Samer N. Abboud, Syria, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Samer N. Abboud (SNA): The original impetus for writing this book came in late 2013. Serendipitously, Louise Knight at Polity contacted me around that time to write something about the Syrian conflict, and by 2015, the first edition of the book came out. In that edition, my analysis was motivated by the question of how a military and political stalemate emerged in Syria. By 2015, authority over the country’s geography was in constant flux, and there was no serious political process to bring about the end of the conflict. This particular edition is motivated by an entirely different question, mainly, how the Russian intervention that began in 2015 brought about what I call an “authoritarian peace,” a term I borrow from David Lewis to describe non-liberal forms of peace that emerge in conflict spaces. If we quickly survey much of the popular and academic discussion of Syria today, we will find that most of this discussion occurs within a very circumscribed framework that tries to understand Syria through liberal political assumptions about conflict and post-conflict zones, especially as they relate to questions of political transition, reconstruction, the role of international actors, and so on. One of the central claims of this book is that we need to look at emerging local ontologies and not liberal political assumptions to understand what is happening in Syria. These local ontologies are producing what I call an authoritarian peace in Syria, a post-conflict order in which the presence of violence and not its absence persists and is a source of state legitimacy; no one is seriously contemplating a political transition; reconstruction is occurring outside the policy and institutional framework of international institutions; armed actors remain present in the country, and displacement is being cemented by a range of legal changes to Syria’s social and property rights regime. I wanted this second edition to tell some of this story and to move beyond the issue of the military and political stalemate that defined the conflict when the first edition was published.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SNA: The book straddles a number of academic fields but is firmly situated within interdisciplinary approaches to the causes, conduct, and consequences of war. These “three C’s” are important entry points into how people ask questions and produce knowledge about conflicts. In Syria, the ‘causes’ question is very limited, in part because those who address the historical roots of the conflict often rely on primordial, static explanations, especially sectarian ones. My book draws primarily on literature that encourages us to think about the conduct of conflict while also engaging with analysis of its causes and consequences. In this way, I am able to engage with questions that I think are vital to understanding the Syrian conflict: armed group formation, international intervention, displacement, property transfers and changes, the political economy of violence, and so on. Thus, I am less interested in why the Syrian conflict happened—an impossible question to answer in my opinion—than in how the violence has unfolded. So I am trying to understand the conflict on its own terms and not through some perspectives that seek to locate its roots in historical animosities. Such an approach necessarily demands thinking in interdisciplinary ways. I have been particularly interested in what New Wars approaches have to say about Syria, as well as the broad field of Critical Security Studies.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SNA: My doctoral work concerned the political economy of marketization in Syria in the 2000s. I was thus predisposed to understand the Syrian conflict within the context of broader political-economic transformations that occurred prior to, and after, 2011. My analytical entry point to understanding the conflict was shaped by my experiences researching state and class transformation in the 2000s. For this reason, my initial research into the conflict was into capital flight and into the emergence of war economies that sustained violence across the conflict landscape. As the book takes a wider panoramic view of the conflict, I have had to extend myself to think beyond these lenses to consider questions about international intervention, violence, and displacement, and their relationship to war economies.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SNA: While I do think that the book will have a lot to offer people who have studied or continue to study Syria, its main intended readership is a generalist audience. I am hoping that a wide range of researchers, scholars, students, and interested readers will find the book to be an accessible and engaging exploration into the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. I do hope that at the very least, readers of the book will feel less compelled to take seriously simple answers to complicated questions about Syria and to reject some of the ideologically and politically motivated explanations for the crisis, especially as they relate to sectarianism. As I state in the book, we need to take sectarianism seriously but not reduce everything to it. This is fundamentally my wish for the book that people are able to read it and to understand that the Syrian crisis does not fall into neat boxes and does not have neat explanations. What we are witnessing in Syria today is the presence of multiple overlapping patterns that are bearing down on the lives of Syrians today and for generations to come. I try and grapple with these patterns throughout the book. In this sense, I am very motivated by what David Chandler, Suda Perera, and others have referred to as the “messiness” of conflicts. Perera in particular encourages us to think about what competing narratives of conflicts means for researchers and for telling stories about conflicts. Embracing the messiness of conflicts and chasing down multiple narratives is, for me, an honest and ethical way to approach writing about conflicts such as Syria’s. So I am hoping that when people put down the book they too are able to embrace the messiness of Syria’s conflict and to understand that the multiple narratives and stories that make it up are all constitutive of the crisis and not independent of it.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SNA: I am currently working on two projects related to the Syrian conflict. The first article asks how international interveners construct knowledge about Syrian reconstruction and how this in turn shapes what policies they advocate for. My central argument is that a survey of English language reconstruction material on Syria is more reflective of debates within international intervention circles around questions of centralization versus decentralization and “lessons learned.” In this way, knowledge production about Syria is not tethered to local ontologies but rather to debates within and among international actors about how best to intervene into conflict zones. The second article draws on the concept of necropower as a framework for understanding counterinsurgency in Syria. I am particularly interested in how recent policies ensure displacement and the social and civil death of populations.
