Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay, Civil War in Syria: Mobilization and Competing Social Orders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What led you to publish this book?
Adam Baczko (AB), Gilles Dorronsoro (GD), and Arthur Quesnay (AQ): The idea of doing research in Syria jelled in 2012. Having researched other civil wars, we saw processes develop in Syria similar to those we observed in our respective fields (processes of territorialization, institutionalization, politicization, internationalization). In particular, rumors in the press about the existence of a civil administration in the regions controlled by armed groups attracted our attention. In fact, in 2012, the former demonstrators, some of them having joined the nascent Free Syrian Army, set up local administrative bodies in charge of schools, hospitals, refuse collection, and a whole gamut of functions especially complicated to administer. Comparisons with Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo suggested that one of the processes peculiar to the Syrian insurgency was that the armed groups did not turn the territories under their control into fiefdoms, hence they allowed civil initiatives to develop.
Our first fieldwork venture in Northern Syria, lasting a month and a half at the turn of 2012-2013, convinced us that the existing interpretations of the 2011 revolution and the 2012 insurgency were largely incorrect. At the time, some researchers and journalists asserted that, from the start, the regime opponents were Sunni Arabs protesting against the monopoly on power of a minority (for example Fabrice Balanche, Donatella Della Porta or Fareed Zakaria). As it were, our interviews with participants in the first demonstrations in 2011, on the contrary, revealed a multicommunitarian makeup of the processions and universalist slogans. This continued to be the case as the year 2013 progressed. Frequently, the young revolutionaries would gather in the evening, singing and earnestly discussing the meaning of freedom or the way in which a free Syria ought to be governed.
The idea for the book imposed itself during the second fieldwork venture in the summer of 2013. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was assassinating and progressively seizing the most strategic positions, while Barack Obama at the last minute decided not to intervene after the Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. In Aleppo, with practically no outside help, the civil institutions linked to the insurrection succeeded in cleaning up the waste that threatened the city with a cholera epidemic in the spring. They organized elections and reopened schools and hospitals. In addition, the various courts were consolidated under the aegis of the Aleppo court, and a civilian police force had been started. However, in parallel, the lack of interest shown by Western countries, while regional powers, the Gulf countries, Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah increasingly involved themselves in the war, led to a confessionalization of the conflict. We therefore could observe several of our contact persons becoming radicalized. In late 2012, one of them boasted of setting up a multicommunitarian brigade at Latakia. When we saw him again in September 2013, he sang verses that called for urinating on the bodies of Alawites. This is when we decided to retrace the different stages in the Syrian revolutionary trajectory contra the discourses that smoothed its various turning points and which claimed, from a teleological perspective, that protesting the regime would necessarily lead to a confessional civil war.
Beyond that, we offer a comparative research perspective on the Syrian civil war. The list of questions that we distilled from fieldwork in the conflict zones is necessarily different from that of researchers who have worked on Syria from a long-term perspective. We shed specific theoretical light on the development of social capital, the organization of markets, identitarian processes and institution building in that kind of context. Comparing Syria with Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and the RDC is especially telling. In that sense, the work is also a call for comparatively researching civil wars.
What subjects and issues does the book approach?
AB, GD, AQ: The book proposes an analytical framework that takes into account the conflict’s different phases, the passage from a peaceful revolution by Syrians braving military repression and shouting universalist slogans to a civil war marked by escalating ethnic and confessional violence. This calls for answers to a series of complex questions. Why go into the streets when the regime violently suppresses all protest? Why does it react with that much violence to a peaceful demonstration? After analyzing the peaceful protests of 2011 and how they were repressed, we describe the emergence of the insurrection and its civil institutions (courts, city councils, external liaison). The protest movement that gave birth to the insurgency initially was unanimous and tended to include minorities in line with an essentially moral vision. The forming of politico-military groups starting in 2012-2013 broke with this inclusive logic. The insurrection would differentiate politically, with polarization between the most radical groups and those splitting off from the FSA growing. This politicization, fed from abroad, operated in two registers: various forms of political Islam, most notably that of the caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State, and the ethnic one in the case of the Kurdish enclaves governed by the Syrian branch of the PKK, the PYD. Finally, we analyse the effects of the war on Syrian society. What new identity and social hierarchies result from the generalized violence? How are the social trajectories of the Syrians caught up in the war affected? How does the war economy organize itself in a country divided between the regime, the insurrection, the PKK, and the Islamic State?
