This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Bachleitner, K. (2022). Legacies of war: Syrian narratives of conflict and visions of peace. Cooperation and Conflict, 57(1), 43-64.
Among a sample of 200 Syrian survey respondents:
- Most respondents overwhelmingly identified with the identity category “Syrian” rather than more specific ethnic or sectarian identities.
- Most respondents’ narratives of the Syrian armed conflict and visions of the future followed a “civic” rather than an “ethnic” rationale.
- Individuals’ interpretations of the Syrian armed conflict correlated with their way of thinking about the “in-group” to which they envision belonging in the future—namely, whether that “in-group” is broadly inclusive and pluralistic or narrowly defined in terms of ethnic or sectarian identity.
- The legacies of war expressed here—overwhelmingly “civic” interpretations—suggest that everyday Syrians are articulating their own interpretations of the armed conflict and of future “Syrianness,” rather than echoing the top-down narratives emphasizing ethnic/sectarian division that otherwise dominate perspectives on Syria in the media.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
- By vigorously standing by a conflict narrative of the current crisis in Sudan that highlights the self-interested motives of two men and resisting any conflict narratives that might pit Sudanese against each other along ethnic or geographic lines, Sudanese civil society retains the best chance of refusing the feuding generals the popular support (and human capital) they desperately want—and ultimately need—to pursue their military and political agendas.
War’s physical destructiveness is self-evident. Human beings are killed and injured. Buildings are reduced to rubble. Civilian infrastructure and military hardware alike are damaged. Beyond these objective impacts of war, however, there are also important subjective elements related to how war is experienced, interpreted, and remembered. How is responsibility attributed? Who is seen as the primary victim group? How are the goals of the war understood? There is a human need to “make sense” of war, to be able to piece together a somewhat coherent narrative about an armed conflict that one has experienced. Such narratives, by extension, constitute identities, provide “continuity between past, present and future,” and shape future action. With all this in mind, Kathrin Bachleitner examines this link between legacies of war (individuals’ and groups’ experiences and interpretations of armed conflict) and the construction of collective identity in the context of Syria. She asks: How do “ordinary Syrians view their in-group and construct their own ties of belonging with it through their narratives of the ongoing conflict”? Who is the Syrian “we” that emerges through these narratives of the Syrian civil war?
To test her hypothesis that how individuals “narrate the conflict” shapes how they construct their collective identity, the author and her research team conducted an online survey of a (non-representative) sample of 200 Syrians in 2019 about their “sense of group belonging,” “narrative of conflict,” and “vision of the future.” They analyzed the survey data using both qualitative and quantitative analysis. Responses were categorized as employing either “civic” or “ethnic” (or “mixed”) rationales. Broadly speaking, a “civic rationale” emphasizes “group ties… based on shared ideas and political creeds,” focusing on “ideas of liberty, equality or the concept of citizenship.” And an “ethnic rationale” emphasizes group ties “derived from primordial characteristics,” focusing on “religious beliefs, ethnicity, language and cultural traditions.”
Analysis revealed the following:
Response percentages (out of 200 Syrian survey respondents)
Sense of belonging
Asked to “identify category they feel most closely associated with.”
Narratives of the conflict
Asked about their understanding of the armed conflict, including “what happened to the group through naming victims and perpetrators.”
47%: civic rationale
23%: ethnic rationale
30%: mixed rationale
Visions of the future
Asked about “ideal future for Syrian state and society.”
48%: civic rationale
22%: ethnic rationale
29%: mixed rationale
When asked about their sense of belonging—what “identity category they fe[lt] most closely associated with”—the vast majority said “Syrian,” with smaller numbers saying “Arab,” “citizen,” or more specific ethnic/sectarian identities like “Sunnah/Muslim,” “Kurdish,” or “Shia.” This finding suggests—though, due to varying interpretations of these different markers, does not definitively demonstrate—a stronger civic rationale in terms of Syrians’ sense of belonging.
Respondents’ narratives of the conflict also largely followed a civic rationale. A common conflict narrative employing a civic rationale describes the Syrian armed conflict and its parties in “political terms,” with the perpetrators understood as the authoritarian state with its security forces, along with other self-interested political actors, and the primary victims as “all Syrians” or “ordinary citizens and people,” rather than any particular ethnic/sectarian group. The less prevalent perspective—a conflict narrative employing an ethnic rationale—instead describes the armed conflict as “an ethnic/sectarian war,” most often casting the perpetrators as the “Alawi-minority tyranny” over a “Sunni majority” (the primary victims).
Similarly, respondents’ visions of the future for Syria were mostly characterized by a civic rationale. A common civic vision of the future of Syria entailed the following: a liberal democracy based on the rule of law with protection for minorities and a clear distinction between religion and politics. Citizenship here celebrates Syrian unity among a “mosaic of sects, cultures and civilizations,” with equal rights for Syrians of all ethnic/sectarian identities. By contrast, the less prevalent view—the so-called “ethnic” vision—carves out a more prominent role for ethnicity and/or religion in politics (within a united Syria), but with variation in how this relationship is conceived: whether a Sunni-majority government, a federal system with significant autonomy for various ethnic groups, or Islamic (but not “extremist”) rule.
