in the country’s north contrast sharply with the peaceful processions of Syrians from all backgrounds demonstrating for political and economic change at the beginning of the uprising. The central demands of the protesters were that the Syrian people be united based on membership in a single political community and that the actions of the government reflect the interests of all. Claims by the regime and some of its opponents that the demonstrators had divisive agendas were met throughout the country with a chant insisting that “the Syrian people are one.” These demonstrations were remarkable because they remained, in locations like Darayya and Homs, non-violent for months after brutal state repression and increasingly violent exchanges became the norm in other areas of the country. Syrians from various confessional backgrounds came together to press their demands, regardless of the steadfast support of many communal leaders for the regime. For example, Patriarch Hazim, the late leader of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, reproduced the discourse of the regime in the wake of early demonstrations. In an April 2011 speech, the patriarch of the country’s largest Christian denomination remarked: “Safety and security in Syria, our country, is the standard and criterion. The decisions of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad are taken in pursuit of safety and security and continual reform.” [2]

A facile reading of the uprising would suggest that the rupture in Syrian history occurred when violent exchanges between the regime and its challengers became widespread and self-sustaining. That reading is certainly correct in terms of the level of overt violence, but the decisive break with sedimented patterns of social life and governance in Syria came with the occurrence of peaceful demonstrations. Syrians turned out to the early protests without fear of being dealt with on the basis of subnational identifications and encountered others who were thinking the same way. Several younger Syrians interviewed for this article made the same comment immediately upon being asked about the early demonstrations: “For the first time in my life, I felt Syrian.” There have certainly been moments of strong identification with the Syrian nation before, with wars against Israel producing particularly strong sentiments. What is remarkable about the early 2011 demonstrations is that they produced a national sentiment based not merely on a common external enemy but on common membership in a single political community.

By the summer of 2012, a year after protests began, the ruthless attacks on demonstrators and stubborn will of the regime to militarize the uprising finally prevailed. Multi-ethnic crowds pressing for non-violent change became scarce. The extended sieges upon Homs, Douma, Tall Kalakh and parts of Dar‘a province became the rule. Consequently, concern for survival and local exigencies returned to the fore. For all the violence of the latest phase of the Syrian uprising, it is this current period that exhibits the greatest continuity with the pre-revolutionary patterns of Syrian social and political life. Events conspired to drag the uprising back onto the regime's home turf -- the politics of region.

A Syrian’s region is the milieu in which he or she grows up, a safe haven. The Arabic term for this concept, hadina, comes from the root meaning “to embrace.” It refers to the site of a person’s formative experiences of ethnicity, religion and sect, as well as simple comforts of home, like distinctive foods, music and accents. Yet hadina is far more than just a set of anodyne cultural practices. It has been critical for governing modern Syria, with ruler and ruled arriving at a general accommodation during the Baath Party’s 40 years in power; local leaders and culture remained sacrosanct in exchange for surrender of the localities’ voice in high politics.

Much of the debate surrounding Syria’s descent into civil war has centered on sectarianism. It has become common for pundits to prognosticate that Syria will break up into rump states defined by sect, such as a coastal “Alawistan” and an interior “Sunnistan.” [3] Sectarian discourse and behavior undoubtedly are central to the contemporary struggle for Syria, yet sectarian identification is not a free-floating concept. To assess how a given Syrian experiences and uses his or her sectarian identification, sect must be situated in a broader set of social relations that emerge from his or her subnational region -- or more precisely, the place of his or her family’s origin. The Syrian regime has survived odds many thought to be insurmountable due to its knowledge of and ability to manipulate region in this way.

Region and State Power

Why is Hafiz al-Asad buried in Qardaha?

