On 22 July 2020 we held part one of this Roundtable on “20 Years After Bashar Al-Asad’s Succession.” The discussion was rich, so much so the speakers were not able to get to the final part on the prelude to the uprising and developments since. They had agreed during the conversation to follow up with part 2, and where delayed a week because of the horrific event in Beirut, which shocked so many of us to the core.
On 14 August part 2 was joined by two additional speakers who are also Co-Editors of the Syria Page on Jadaliyya: Rabie Nasser and Samer Abboud. We are also joined by Katty Elhayek, Omar Dahi, Ibrahim Hamidi, Lisa Wedeen, Basileus Zeno, and Bassam Haddad (who is also moderating). All bios are listed below.
The topic for part 2 is the prelude to the uprising under Bashar Al-Asad. In particular, the speakers begin by addressing brief personal anecdotes on each of their whereabouts when the Syrian uprising erupted and move on to discuss the policies and various social, institutional, and economic developments during the 5 to 7 years prior to the uprising. They address the uprising, but without getting into the details so as not to let the topic colonize the discussion. However, the speakers address how the regime, and other actors, reacted to it and why it quickly became complex, how and why it was transformed into what many call a “proxy war.” They end with the speakers’ assessment of where Syria as a country, and the regime, stand now and what might be some future prospects.
To be sure, Syria discussions, even writing on Syria, routinely devolve into some form of animosity and hostility. The speakers avoid that here. There is hardly a family or group that was not at least somewhat divided along some line on the question of Syria—which is why we keep saying Syria is complicated. But with the benefit of hindsight, fortunately, at the discursive and analytical levels, some of the gaps, not all, are slowly closing. This is in part because of the realization that many seemingly deep divides were driven more by the urgency and intensity of the moment and questions of prioritization of culprits than a substantive difference regarding who the culprits actually are.
Nonetheless, the conflict is not over, and certainly the misery of most Syrians is palpable. We hope that this discussion will serve as a stepping stone for other conversations and thinking on what happened in and to Syria. Most of us cannot do much more than try to understand and engage one another, though there are some really problematic views out there, both here in the United States and in the region, about what happened, from nearly all sides. Often, what is missing is historical and spatial depth, which the speakers continue to address today.
Samer Abboud is Associate Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies at Villanova University. He is currently co-coordinating (with Omar Dahi) the Beirut School of Critical Security Studies Collective, a working group of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences.
Omar S. Dahi is a co-editor of Jadaliyya and an associate professor of economics at Hampshire College and co-director of the Peacebuilding and State-building program and research associate at the Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research interests are in the political economy of development in the Middle East, South-South relations, comparative regionalism, peace and conflict studies, and critical security studies. He has published in academic outlets such as the Journal of Development Economics, Applied Economics, Southern Economic Journal, Political Geography, Middle East Report, Forced Migration Review, and Critical Studies on Security. His last book South-South Trade and Finance in the 21st Century: Rise of the South or a Second Great Divergence (co-authored with Firat Demir) explores the ambiguous developmental impact of the new economic linkages among countries of the global South. He has served on the editorial collective of Middle East Report and is a co-founder and co-director of the Beirut School for Critical Security Studies working group at the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS). Dahi is also the founder and director of the Security in Context initiative.
Katty Alhayek is a scholar-activist from Syria pursuing a doctorate in communication at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research interests broadly center around themes of Syrian refugees, gender, media audiences, activism, and new technologies. Katty published peer-reviewed articles in journals like Gender, Technology, and Development; Syria Studies; and Feminist Media Studies. Katty worked for organizations like The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women; The Online Journal of Space Communication; and Geneva Institute for Human Rights. A former Open Society Foundations fellow, Ms. Alhayek holds Master’s degrees in International Affairs and Media Studies from Ohio University and a graduate certificate in Women`s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She earned an undergraduate degree in Media Studies from Damascus University in 2008.
Bassam Haddad (Moderator/Speaker)
Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Program and Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is the author of Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford University Press, 2011) and co-editor of the forthcoming book, A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East (Forthcoming, Stanford University Press, 2021). Bassam serves as Founding Editor of the Arab Studies Journal and the Knowledge Production Project. He is co-producer/director of the award-winning documentary film, About Baghdad, and director of the series Arabs and Terrorism. Bassam is Co-Founder/Editor of Jadaliyya Ezine and Executive Director of the Arab Studies Institute. He serves on the Board of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences and is Executive Producer of Status Audio Magazine. Bassam is Co-Project Manager for the Salon Syria Project and Director of the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI). He received MESA's Jere L. Bacharach Service Award in 2017 for his service to the profession. Currently, Bassam is working on his second Syria book titled Understanding The Syrian Tragedy: Regime, Opposition, Outsiders (forthcoming, Stanford University Press).
Ibrahim Hamidi is a Syrian journalist, who heads the Damascus bureau of the Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat, and contributes to several other international media outlets and think tanks. Previously, he served as head of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) office in Damascus, in addition to his work with al-Hayat, and as a senior writer for Forward Magazine in Damascus. Hamidi's work focuses on strategic issues in the Middle East, with special insight into Syria's internal and regional politics. He is also a Research Fellow and co-founder of the Syrian Studies Center at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Hamidi is also a co-founder of the Arab Investigative Journalism Program (ARIJ).
Lisa Wedeen is the Mary R. Morton Professor of Political Science and the College and the Co-Director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory at the University of Chicago. She is also Associate Faculty in Anthropology and the Co-Editor of the University of Chicago Book Series, “Studies in Practices of Meaning.” Her publications include three books: Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (1999; with a new preface, 2015); Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power and Performance in Yemen (2008); and Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria (2019), which has won two awards from the American Political Science Association. Among her articles are the following: “Conceptualizing ‘Culture’: Possibilities for Political Science” (2002); “Concepts and Commitments in the Study of Democracy” (2004), “Ethnography as an Interpretive Enterprise” (2009), “Reflections on Ethnographic Work in Political Science” (2010), “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria” (2013), and “Scientific Knowledge, Liberalism, and Empire: American Political Science in the Modern Middle East” (2016). She is the recipient of the David Collier Mid-Career Achievement Award and an NSF fellowship, and is currently completing an edited volume with Joseph Masco, entitled Conspiracy/Theory.
Basileus Zeno is a Syrian archaeologist pursuing a doctorate in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. He holds a BA (2006) and MA (2011) in archaeology from the University of Damascus (Syria), where his studies focused on Hellenistic Antiquity and Islamic civilization. He was a graduate fellow at the Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO) from 2007 to 2012. Until summer 2012, Basileus was doing his Ph.D. in classical archaeology, researching the production of coins under the Seleucids in Northern Syria, but he couldn’t complete his research because of the outbreak of the war. In 2013, he started his M.A. in Political Science at Ohio University, which he completed in 2015. Basileus is broadly interested in the areas of Comparative Politics, Contemporary Political Theory, and Identity Politics. His scholarly interests primarily focus on nationalism, civil wars, sectarian transnationalism, refugees, and social movements in the Middle East.