Which other works does it engage with?
AB, GD, AQ: The book relies on and widely discusses the extant copious and excellent literature on pre-war Syria. Actually, the 2011 revolution makes it possible to revisit a certain number of earlier hypotheses on the Syrian regime and society. In this respect, Bashar al-Assad taking power in 2000 marks a turning point, at least on the socioeconomic level. At the time, Syria specialists took note of a kind of implicit contract granting certain areas of society a degree of autonomy, including in the religious field. The dominant hypothesis, therefore, pointed towards a more indirect control and more targeted violence. It was possible to surmise that the regime had succeeded in becoming accepted and that the population would coproduce the power that ruled over it. The 2011 crisis a posteriori makes it possible to better understand how the Syrian regime functioned and demonstrates its failure to produce hegemonic relationships. In addition, the book engages in a critical discussion with the literature on civil wars. We use the Syrian case to examine the social transformations that occur in times of civil war, which relates to a very large body of literature dating back to the 1990s that discusses civil wars from a increasingly neopositivist perspective. This approach, which is now dominant in political science, is distinct by its partiality to rational choice theory (RCT), naturalization of research objects, limiting studied objects as a function of their statistical measurability and an epistemic closure that translates into a refusal to regard other paradigms as scientific. Our work proposes a different theoretical framework for thinking about societies in wartime that starts from sociological concepts.
The problem of access to the field and the fleeting nature of conflict must have presented real difficulty. How did you resolve it and what lessons did you draw from it for this type of research?
AB, GD, AQ: Our fieldwork involved traveling in the areas not controlled by Damascus. There, we conducted semi or non-directive interviews through interpreters, individually and in group settings. We further observed practices: front line organization, the functioning of civil institutions, social interactions, economic life. The Turkish-Syrian border was open and, with a letter from an insurrection leader in hand, we could introduce ourselves as researchers from the Sorbonne University. To protect our interviewees, we did not make recordings but two of us took extensive written notes during every interview. We generally were received quite openly; as might be expected, the most reticent groups were the radical Islamists. We only were allowed three interviews with Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, two of them with former members, and none in the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Lastly, we did fieldwork among the refugees and Syrian militants in Turkey and France, and Arthur Quesnay did the same in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. In contrast to other situations of civil war, the conversations were freely held, the criticisms of armed groups could be expressed publicly. The sole exception concerns the Islamic State in the summer of 2013 in the rebel-held zones in the North. Here, our interlocutors preferred to criticize this group—known for its mastery in organizing political assassinations—in private or outside Syria.
Our work has several limitations. We essentially collected our data in areas controlled by the insurgency, those held by the PYD and from among Syrian exiles. The information on the regime comes from secondary sources; the very few researchers who managed to work on both sides to date have not published their results. Moreover, for reasons of security, the Syrian fieldwork turned out to be more limited in time and geographically than we had planned initially. The conditions varied a lot from one stay to the next, but we basically remained within the Aleppo governorate. The first fieldwork, in December 2012 to January 2013, was physically demanding due to the cold, and shelling by the Syrian army made for a degree of insecurity. That said, traveling by bus, taxi, or car in the northern insurgent areas required neither escorts nor special planning. We were welcomed by families or, if needed, we were put up in the insurgency’s camps. During the second field work, in August 2013, we could not move outside Aleppo due to the risk of kidnapping. This led us to break off our stay and continue our interviews in Turkey.