There are two prominent theories of Syria’s ruling group: It is alternately said to be a populist, rurally based regime seizing the birthright of the old landed classes and simply a gang of minority soldiers who captured the state apparatus. Both characterizations suggest that the Baathist elite claimed ownership of Damascus. Hafiz al-Asad’s biography suggests the same thing: He spent the great majority of his adult life in Damascus and took pains to align his image with the notion of a powerful Syrian state centered in the capital. Official publications variously refer to Asad as “builder of modern Syria” (bani Suriya al-hadith), “lion of the Arabs” (asad al-‘arab, playing on the fact that his family name means “lion”) and “father leader” (al-ab al-qa’id). Whatever biases motivated the state’s everyday practices, they did not make their way into Baathist rhetoric, which was always national and explicitly non-sectarian. Hafiz al-Asad regularly employed Gamal Abdel Nasser’s famous turn of phrase describing Damascus as the “beating heart of Arabism.” Similarly, a generation after the breakup of the United Arab Republic, the 1958-1961 union of Syria and Egypt, Syria continued to be referred to in official Baath Party rhetoric as the “Syrian Arab Region” (of the Arab nation).

In the end, however, Asad was buried not in Damascus but in his hometown of Qardaha, a predominantly ‘Alawi village in the mountains above the Mediterranean shores. The choice of location is particularly striking in comparison with the Arab leader whose personal history and self-presentation most closely track those of Asad, former Egyptian President Abdel Nasser. Like Asad, Nasser hailed from his country’s periphery, participated in a military coup against an old regime, outfoxed his co-conspirators to ascend to power and styled himself the father of the nation. Yet Nasser was laid to rest in the state’s administrative center, Cairo.

Why did Asad elect to be buried hundreds of miles from the administrative center he spent his adult life constructing? One explanation for the contradiction is that, like Nasser, he was buried in his country’s seat of power. Whereas Nasser captured the center and ruled from it, Asad’s power emanated from support within his own region and his ability to manage Syria as a system of regions. The burial of Hashim al-Atasi in Homs suggests that this interpretation is quite plausible. Twice president of pre-Baathist Syria and nicknamed the “father of the republic,” al-Atasi returned to his hometown of Homs in his later years. Likewise, burying Hafiz al-Asad in Qardaha was a means of signaling the rootedness of the personage of the president in his region.

The regime’s rootedness in its region gives lie to the notion, held by many Syrians and outside experts alike, that it is an exclusively or preferentially ‘Alawi regime. The state employs a disproportionate number of ‘Alawis in the bureaucracy, police and armed forces, but this fact is not prima facie evidence of a sectarian strategy. Indeed, some of the most visible privileged segments of society are ‘Alawi, but the regime has played a subtle game of balancing and securing the interests of other segments; the general quiescence of the Sunni business classes of Aleppo and Damascus during the uprising is clear evidence of this fact. Moreover, affirming the region by burying Hafiz al-Asad in Qardaha is something different from merely affirming the religious sect -- if ‘Alawi solidarity was as ironclad as it is often made out to be, and ‘Alawis were bent on maximizing their hold on the country, they would have planted their flag, so to speak, with a memorial in central Damascus. The burial of Hafiz al-Asad in his hometown indicates that dynamics of power, however sectarian they may make head counts for the military and civil service, operate at a level below the sect as a unified entity.

One might object that burying Asad in his birthplace was a simple emotional decision. But Asad’s choice to bury his oldest son Basil, whose death preceded his own by six years, in Qardaha casts doubt on this proposition. Born and raised in Damascus, Basil al-Asad was a creature of Baathist central power. Known as the “golden knight” (al-faris al-dhahabi) and “the lion cub” (shibl al-asad, again playing on the family name), he was groomed to succeed his father as president. By burying Basil in Qardaha, Hafiz al-Asad signaled that however accustomed the family might become to the capital, its wellspring is its region. The appellation used after his death, “Basil, our example” (basil mithaluna), perhaps unwittingly underscores this point. The intent of this slogan may have been, innocently enough, to exalt a fallen member of the ruling family, but its subtext is revealing -- the family’s example to the Syrian people is that when the chips are down, it returns to its region.

The Asads are not the only ones taking region seriously in Syria -- it is the primary basis on which the state deals with its subjects. There is no clearer evidence than the phenomenon of the personal identity card. Issued by the central government to every Syrian, the ID card must be carried at all times and is the first thing any state official will demand from a person, for anything from registering property to passing through a checkpoint or submitting to arbitrary search. (Until April 2011, the state issued no cards to the several hundred thousand Kurdish Syrians whose citizenship, or that of their parents, was stripped in a rash of Arab nationalist fervor in 1962. Bashar al-Asad’s first concession following the outbreak of protests was to restore citizenship to this population.)