As for the central hypothesis about the relationship between conflict narratives and the construction of collective identity in Syria, statistical analysis found a weak positive correlation between “self-identification,” “narrative of the conflict,” and “vision of the future”—a correlation that became stronger with “mixed” observations taken out. In short, “those who followed an ethnic (or civic) rationale in their narrative of conflict are also more likely to follow one in their vision of the future state” (entailing their vision of the future “we”). At the same time, the author also found that those identifying as “Syrian” or as an ethnic/sectarian identity were equally likely to follow a civic rationale in their “narrative of the conflict” or “vision of the future”—and more likely to do so than follow an “ethnic” rationale.
Two findings stand out by way of conclusion. First, individuals’ interpretations of the Syrian armed conflict do seem related to their constitution of the “future in-group.” Second, the legacies of war expressed here—overwhelmingly “civic” interpretations—suggest that everyday Syrians are articulating their own interpretations of the armed conflict and of future “Syrianness,” rather than echoing the top-down narratives emphasizing ethnic/sectarian division (and elite manipulation of these divisions) that otherwise dominate media perspectives on Syria. Instead, in contrast to more widespread focus on top-down narratives of war, this study highlights the bottom-up, civic perspective of Syrians calling for a broader conception of who belongs in a peaceful, united Syria.
How we (as human beings) interpret and represent violent conflict matters. The stories we tell ourselves and others about the conflicts we experience shape both who we are and what sorts of actions we think are feasible and appropriate in response. This research highlights both the crucial role that these narratives play in the progression of a conflict and the ability of “ordinary” people to articulate their own narratives of conflict and collective identity that can run counter to dominant narratives—with the potential to broaden the boundaries of community and thereby also shape the trajectory of a conflict away from violence.
Concerned actors should be alert to these dynamics in current conflicts such as the emerging crisis in Sudan. Aware of the potent source of control that fear can provide, political and military elites often proactively craft conflict narratives that emphasize ethnic division to mobilize groups to their cause. With both General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (de facto leader of Sudan since the 2019 revolution and head of the Sudanese Armed Forces) and General Muhammad (“Hemedti”) Hamdan Dagalo (head of the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF) eager to curry favor with the civilian movement that ousted President Bashir in 2019, but becoming increasingly unpopular by the day as more and more civilians are killed in the fighting, the conditions may be ripe for either or both of them to try to gain support through the cynical use of fear and ethnic and/or regional divisions. Some observers have noted that if Hemedti and the RSF are pushed out of Khartoum, they could establish their base in the Darfur region, where Hemedti is from, attempting to unite rural groups against Sudanese Armed Forces based in Khartoum. Others have noted that the generals could purposefully enflame ethnic divisions on the border of Sudan and Chad to mobilize groups to their respective sides. In either case, to successfully mobilize people in this way, they would need to start casting the fighting in regional and/or ethnic terms, crafting a narrative that represents the opponent and the reason for violence accordingly.
This is a time, therefore, for members of Sudanese civil society to be as attentive as ever to the emergence of such narratives and to strategize about how to effectively counter them. The skillful cultivation of collective identity during the nonviolent movement in 2019 provides an excellent starting point. Activists were very clear in their celebration of diversity in the movement, welcoming a broad swath of Sudanese, along all sorts of vectors—gender, class, ethnicity, geography, and so on—to protests, with activists in Khartoum famously declaring in chants, “We are all Darfur!” when the regime tried to cast those from Darfur as the enemy. Just as this broad-based participation in the nonviolent movement became an asset, so too can it now help inoculate Sudanese against conflict narratives that may aim to separate them along ethnic or geographic lines. Instead, they can maintain a clear, unified conflict narrative that sees and represents what is currently happening as a power grab between two self-interested individuals, with little concern for the civilian lives they are upending and destroying. By vigorously standing by this conflict narrative and resisting any conflict narratives that might pit Sudanese against each other, Sudanese civil society retains the best chance of refusing these generals the popular support (and human capital) they desperately want—and ultimately need—to pursue their self-interested military and political agendas. [MW]
- How can nonviolent activists most effectively retain and leverage the diverse, broad-based movement identity they may have previously cultivated in order to resist forces bent on moving a country towards civil war and fomenting more exclusionary identities?
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Syrian Democratic Council. (2023). Syrian women discuss the concept of “The inclusive national identity.” Retrieved May 24, 2023, from https://m-syria-d.com/en/?p=5582
Peace Science Digest. (2020). What accounts for the shift from nonviolent to violent resistance in the Syrian uprising? Retrieved May 24, 2023, from https://warpreventioninitiative.org/peace-science-digest/what-accounts-for-the-shift-from-nonviolent-to-violent-resistance-in-the-syrian-uprising/
Peace Science Digest. (2020). Nonviolent resistance movements, national identity, and security force defection. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from https://warpreventioninitiative.org/peace-science-digest/nonviolent-resistance-movements-national-identity-and-security-force-defection/
International Crisis Group. (2023, April 20). Stopping Sudan’s descent into full-blown civil war. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/sudan/stopping-sudans-descent-full-blown-civil-war
Walsh, D. (2023, May 18). Battered by war, Sudan faces many possible paths—None good. The New York Times. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/18/world/africa/sudan-war-military-scenarios.html?searchResultPosition=3
Zunes, S. (2021). Sudan’s 2019 revolution: The power of civil resistance. ICNC. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/role-of-civil-resistance-in-the-sudanese-uprising-and-political-transition/
Syrian Democratic Council: https://m-syria-d.com/en/?page_id=4254
Sudanese Professionals Association: https://humanrightsconnected.org/organizations/sudanese-professionals-association/
Key Words: managing conflicts without violence, political violence, Syria
Photo credit: James Blake Wiener