How does this book relate to or else differ from your previous research?
AB, GD, AQ: The work grew out of questions which cut across our respective research on Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Libya. Some of the questions that structure this work are found already in Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present, including a set of questions revolving around territorialization by armed groups. The reflections on transformation of ethnic hierarchies stem from Identity, Conflict and Politics in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Still, for the first time we have a multi-author long-term project at every step of the process. Doing collective research turned out to be extraordinarily productive, from posing the initial problem, to the fieldwork and the writing. The theoretical framework proposed in this book derives from the intensity of our exchanges.
Who do you hope will read this book, and what do you want its impact to be?
AB, GD, AQ: The book has three target audiences. We hope it will prove useful for anyone interested in the recent events in Syria and that the readings it offers on the first six years of the conflict will yield a better understanding of what transpired. Also, the book contributes to Islamic studies and so fits into an already rich literature. However, on display in Syria are mutations in jihadist groups (notably conflicts among groups born of al-Qa'ida) and the book makes a significant contribution to this area of studies. Our previous works (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kurdistan) allow placing the Syrian evolutions into a broader context here. Last but not least, the work contributes to a revival of the literature on civil wars. In this sense, beyond its immediate subject, it should stimulate a wider discussion and take its place in the specialized literature for students and researchers of revolutions, political violence, and conflicts. I might mention here that a Turkish version of the book is slated to appear this year and an Arabic version is being translated.
What is the book’s contribution to urban studies in general and specifically in the Arab world?
AB, GD, AQ: Cities play a key role in the Syrian trajectory at two levels. For one, a sociology of the 2011 mobilizations demands considering the constraints and opportunities offered by urban configurations. Many analysts and researchers have erred by deducing from the fact that the demonstration occurred in the outlying districts and informal settlements, peopled by Sunni Arabs, that the protesters were Sunni Arabs and therefore were challenging the regime on behalf of their position as marginalized majority. Our work shows that, on the contrary, the regime’s lack of control over the informal districts, whose populations had increased considerably in previous decades, explained why the inhabitants of neighboring towns and villages went there to demonstrate. The city and the difficulties of patrolling it played key roles in the Syrian revolutions, and more widely in the Arab uprisings.
The second point is that our Aleppo field work let us analyze the social processes that affected the cities at war. In this regard, the chapters on the institutions and the social transformation resonate with recent works on cities at war in the Middle East, for example, the works by Leïla Vignal on Aleppo, by ’Ivana Maček on Sarajevo, by Béatrice Boyer on Kabul or by Franck Mermier on Beirut and Aden. Cities at war are the stakes in contemporary civil wars as spaces that must be controlled for an actor to impose its authority as legitimate. The repression by the regime aims directly at places of socializing, the street as much as public spaces. Conversely, the insurgents made the effort to refashion the cities under their control with their limited resources. Everyday life in cities at war therefores constitute an important research subject.
What other projects are you working on at this time?
AB, GD, AQ: At present, we are collaborating on a comparative project on social dynamics of civil wars, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under a five-year grant awarded to Gilles Dorronsoro. The project brings together a dozen individuals to study social processes, institutions, and individual practices in civil war contexts like Afghanistan, Mali, Turkey, South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Ukraine, Syria or Iraq. In addition, Gilles Dorronsoro is completing a book on the Western intervention in Afghanistan; Arthur Quesnay is writing his thesis on the sectarian conflicts in Kirkuk since the American 2003 invasion, and Adam Baczko is writing his on the Taliban courts in Afghanistan since 2001.