Like any national identity card, the Syrian ID displays the bearer’s name, address, date of birth and national ID number alongside a photograph and a bar code. In addition, however, it contains two lines of peculiar administrative data: security directorate (imana) and place of registration (qayd). The country is divided up into dozens of security directorates, which are in turn subdivided into places of registration. These two lines on the card thus give the inquiring official a quick indication of a person’s regional identification. The place of registration also furnishes information about ethnicity and, for some areas, social class. The qayd and imana lines are assigned at birth and do not change with the address line if the cardholder relocates. And they often do not refer to where the cardholder was born, but to a father or grandfather’s village or neighborhood of origin.

A credulous person might attribute the presence of obscure administrative designations on the card to official desire for precision or expeditious routine. Yet between the address, the national ID number and the bar code, a civil servant already has plenty of information about a petitioner, certainly more than is conveyed by vague classifications like qayd and imana. The real work done by these lines is in places where databases and bureaucrats are scarce; they make Syrians legible to any and all agents of the state, including police officers at checkpoints. This legibility includes, first and foremost, judging whether a person “belongs” in a particular social milieu. A person outside his or her region without a clear reason for being in that region (excepting major sites of migration and commerce like Damascus and Aleppo) would invite the suspicion of authorities. One interview subject whose qayd is Bab al-Suba‘, a district in Homs that has experienced intense fighting and regime shelling, grew up far removed from this neighborhood. Once fighting began, however, he faced far more intense scrutiny at checkpoints when traveling around Damascus and to neighboring cities. The first thing authorities need to know about Syrians is where they are from, and the identity card is their primary tool for finding out.

The practice of registering ancestral place of origin allows the state to retain information on its subjects’ backgrounds that would otherwise be rendered invisible by migration and social mixing. The exceptional case, where a child is registered in the family’s place of residence, proves the rule. A woman of ‘Alawi background interviewed for this article was born and raised in Damascus, near the traditional Sunni merchant stronghold of Midan. Her father, a general in the secret service born and raised in Tartous, cleared the administrative hurdles to have her registered in Midan to make her identity ambiguous. The daughter recalled her father telling her she would thank him one day for changing her place of registration. When the daughter’s army general husband was killed in the fighting, she moved to Tartous with her young children. It is technically inaccurate to describe this woman’s travails as a “return” to her region, both because of her official registration in Damascus and because she had never resided in Tartous until after 2011. Such is the strength of the regional system, however, that Tartous became for her a base.

The utter irrelevance of personal information to the actual work done by the identity card creates a grim contrast with the card’s popular name, the “personal identity” (huwiya shakhsiyya). There is nothing personal about a tool for sorting people based on region.

Regions of Kurds, A Kurdish Region

Perhaps the one group for whom state policy has actually decreased regional divisions is the Kurds. Subject to discrimination in matters both symbolic, like the refusal to acknowledge their identity claims, and quotidian, such as abysmal public goods provision, Syria’s Kurdish population was drawn together by the callousness and incompetence of the Baathist state.

Originally, Syria’s Kurdish population hails from three distinct geographical and cultural regions in the northern part of the country. The Kurds from around the town of ‘Afrin, to the northeast of Aleppo, live in verdant mountains. Because Kurds in this area have historically been smallholding farmers and villagers, the ties binding extended families are relatively loose and family strictures, especially control over unmarried women, are considered weaker than in other Kurdish communities. Some 60 miles to the east, also in the Aleppo countryside, is the Kurdish community of Kobani. (State policy Arabized this town’s name in the 1980s to ‘Ayn al-‘Arab, meaning the “spring of the Arabs.” The running joke among residents is that the town has neither Arabs nor a spring.) Here, just east of the Euphrates River, the land is flat and dry and historically the means of livelihood was pastoralism. The extended family structures social life and exercises greater control related to family honor over women. Hundreds of miles farther to the east is the Jazira region and its major city, Qamishli. The physical environment is harsh and social relations operate on extended family lines, though to a lesser extent than in Kobani. Unlike the other two regions, however, the Jazira is not homogeneously Kurdish. Sunni Arabs as well as many different Christian denominations live interspersed between Kurdish settlements.