J: What does the authoritarian peace framework tell us about the future of violence in Syria?
SNA: I marshal the framework precisely to help us understand the presence of violence in Syria, its nature, targets, perpetrators, and impacts. The liberal assumption that peace is determined by the absence of violence is simply unproductive in Syria, where both armed fighters continue to exercise violence, especially in the service of material gain, and regime and aligned forces have constructed a conflict architecture—through the Astana process, local truces, and other “agreements” with local and regional actors—that sanctions and demands the continued marshalling of violence against recalcitrant populations. Indeed, the ability of the regime and its allies to continue to exercise violence is a key source of their claim to authority and a major source of “peace” in Syria. In other words, the authoritarian peace framework can help us think about the permanence of counterinsurgency and the new realities of violence that Syrians will have to navigate in the coming years. We must keep in mind that while many people are talking about reconstruction and a post-conflict Syria, there is still profound violence being inflicted on people and sieges remain.
Excerpt from the Afterword:
In a recent exchange with a reader in the Letters page of the New York Review of Books, columnist Charles Glass argued that the original casus belli of the war—regime change—was no longer relevant to understanding the conflict or the goals of its various actors. The Syrian war had moved beyond the original question of whether, how, and when the regime would fall and what authority would replace it to a much more complicated state in which the current war was defined by many overlapping conflicts. While I have rarely agreed with Glass’s analysis of Syria, I agree that regime change as envisioned by the original protest movement and organized opposition is no longer a plausible outcome in the Syrian conflict. Where does this leave our analysis and understanding of the Syrian conflict? Since the completion of this book, a number of developments have reinforced the main analytical point presented in the preceding pages – primarily, that the Syrian conflict is complicated, messy, multi-dimensional, and currently entering a new phase in what I called the “authoritarian peace”... The continued bombardment of Ghouta, east of Damascus, has captured headlines in recent months. This area of the country has been decimated by years of bombardment, sieges, and economic suffocation, and was one of the last remaining rebel strongholds left in the wake of the Russian intervention. Many armed groups had a significant presence in Ghouta, including some of the more prominent Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham. As the regime intensified its onslaught of Ghouta in recent weeks, many of these groups were totally destroyed, forced to surrender to regime forces, or subject to forced transfers as in other “local truces” negotiated throughout Syria. As these groups dwindled, more territory came under government control, leaving Douma as the sole area of Ghouta under the control of Jaysh al-Islam.