Excerpt from the Book:
December 2012, a house in a village in the North of Syria, we are guests for the night, the meal is finished and the mood is relaxed. Children are in our midst. One of our hosts brings out his mobile phone and starts to show us some videos: summary executions, desecrated bodies, a man buried to his neck and then run over by a car, a head, shot off by a missile fragment, then held at arm's length. We are about to see signs of individual and collective trauma on a massive scale. Objective figures later confirm our first impressions: since 2011, out of 22 million Syrians, nearly 500,000 were reported killed, around 6 million are in exile, close to 7 million have been displaced, hundreds of thousands of people have been tortured in the regime’s prisons. These numbers include the 11,000 deaths between 2011 and 2013, documented by a photographer code-named “Caesar,” a defector from the Syrian Army. Not to be forgotten are the repeated gas attacks on civilians by the Syrian army, the persecution of religious minorities by Islamic groups (kidnappings, seizure of goods, assassinations, rapes), and the dozens of journalists and aid workers kidnapped or killed.
Beyond the destruction of Syrian society, this crisis represents a pivotal moment in the transformation of the Greater Middle East, from Sahel to Afghanistan. Since the end of the cold war, the American interventions in Iraq (1991 and 2003-2011) and in Afghanistan (since 2001), the failure of authoritarian regimes, and the Arab revolutions are the cause or the symptom of an instability that affects a long list of countries to different degrees: Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Libya, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria. The failure of the “Arab Spring”, except in Tunisia so far, has strengthened radical jihadist movements that are challenging borders established in the Near East since the First World War. To make matters worse, regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran exacerbates the cleavage between Sunnis and Shias. Increases in war crimes, massacres, ethnic cleansing, extrajudicial executions and indiscriminate bombings of civilians, including in schools and hospitals, make Syria the most violent of our contemporary conflicts. In addition, the flow of refugees and the spectre of terrorism bring a global dimension to the crisis and provide the impetus for foreign involvement. The presence of armed forces from Russia, Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the United States and other NATO countries and of foreign fighters from all over the world makes Syria’s one of the most internationalized civil wars. It has also precipitated some surprising strategic realignments that, for example, have the United States arm the PKK, classified as a terrorist movement by its agencies, which is fighting Turkey, a NATO member country; or there is Israel taking care of fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra, a movement affiliated with al Qaeda.
Why Syrians rebel
To account for civil war breaking out in Syria presupposes supplying answers to three linked questions: what was the situation in Syria and how did the regime function before 2011? How did a mass protest movement emerge? And how, finally, did it turn into generalized violence?
Interpretations of the 2011 crisis largely depend on understanding the Syrian regime, especially its transformation during the 2000s. Did we see, as many experts suggest, a transition towards a less directly coercive, more accommodating power? And what was the level of support and acceptance of this domination within the population? The Baathist State is one of the most violent contemporary regimes. In 1982, the Hama massacre (between 10,000 and 40,000 killed) had clearly shown a power waging war on its people. The tracking down, imprisonment and systematic torture of its opponents were the routine practices of an insecure regime. On the international scene, Damascus had a track record of colluding with violent networks (the terrorist Carlos, Palestinian factions, jihadists in Iraq) and of engaging in political assassinations (of the French ambassador Louis Delamare in 1981, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005). Yet, the coming to power of Bashar al-Assad in 2000 had seemed like a turning point, at least on the socio-economic level. As part of a process of adapting to economic realities, the regime had initiated a relative liberalization, leading, as some would have it, to a control of society through a new political economy. In addition, various academics detected a contract (albeit implicit) that allowed certain social fields including the religious one a degree of autonomy. The prevailing hypothesis held that this was a form of control at once more indirect and more targeted in its violence.
Consequently, the question of the acceptance of this regime was framed in new terms. The mechanisms by which this authoritarian regime penetrated and controlled society – well described in other contexts – gave the impression of a stabilized system. Thus, the transgressive acts of the 1980s and 1990s described by Lisa Wedeen – derision, diversion or escapism – that continued under the presidency of Bashar al-Assad rarely excited active opposition. It could therefore be assumed that the regime had found a degree of acceptance and that the population co-produced the power that oppressed it. However, empirical verification of these hypotheses was problematic, since authoritarian societies are notoriously difficult to research and the internalization of domination is a complicated hypothesis to demonstrate in routine situations. A rational choice-based approach could explain the absence of challenge as stemming instead from an analysis of the risks created by repression. The theories of hegemony and rational choice converged for different reasons to reach the same conclusion. A revolt was unlikely in 2011, either because the regime and society had managed to find a modus vivendi, the State had established a hegemonic domination, or resistance was simply too risky. This was the consensus of Syria specialists on the cusp of the Arab spring.