Twenty years ago, despite enduring the same cultural discrimination and paltry public services, the three Kurdish regions were hardly connected to one another. The first experience a Kurd would typically have with a Kurd from another region would be at university or in the military, and he or she would be equally likely to feel distance as solidarity due to the regions’ dissimilar dialects and customs. Owing to these differences and the absence of a sense of shared interests, few networks existed between the regions, whether for arts, commerce or political organization. The major political conflicts for the Kurdish communities during the 1990s and early 2000s were also regional -- the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based its resistance to the Turkish state in the Kobani and ‘Afrin regions, while Iraqi Kurds resistant to Saddam Hussein’s regime were organized in the Jazira region.

In 2004, a conflict that began with anti-Kurdish taunting at a soccer match escalated to a full-blown uprising in Qamishli, where Kurdish demonstrators attacked Baath Party buildings and pulled down a statue of Hafiz al-Asad. The government reprisal left more than 30 civilians dead, provoking outrage and solidarity rallies in the ‘Afrin and Kobani regions. This incident is a watershed event in Syrian Kurdish history because it sharply heightened a sense of “linked fate” among Kurds of the three regions: Kurds saw other Kurds being persecuted for being Kurds. [4]

The popular uprising in 2011 saw consistent, major demonstrations in several prominent Kurdish towns, including Qamishli. Yet the reaction of the state differed from both its actions in Qamishli in 2004 and its response to protests in other parts of the country. Whereas activists in Homs and Dar‘a, for example, faced live fire, the extent of the state’s response in Qamishli and the nearby town of ‘Amouda was to impose crowd control procedures and arrest some of the demonstrators. Additionally, interviews with activists indicated that in many Kurdish cities, two protests would take place at the same time: a small demonstration using national slogans and a larger one making demands specific to the Kurdish population. The protests advancing Kurdish demands brought little reaction from authorities, while activists raising the national demands faced harassment and detention similar to that faced by demonstrators in any other Syrian city. These police practices were accompanied by a change in official policy, the restoration of citizenship to hundreds of thousands of stateless Kurdish Syrians.

What does the Syrian regime’s about-face on Kurdish issues say about the relationship between identity and political power in Syria? While the regime once viewed Kurdish identity as a threat, it now sees a tool with which to delink the fates of various Syrians demanding a change in the nature of the political community.

This principle applies even within the Kurdish population; the regime’s actions since mid-2012 suggest that it still seeks to deal with Kurds in terms of their regions. On July 18, 2012, the regime unilaterally withdrew most of its soldiers and bureaucrats from the ‘Afrin and Kobani regions and part of Jazira, effectively leaving local leaders and the PKK’s affiliate, the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD), to administer these areas without a fight. [5] Interviews conducted for this article confirmed a different dynamic in Qamishli and those parts of the Jazira region that produce much of Syria’s oil and have a diverse population. There, police became less visible on the street following the withdrawal from the other regions, but the regime maintained a presence in security service branches and kept tight control over the regional airport and oil operations. Rather than conclude a deal with the PYD to administer all Kurdish areas similarly -- or incorporate Kurdish civilians and fighters alike into national institutions -- the regime has deployed Kurdishness as an identity boundary to help manage its regions. In the Aleppo countryside, where the interests of Kurdish groups conveniently align with those of the regime, against those of radical Sunni Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the regime has allowed the PYD nearly full autonomy. Where its greater interest is maintaining extractive capacity, as in Qamishli, it negotiates a strikingly different bargain. By using Kurdish identity to foment division in regions that it cannot control outright, the Syrian regime has taken lemons of its own cultivation -- Kurdish resentment and solidarity -- and concocted a marginally less sour tonic: the perpetuation of its regional system.

Region and Sectarian Power

The Syrian state has fashioned region into a tool for governance, but not out of whole cloth. The concept is woven into the social fabric of Syria. Contemporary dynamics of political power in al-Bab and Manbij, two small cities in part of the Aleppo countryside, underscore the centrality of region in Syrian social organization. About 30 miles apart, both cities are outside the regime’s control and are actively opposing radical groups like ISIS. Yet each is ruled by a separate local council.