At the time of writing, a brutal chemical attack in Douma was followed by an agreement between the Syrian regime and Jaysh al-Islam, in which the latter’s fighters and supporters would be guaranteed safe passage to Idlib while the regime would assume control over the area. The Idlib strategy has been deployed since as far as back as 2014 when the regime would guarantee secure passage of fighters from various parts of Syria to the northwestern governorate. The “liberation” of these areas from armed groups has continued since then and has been a prominent conflict management strategy. The premise of the strategy is simple: to depopulate recalcitrant areas and to establish regime presence and new political realities. The successful deployment of this strategy in Douma has returned more than 125,000 civilians to government control and eliminated a major rebel stronghold so close to the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Aside from this, the Idlib strategy also portends what future violence may look like in Syria. When this book was completed, there remained three significant areas of non-regime control. In addition to Ghouta, these areas included Idlib and the northern areas under Syrian Kurdish control. Having survived the decimation of destruction that was the fate of so many other armed groups, the SDF was poised to be a major player in post-conflict Syria. Indeed, many people inside and outside of Syria seriously contemplated rapprochement between the regime and SDF and possibly even a federalist post-conflict arrangement. Yet, in merely a few weeks, a Turkish military offensive into Afrin effectively decimated the SDF as a major military force. In the aftermath of the Turkish incursion and in an attempt to maintain Kurdish political relevance in Syria’s emerging authoritarian peace, the PYD established a new party called the Syria Future Party, in a sort of political rebranding. The common assumption about the change has been that the SDF’s American allies forced it upon them. If so, this would point to a disturbing reality for Syria’s Kurdish political parties: their American allies are more than willing to force adjustments on them but unwilling to prevent a Turkish decimation of their military capacities…
In the absence of a major shift in US policy, the regional situation that will shape Syria in the coming months and years will be determined by the tripartite powers [Iran, Russia, and Turkey] and their appetite (or not) for further destruction of the country to advance their specific geopolitical goals. The two looming confrontations that regime-aligned forces will face in the coming months are, first, with the Kurdish political and military elements, and, second, with the remnants of the armed groups currently based in Idlib. It would appear that any sort of political accommodation with any of these groups is outside of the tripartite consensus for Syria, given Turkey’s unopposed intervention into Afrin. As we enter the authoritarian peace phase of the conflict, such military realities will likely produce a sustained insurgency campaign, further justifying continued fighting and the creation of recalcitrant territories in Syria that can be acted upon with prejudice and violence. In this stage, however, territory is unlikely to be controlled as it was during the period of stalemate and may come to resemble more of an insurgency. The presence of violence, not its absence, will continue to define the authoritarian peace.
This peace is also consolidating around property confiscation, a key economic strategy that has followed the regime recapture of key areas of the country. In this strategy, a number of laws have been passed to concretize depopulation and to initiate a process of social erasure whereby Syrian citizens’ relationship to their towns, cities, governorates, and even their homes is severed. Through these laws, the government has legalized the process of depopulation and dispossession and has used property transfer as a means of enriching state coffers, private economic interests, and the militias that have contributed to and enforced depopulation. These laws include Law No. 23 (2015) that expedites property expropriation; Law No. 11 (2016) that suspended property transfers in non-regime areas; Law No. 33 (2017) that completely transforms the issuance and management of property documentation; and Law No. 4 (2017) that alters the civil status code.
The reconstruction project in Syria is emerging with two central features: first, there is less emphasis on addressing the humanitarian crisis, including the repatriation of refugees and the internally displaced through comprehensive social programming, housing developments, and the revival of social services, especially outside of the cities. In other words, the reconstruction phase has thus far focused solely on clearing debris, rebuilding some infrastructure, and providing procurement opportunities for regime-aligned businesspeople. All of this is occurring absent a national plan for reconstruction. Second, most existing projects focus on urban areas at the expense of rural regions, which were heavily devastated during the war. By all accounts, all policies passed under the framework of reconstruction have been devoted to shoring up urban areas…
In the preceding pages, I have tried to tell some of these stories and to provide a narrative that traces the evolution of three distinct phases in the Syrian conflict. The first phase was one in which the possibility of the revolution winning or the regime falling was seriously contemplated. The regime or revolution phase occurred early in the conflict and was defined by questions about regime endurance, opposition stability and cohesion, and the role that international powers would play in the conflict. The second phase began as militarization led to a proliferation of violence and the geographic fragmentation of the country in ways that produced a political and military stalemate. The third phase of the conflict began when that stalemate was broken by the Russian intervention in 2015 that produced the conditions of possibility for the emergence of Syria’s authoritarian peace. The events that have occurred since the completion of the book suggest that the argument about an authoritarian peace will be borne out and that the tripartite powers, along with their Syrian regime allies, will shape the future of Syria in violent, exclusionary, and destructive ways.