Ultimately, the 2011 crisis allows a posteriori a better understanding of the functioning of the Syrian regime. Indeed, we witnessed mobilizations on a remarkable scale: hundreds of thousands of people marched for months in the face of repression; but, unlike other Arab Springs, the regime did not fall. This leads us to several observations. First, the rapid development of the protests shows that the regime had failed to impose a hegemonic relationship on the population. It also leads us to question the assumption of the regime’s domination via the political economy. In fact, the repressive apparatus did retain a primary role, but as a deterrent. A rational choice theory would therefore seem a better explanation for the lack of opposition. However, this approach fails to account for the mobilization of the protesters in 2011 despite the heavy risks confronting them.
Which approach then better reflects the events in both their genesis and their development? From our point of view, the peaceful protests and the transition to civil war can be explained via two models: the "mobilization through deliberation" explains the genesis of the protests and is followed by the "polarizing crisis", which accounts for the transition to civil war. Both models derive from the specific organization of pre-revolutionary Syrian society. Indeed, the autonomy of the various fields – political, trade union, economic, religious – was overwhelmingly restricted by a transversal dynamic: the all-pervasive grip of the security apparatus and patronage networks. Government control of the collective actors (unions, parties, associations) was therefore too restrictive for them to play a role in the genesis of the protests. Consequently, the first protests neither started in a specific field (union or political) nor were they relayed by any institution in particular.
The initial mobilizations were primarily the result of personal engagement and were relatively independent of social position and sectarian affiliations (both religious and ethnic). Informal discussions triggered by events in Tunisia and Egypt were at the root of the mobilization. These discussions led to a transformation in the perception of political opportunities, regardless of the actual evolution of the Syrian regime. The term "Arab Spring," jointly constructed by the media and the protesters, promoted the identification of the Assad regime with other Arab regimes that were overthrown. Even if this term glossed over significant differences between the regimes, it was performative and played an important role in individual engagement. Moreover, many of the debates took place in private or semi-private spaces (small groups, over the Internet) providing some degree of security. This site of deliberation was strategic, as it created not only spaces for exchanging information, but also for assessing risk and building a collective project. The continuous reevaluation of the context of any action, the emotional intensity of the discussions and the definition of collective good melded in a circular relationship. This model also explains how the protests could persist for months, with informal groups transforming over time into revolutionary networks.
During these deliberations, stakeholders defined the meaning of the conflict, often incorporating ideas and arguments from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. These exchanges created a shared vision as to legitimate means and the nature of the claims. First, the agendas were nationwide, inclusive and humanist, transcending any local or sectarian solidarity. Refusal to accept socioeconomic concessions from the regime, as well as the political and moral slogans and symbols, suggest that the protesters were engaged in a "struggle for recognition" that for a time transcended sectarian and social divides. Personal or sectional interests faded from mobilizing rhetoric in favor of quite abstract collective goals. As in other revolutionary situations (Afghanistan in 1979 and Libya in 2011), sectarian and ethnic oppositions temporarily lose power because of individual commitments to universal ideas. The deliberation on ends is inextricable from a discussion of means. The reference to the Arab Spring assumed peaceful demonstration, a stance that would continue for months despite the violence of the repression.