Given their similar orientations to both the Syrian regime and radical opposition groups and their shared Sunni identity, it is curious that these two cities are not coordinating their activities and are not ruled by a unified government. When one scratches the surface of the Aleppo countryside’s Sunni, anti-regime veneer, however, the political separation of Manbij and al-Bab is far less surprising. The residents of Manbij are ethnically diverse, including Kurds, Arabs and Circassians, and many practice Naqshbandi Sufism. Historically, political and social life in Manbij was organized along tribal lines. Sheikhs of the largest Manbij tribes served, until the past decade, as intermediaries between average citizens and the state. Security forces were nearly absent from the street and, though police would deal with petty crime, serious grievances were left for tribal leaders to resolve. Owing to the tribal and ethnically mixed population and social structure, the milieu in which Manbijis grow up is substantially more diverse and open than one might expect in a peripheral Sunni city. In al-Bab, by contrast, a more homogeneous Arab population practices mainline Sunni Islam, with Sufi groups far less prominent. Social life was historically organized around several important extended families, but central state police handled both petty and major crime and state security maintained a much stronger presence in the town. Cultural homogeneity contributed to a closed, overtly religious milieu in al-Bab.

These historical patterns have contemporary manifestations; interviews with residents of Manbij and al-Bab confirmed that while women in Manbij can regularly be observed walking with their hair uncovered, wearing pants is considered a transgression in al-Bab, and leaving one’s hair uncovered is out of the question. Residents of al-Bab have started calling their city “Little Azhar,” referring to Egypt’s al-Azhar University. The connotation of the nickname is that both places are distinctively Sunni Muslim sites (with the fact that the Egyptian Azhar was founded by the Isma‘ili Shi‘i Fatimid dynasty apparently lost on proponents of the appellation).

These social differences between regions played into the Baath’s strategy of securing political compliance by empowering local leaders. The Syrian state of the 1960s had not thoroughly penetrated the Aleppo countryside and, rather than attempt a major project to uproot the tribes and families organizing society, Baathist regimes allowed these intermediaries wide latitude over the area’s inhabitants. A popular saying in the region reflects the pervasiveness of this practice: “Give loyalty and do as you wish” (i‘ti wala’ wa if‘al ma tusha’). This system of intermediaries placed Aleppo in a position of power vis-à-vis its periphery, spurring competition among various outlying areas for access to government services and patronage. Interview subjects from both towns repeatedly cited Hikmat Shihabi, the former army chief of staff who hails from al-Bab, as a reason people from al-Bab generally received better services and got more public-sector jobs than Manbijis. Now that both cities are outside regime control, the head has been cut off of the center-periphery system. The acephalous nature of the present situation has not, however, ameliorated divisions between the various parts of the countryside, and this fact is reflected in the separate administration and rule of Manbij and al-Bab.

Differences between the internal dynamics of Manbij and al-Bab demonstrate that sectarian identification is neither a sufficient condition for inter-regional solidarity nor a necessary condition for social boundary creation. Moreover, years of Baathist rule elevated local leaders whose power is rooted in tribal and family patterns of social organization, making prospects for solidarity even more remote. Even if a new ideology generating stronger affective commitment than traditional forms of religious practice -- such as the ISIS esprit de corps -- were to sweep the Aleppo countryside, it would have little cultural material, beyond its own dubious content, to draw on in forging stronger ties between towns like Manbij and al-Bab. No ideology is forceful enough to remake a region’s customs and traditions root and branch, so the alliances entered into by groups with relatively dissimilar forms of social organization are likely to last only as long as the groups’ interests converge.

Because Sunni Arabs are the numerical majority in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is not surprising to find non-religious boundaries, like those in Manbij and al-Bab, taking precedence. Conventional wisdom says that minorities, by contrast, have internal cohesion and, in fact, depend on it for communal survival. The ‘Alawis, comprising around a tenth of Syria’s population and lacking long-standing external links like their Christian counterparts, should therefore be the minority community par excellence in Syria. Yet even in the areas populated primarily by ‘Alawis, regional identifications often take precedence over sectarian ones. Nationalist symbols meant to bridge divisions between these regions are often quite precarious.

Located on the Mediterranean coast and historically majority ‘Alawi, Tartous is the one major city in Syria that has been almost entirely spared in the combat. It is more homogeneously ‘Alawi than neighboring Latakia and witnesses frequent pro-regime demonstrations trumpeting the unity of the Syrian nation. Yet Tartous is not some sectarian stronghold, as the purveyors of “Alawistan” fantasies might imagine. It is currently a refuge for well-to-do Syrians of many religious and ethnic backgrounds from the fighting in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. [6] Thus, at first glance, the national identity emerging in Tartous appears to be the clearest exception to the pattern of regionalism in Syria, a peculiar cosmopolitan Baathism that vacillates between naked ‘Alawi sectarianism and incorporation of the regime’s beneficiaries, regardless of confessional background.

Yet the contrast between the tranquil sectarian relations of Tartous and the fierce battles in nearby Homs suggests that even the Syrian nationalism in Tartous is rooted in local concerns. The Syrian regime responded violently to peaceful protests in Homs from their very beginning in March 2011. The crackdown ignited latent tensions between ‘Alawis and Sunni Muslims -- both scions of the city’s old classes and new arrivals from the countryside. The ‘Alawis of Homs are themselves mostly newcomers, migrating to the city after the founding of the Baathist state in the 1960s. Their power in the city emanates from their proximity to state power. The fighting that began in May 2011 has occurred largely along sectarian lines and exacted a heavy toll on both communities. The regime’s merciless bombing campaign reduced many Sunni neighborhoods to rubble and fighting drove thousands on both sides from their homes. [7] Interviews conducted in early 2012 with ‘Alawi fighters indicated that nearly all those fighting unofficially on the regime side were from Homs.

If the ferocity of the fighting indicates the magnitude of the threat felt by both sides of the conflict in Homs, it creates a puzzle for the peddlers of conventional wisdom: If ‘Alawis have a deep primordial solidarity, why did Homsi ‘Alawis flee to Tartous instead of asking their Tartousi co-religionists to come to their defense? The ‘afsh slogan heard when the US strike seemed imminent provides a clue. In spite of its venom, the chant cannot precisely be described as sectarian, for it draws on a boundary between the Sunnis and ‘Alawis of Homs, not of the whole country. The rise of a modern administrative state centered in Damascus and the siting of major military institutions, like an officers’ academy, in Homs created powerful actors to rival the city’s historically dominant Sunni landlord and business classes. The arrival en masse of ‘Alawis to fill remunerative civil service and security sector jobs exacerbated these tensions. The ‘afsh slogan evokes such strong feelings because of, not in spite of, its parochial quality; it emerges out of a set of local sectarian relations further polarized by the siege of the Sunni neighborhoods localized to the city itself. Thus, the Homsi ‘Alawi practice of looting is a foreign concept to Tartousi ‘Alawis. Because they were far removed from the tensions simmering in Homs before the uprising, Tartousi ‘Alawis did not initially see their fate as linked to the Homsis’ struggle for survival.

Rather than a sharp break with a history of ‘Alawi unity, to say nothing of Baathist national unity, the contrast between identities deployed in Homs and Tartous exposes a deep cleavage between regions that was covered over by a convergence of Homsi and Tartousi interests. Indeed, though ‘Alawis of the interior were employed by the state disproportionately to non-‘Alawis of the interior, the ‘Alawis of the coast historically occupied the most important and lucrative positions in the regime. [8]

These intra-sect fissures are not, for better or worse, insurmountable or immutable. The rancor of the conflict in Homs and elsewhere has undoubtedly stoked the sense of linked fate among ‘Alawis. [9] As horrific violence rooted in local conflicts but unfolding along sectarian lines racks the country, the deep solidarity of Syria’s preeminent “compact minority” may finally be transforming into a reality.

Ceiling of the Homeland

Just as events on the ground can transform identities, powerful actors can deploy various identities to accomplish their projects. Because national identity nominally encompasses all members of a political community, it is particularly useful for this purpose. Due to its catch-all nature, however, national identity is imprecisely defined and thus open to appropriation by actors with competing aspirations for the nation. Some characterize the French national identity, for example, as membership in a civic community with the goal of incorporating immigrants while others define it on a quasi-racial basis in order to exclude those same people.