Far from negotiating, ceding or managing the repression a minima, the regime exacerbated the crisis with a strategy of unbridled violence. This polarizing approach was made possible by the cohesion of institutions dominated by the security apparatus, which was tightening its grip on all fields. By designating the protesters as internal enemies, the regime legitimized its use of violence. By contrast, in Tunisia and Egypt, the protests succeeded in paralyzing institutions and toppling regimes. In Syria, lacking any institutional relay and faced with increasingly violent repression, the protesters were forced into armed struggle.
The formation of competing territories and administrations
The acephalous mobilization described earlier produced a decentralized, fractured insurgency despite the inclusive ideology. But, when compared with other cases, the Syrian insurgency has one unexpected feature: the lack of exclusive control of territories by its armed groups. The coexistence of armed, non-hierarchically organized groups could have led to immediate fragmentation, territorial as well as political, along the lines of the Somali or Congolese cases. Instead, we observe the fluidity with which the fighters shift from one group to another and the low incidence of armed conflict between them, despite the absence of hierarchy or arbiters. Furthermore, these improvised units often merged to tackle more ambitious goals. The first explanation for this unusual situation lies in the absence of political parties, practically non-existent inside Syria before 2011, and that the protestors rejected as a source of division. Moreover, the armed groups – even if they often had the same geographical origins - did not represent a specific community, which explains the relative mobility of fighters between units. Until the spring of 2013, insurgent groups advancing with the front line regarded themselves as the forerunners of a national army.
This phenomenon created the conditions for the rapid reconstitution of civil institutions distinct from military actors. The relative lack of fighting between the armed groups in 2012-2013 allowed the formation and growth of an administrative apparatus. Indeed, in areas that fell to the insurgents, a rapid process of institutionalization began that affected many areas of daily life. It started after the first improvised military groups, uncoordinated and unstructured, merged progressively into units comprised of several thousand men. The Syrian revolutionaries proceeded to set up civil and military institutions as well as external representation based on an explicitly state-like model. In areas beyond regime control, new institutions backed by military units emerged in a few scant months. They grew because of social demands that were asserted via informal channels and demonstrations and thanks to a certain level of external funding. The activist networks formed during the phase of peaceful protest also played a role in this process. Indeed, these networks, initially informal, became more institutionalized with the organization of elections and the beginnings of a bureaucracy. With a quasi-monopoly on political representation and bureaucracy, the new institutions in the insurgent territories appears as an objectivisation of the activist’s social capital. This process draws our attention to the structural impact of events, in this case the transformation of informal networks into institutions.
However, a countervailing dynamic asserts itself as the advancing transnational movements, the PKK and the Islamic State, eliminate all competing groups on their territory and produce their own institutional system strongly integrated with their military structure. Better organized and fielding experienced fighters, these groups espoused alternative political agendas and fought the other groups to gain exclusive control of a territory. This fragmented the insurgency and led to the formation of territories with divergent political models and administration systems controlled by the PKK and the Islamic State. In June 2014, the latter proclaims a caliphate over parts of Iraq and Syria, with a global claim. Its specific rationality, deriving from an eschatological ideology, set it apart from Syrian society. For its part, despite a participative rhetoric, the PKK develops a centralized and ethnonationalist political model with essentially transnational objectives.
This competitive logic accelerates the conflict’s sectarian dimension. Indeed, the communitarian dimension, largely absent from the 2011 demonstration, became dominant through the regime’s strategy and the rise of identity discourses. From the start, the Damascus’ policy was to bolster the most radical groups (informal agreements with the PKK, the release of radical jihadists from the Iraq war) as a tactic for dividing the opposition. In addition, the rhetoric within the insurgency gradually took on a more religious connotation; martyrology linked to the violent conflict tended to exclude non-Sunnis. The sectarianization was furthered by external actors providing funding and fighters. So, while the regime showed a marked "Shiitization" due to its dependence on Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, the insurgents espousing an Islamist ideology (sometimes for purely tactical reasons) were receiving significant funding from the Gulf, particularly in the period 2012-13. This weakened the secular protest groups, which only received token support from the West.