So it is with the Syrian national identity. Before the uprising, the Syrian regime and non-state actors alike advanced multiple, conflicting concepts to define belonging in contemporary Syria. Each of the concepts builds upon some extant feature of Syrian society: an Islamic identity drawing on the Sunni history of places like Aleppo; a cosmopolitan cultural identity coming from artistic production in Damascus; a tribal Arab identity based on the Bedouin history of the northeast; a “cradle of civilizations” identity drawing on the country’s Christian heritage; a secular identity championed by the country’s minorities. These images are constructed primarily in Damascus, the center of Syrian political power and cultural production, and then projected onto the regions as the “Syrian national identity” with varying degrees of resonance. Foreign researchers and journalists, as well as many Syrians, often reproduce these constructed images when they decry the conflict’s distortion of the Syrian national identity -- as if the meaning of that term is transparent or universally agreed upon.

Asking whether a Syrian national identity is “authentic” makes as much sense as wondering whether Wrestlemania fills auditoriums because of the actors’ fidelity to their craft. What matters is the effect it has on its audience, the Syrian public. In contemporary Syria, a central function of national identity for both regime supporters and the opposition is to create a bridge between otherwise unlike groups and to wall off one’s opponents as traitors (takhwin). Slogans shared among opposition towns, for instance, point to experiences shared by the cities’ residents as Syrians facing a perfidious, self-interested regime. In these places, Syrians supporting the regime are said to be traitors. The mirror image of the treason/solidarity dyad appears on the coast in places like Tartous, where residents see themselves as Syrian patriots because they stand with Asad in the face of a conspiracy. Any region that does not stand with the coast is, according to this logic, treasonous.

The symbolic boundaries of the nation are, by their nature as symbols, porous. Short of outright defamation of the people as a whole or sabotage of shared resources, what counts as treachery is in the eye of the beholder. To appropriate this deference afforded the symbols of the nation, the regime developed the concept of “the ceiling of the homeland” (saqf al-watan). By the summer of 2011, once it was clear that the crisis would not abate, the Syrian regime began using the concept in offers of dialogue. It has continued in this vein, with the Foreign Ministry declaring in February 2013: “The doors of Damascus are open for a discussion with the opposition inside and outside, on Syrian soil under the ceiling of the homeland, according to the program which the Syrian government has adopted.” The height of the ceiling -- what falls inside the space of permitted discussion about Syria’s future -- remains unspecified, but the term’s implication is clear enough to Syrians: Bashar al-Asad, in both his personage and his role in government, is the ceiling of the homeland. The spatial metaphor is telling. Not only does the “ceiling” place someone -- Bashar -- above the homeland, it adds another, constraining dimension to the space that counts as national. A home needs a roof, and giving Bashar al-Asad the job is an attempt to delimit the set of political futures that a loyal Syrian might suggest for his or her political community.

One could easily think that the Syrian regime is intentionally vague about the “ceiling of the homeland” to make Asad’s persistence look consensual and therefore legitimate. Yet the ceiling concept has been used more to deflect the question of rightful domination than to answer it. The most common opposition demand, by far, since the uprising began in 2011 has been the fall of the regime. In no speech, however, have regime officials allowed the possibility of a political future that does not involve Bashar al-Asad. And in an October 21, 2013 interview with the Al Mayadeen TV channel, the president stated that he saw no reason why he should not run in the 2014 election. The “ceiling of the homeland” and its ambiguous link to Bashar relieve the regime of the need to discuss future political scenarios. They are keen to avoid such conversations, so as not to expose that the regime is even thinking about the possibility of Asad’s downfall. The cultivated air of invincibility, or at least inevitability, is reminiscent of strategies of regime management central to Syrians’ submission to Asad’s rule. [10]

In this sense, the “ceiling of the homeland” is a symbolic tool for casting Bashar al-Asad as the country’s patriarch, on the model of his father. According to this image, Bashar is ruling not to enrich himself and his family, but simply because it is best for the country. Suggestions to the contrary are nonsensical rather than threatening. This notion finds support in the nickname “Abu Hafiz,” father of Hafiz. Bestowed on Bashar al-Asad because his son is called Hafiz, it is evocative of his own father’s legacy. Though it had previously circulated among supporters informally, the moniker was thrust into the public sphere as adoring crowds began to chant it when the president concluded his address to the nation at Damascus University in June 2012. By greeting the crowds chanting this slogan, the president signaled his tacit approval of the imagery.

In placing Bashar al-Asad above the disputes between members of the nation, the “ceiling of the homeland” concept puts him in trusteeship of the Syrian nation on behalf of its members. A trustee understands the best interests of his or her beneficiaries better than they do themselves, and is thus justified in acting contrary to the beneficiaries’ protestations. Trusteeship, by its very nature, implies not popular legitimacy but administration from outside. This formulation is utterly disconnected from the rhetoric of economic and political liberalization adopted by the regime in the years immediately before the uprising. It evokes an earlier period of Baathist rule when the personage of Hafiz al-Asad was a towering symbol of central power, exposing the continuities in the regime’s response with older patterns of rule. The symbols the regime has drawn on to combat the uprising make clear the magnitude of the rupture in patterns of political life entailed by the demands of the peaceful demonstrators.

Region and the Future

The intricacies of the Syrian regime’s self-presentation may be lost on local administrators and average Syrians alike in places outside of regime control and cut off from their historical centers, like Manbij and al-Bab. Each of these cities has become a locus of activity, both for the struggle over political control and for quotidian matters like the delivery of water and electricity. The withering of the old administrative system and the self-organization of these communities speak to the fragility of the center of the regional system constructed by the Syrian Baathist regime -- and to the importance of regional divisions and local power in the structure of Syrian society.

The emerging local administrations, like those in Manbij or Kobani, fuel discussion of sectarian dismemberment of the country. Yet to conceive of the regions in sectarian terms is fundamentally to misunderstand not only the basis of Baathist rule of Syria but also the dynamics of the present conflict. Sectarian feeling has not been enough to bind Sunni Arabs of Manbij and al-Bab, and Syrians of various sectarian backgrounds continue to seek refuge in the ostensible ‘Alawi bastion of Tartous. If Syria ceases to exist as a unified territorial entity -- and that outcome is anything but assured -- division will either reflect the diversity within and social distance between regions or overturn the social structure in its entirety.

Dynamics of the uprising have brought this point into sharper focus. Dar‘awis are accorded great respect in opposition circles throughout the country simply for sharing a place of origin with the uprising. The international attention now focused on Syria has provoked a struggle between regions for recognition, as well. The tiny town of Kafr Anbal has been put on the map because its celebrated banners are signed not in the name of the country or Idlib province, but the town.

The Syrian regime’s militarization of the conflict and the subsequent escalation of the fighting, fueled by a multitude of actors, have set Syrians’ sights even more narrowly on their regions. The local focus is not a trait inherent in a timeless Syrian mentality, but the result of the daily struggle of most Syrians to provide for basic needs and bodily safety. It was preceded by sustained, peaceful demonstrations demanding a citizenship bargain -- clear evidence of a will to transcend the limitations imposed by region. Everyone interested in building a true Syrian citizenship compact would do well to amplify the voices calling for overcoming the regional system itself.

Authors’ Note: Thanks to Kevan Harris, Lisa Wedeen and Heiko Wimmen for their comments.


[1] Reuters, June 19, 2012.
[2] Al-Safir, April 26, 2011.
[3] See, for example, Robin Wright, “How Five Countries in the Middle East Could Become 14,” New York Times, September 28, 2013.
[4] The term “linked fate” comes from Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
[5] Hürriyet Daily News, July 25, 2012.
[6] Interviews conducted in Tartous in February 2013.
[7] Reuters, June 19, 2012.
[8] Aziz Nakkash, The Alawite Dilemma in Homs: Survival, Solidarity and the Making of a Community (Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Department for Middle East and North Africa, March 2013),
[9] Reuters, June 19, 2012; Human Rights Watch, “You Can Still See Their Blood”: Executions, Indiscriminate Shootings and Hostage Taking by Opposition Forces in Latakia Countryside (New York, October 2013).
[10] On this process during the presidency of Hafiz al-Asad, see Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

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