In the end, polarization and political fragmentation, rather than a product of the Syrian society, reflect the influence of external actors. International or transnational dynamics affected the insurgency even more because of its disorganization. On the one hand, the regime army’s breakdown and the insurgency’s decentralization led to a high degree of dependence on outsiders, including the diaspora, foreign countries and transnational actors. On the other hand, the PKK and the Islamic State grew through their superior ability to accumulate and use resources. This enabled their holding, even extending, territory in which to gradually build an increasingly complex administrative apparatus. In Syria, as in other contexts of increased political and military competition (Afghanistan, Iraq, Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo), the ability to centralize, to accumulate, and to use resources strategically is crucial to survival.
The variation of capitals
With the division of the country between competing territorialized political actors, the value of capital (economic, social, cultural, identity) differs from one region to another. Within the framework developed in the prolegomena, we address three dimensions of this phenomenon for the Syria case: social capital, economic capital and the identity regime.
First, in the context of a generalized decline in social relations, small groups of activists increase their social capital. Indeed, impoverishment, insecurity and communication problems directly affected the ability of a large majority of Syrians to maintain relationships. The extreme conditions of this situation allow for a clearer reading of how social capital relates to other forms of capital and to the State, disproving the idea that the ability to create and maintain social relationships depends purely on individual capabilities. In this context of increasing individual isolation, the minority of Syrians involved in the 2011 protests increased their social capital because of their membership in revolutionary networks. This then becomes a practical requirement for access to institutional positions in the insurgency’s reconstituting administration. Despite a scarcity of sources, women’s militancy appears to remain rare and seems to require the women to make a more radical personal break than the men, inasmuch as the former’s public expression challenges the boundaries between the public and the private.
Second, the civil war facilitates the accumulation of military capital unregulated by the State and causes Syria to disappear as an integrated economic market. Instead, internal borders are drawn that demarcate differing values for goods and labor. Moreover, violence becomes the chief means of economic accumulation, via both taxation and extortion. A superficial reading of the Syrian situation is consistent with the market-based theories formulated in the late 1990s, which characterized civil wars as competitions for the accumulation of the means of violence and their subsequent use for economic benefit. This conception, while it accounts for an economic rationality that is indeed present, is nevertheless misleading. The formation of military groups and the conversion of military means into economic resources cannot be modeled as a market. The accumulation of military power is a quest for domination. Contrary to what these theories assume, the military actors in Syria do not reinvest their wealth in line with a purely economic rationality. On the contrary, the accumulation of economic resources leads to an intensification of violence aimed at reconstructing the State. Indeed, no mechanism can ensure either the security of the actors or the partitioning of territory. Cases where the actors cooperate on an economic stake are explained by the existence of indivisible goods (electricity, water) and where shared economic interests are both rare and easily called into question. This dynamic is also apparent in the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts: the economic use of military capital does not per se create the necessary conditions for a stable division of territory and resources.
Thirdly, the previous identity regime of Syrian society has disappeared for good. By "identity regime" we mean a set of practices and positions that prioritize, define and organize the relationship between ethnic and religious groups. Their hierarchization depended largely on the political system, which played a central role in the definition of relative status and power. The withdrawal of the state led to a violent denaturalization of the hierarchies between groups. The emergence of several political entities – the government, the Kurds, the insurgency and the Islamic State – created coexisting but competing identity regimes. Indeed, being Alawite, Druze, Christian and Sunni did not mean the same thing in the government zone in Latakia, the rebel-held part of Aleppo, Islamic State-dominated Raqqa, or in the Kurdish town of Ayn al-Arab controlled by the local PKK branch. This transformation in the value of identities causes individuals to react in two ways. On the one hand, memberships are simplified in an atmosphere of extreme polarization, for example, for someone born of mixed couples. On the other hand, individuals learn to manipulate their identity markers when moving around in physical (road checkpoints, for example) or social space (interacting with different institutions or armed actors.)