The uprising in Syria that began in March 2011 politicized the country’s overwhelmingly young population in an unprecedented way. Following the incarceration and torture of youths in the southern city of Daraa by the authorities, hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in protest against decades of state repression. They expressed discontent with how their country was being governed and demanded basic freedoms and dignity.
The opposition formed hundreds of local committees and civil society groups. These groups organized mass demonstrations in towns and cities across Syria, engaged in creative ways to express grievances, launched online publications and alternative media sites, and initiated broad-ranging debates and discussions over the Syria that they knew and the future that they desired. However, the state’s increasingly harsh response to this and the growing involvement of regional and international actors facilitated the beginning of an armed insurgency.
What Is Contentious Politics?
Those various forms of resistance to, and engagement with, the reality of the Syrian regime can be broadly labeled as forms of contentious politics—that is, the interaction between contention, collective action, and politics.1 The hallmarks of contentious politics are collective actions outside the bounds of state institutions—protests, petitions, civil disobedience, riots, and in some cases violent action and subsequently conflict. In its nonviolent forms, contentious politics is a critical component of political participation. The forms of political contention have been broad and varied around the world—ranging from the Occupy movement in the United States to more recent protests in Chile and the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. These movements have often revolved around questions of inequality, political and civic rights, especially for ethnic and religious minorities, and climate change, among others.
Contentious politics takes place under both democratic and authoritarian regimes. Its success or failure is directly connected to the political opportunities available. Those opportunities, which are determined by the openness of a contested system to emerging actors as well as the existence of multiple independent centers of power, have a significant impact on the outcome of contentious movements.2 Scholars have long noted that such movements are much more likely to succeed in democracies than under authoritarian regimes where repression may radicalize initially more moderate elements.
In 2011, political contention erupted across a large number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of citizens in the region engaged in protests of varying sizes demanding change. They acted in an unprecedented manner, coming together as individuals and groups, organizing community-based events, public debates, civic awareness campaigns, and online activism. There was also a distinctly cultural response in the form of graffiti art, street theater, and music, among other approaches.
Several factors played a critical role in determining the trajectory and outcomes of these movements. These included whether the political elite believed the protests to be an existential threat to their own vested interests; the ways in which this elite (and their militaries) chose to respond; the sociocultural contexts and past experiences of political violence; and the existence of organized civil society organizations, such as labor unions, capable of leading the charge.
The involvement of regional and international actors also affected outcomes, particularly when it led to the militarization of initially peaceful opposition to state policies. Yet the violence that ravaged countries such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen after 2011 also provided a forewarning that would reinforce the nonviolent nature of protests in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Tunisia.
Contentious Politics in Syria
When the protests began in Syria, they were met with violence by a regime incapable of accepting new actors on the scene. Within months, what had begun as a peaceful, civic uprising in which local coordination committees had played a significant role was transformed into an armed rebellion.
As armed groups, most of them funded by external actors, became active, the political opposition established a representative body in Istanbul known as the Syrian National Council in October 2011.3 Over time, the ideological spectrum of Syria’s opposition broadened. Islamic groups that had received abundant foreign funding and support, including foreign fighters, gained traction among the political and armed opposition. Some of these groups later took on an influential role in formal peace negotiations. Meanwhile, civic activists, many of whom were at the forefront of the peaceful protests, were deliberately targeted by the Syrian regime and even opposition groups. A large number of these activists—among them Razan Zeitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hamadi (known as the “Douma Four”), as well as prominent Syrian Kurdish opposition figure Issa Hiso—were either forcibly disappeared, killed, jailed, or pushed into exile. In time, opposition armed groups came to control upward of 60 percent of Syrian territory.4
Over time, the ideological spectrum of Syria’s opposition broadened. Islamic groups that had received abundant foreign funding and support, including foreign fighters, gained traction. . . . Meanwhile, civic activists, many of whom were at the forefront of the peaceful protests, were deliberately targeted by the Syrian regime and even some opposition groups.
Today, almost a decade later, the Syrian regime, with vital military help from Russia and Iran, has regained control over most of Syria. It has done so using sieges, starvation tactics, and forced reconciliations.5 Meanwhile, by the end of 2018, 6.7 million Syrians had sought refuge across the world.6 As of March 2020, at least 5.4 million of Syrian refugees resided in neighboring countries,7 while another 6.6 million are internally displaced.8
Syria’s physical destruction is extensive, and reconstruction costs have been estimated at $250 billion by the former United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.9 The World Bank has similarly estimated that, since 2010, Syria has lost the equivalent of at least $226 billion of GDP.10 In the first half of 2020, the northern governorate of Idlib, the last part of Syria still in rebel hands outside Kurdish-dominated areas, faced an offensive by Syrian regime, Russian, and Iranian forces, and more than 950,000 people were trapped by the fighting.11 Idlib has become a repository for internally displaced Syrians forced out of other areas through so-called reconciliation deals.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has made political opposition within Syria very difficult. Nonetheless, such opposition persists among activists, journalists, and academics, especially in the Syrian diaspora. This volume brings together the texts of six Syrian activists, researchers, journalists, academics, and analysts closely involved in the uprising over the past decade to assess the trajectory of Syria’s uprising and its prospects for the future. Their sections explore different forms of political contention and their continuity or departure from previous types of civic protest. They offer insights into the possibilities of civic action in the pursuit of change as the regime regains control of Syrian territory.
The authors show that contentious politics in Syria has exhibited similar characteristics to that in other countries, albeit in a far more amplified manner. While the political opportunity to push for change appeared to open up across the region in 2011, the Syrian regime was unable or unwilling to absorb new political actors. In a context of state repression and international and regional interest in funding regime change, the turn to political violence became perhaps inevitable.
The violence led to a number of challenges that served to undermine opposition to the regime. The first was organizational fragmentation. As Amr Alsarraj and Philip Hoffman show in their piece, the absence of organizational coherence and the disconnect between the internal opposition and the political opposition outside of Syria was the Achilles heel of the civil-nationalist wing of the opposition to Assad. This civil-nationalist opposition in exile remained unable to exert meaningful influence over the intricate and opaque network of civilian governance institutions that emerged inside Syria as the conflict progressed. It also remained physically separated from the myriad factions that guaranteed security in areas outside government control.
This fragmentation was amplified by a second challenge, namely that of financing a revolution. The political opposition struggled for years without the money necessary to build significant influence inside Syria. The military conflict and worsening humanitarian crisis further frustrated this opposition, as international actors created funding channels that bypassed its organizations entirely.
The organizations that paid the price for this included both military and civilian actors, as Assaad Al Achi demonstrates in his section. He shows how the three main opposition structures that emerged in 2011—the local coordination committees, the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution—were eventually co-opted by regional and international actors. This co-optation occurred in two stages. First, through the growing reliance of the armed opposition on foreign powers for funding, and then through foreign financing for nongovernmental organizations.
In time, these foreign funders came to exert considerable influence over the political and humanitarian agendas of the different groups in Syria. For civil society organizations this called into question their agency in providing services. Many later shifted to nonpolitical service provision, becoming the main purveyors of essential public services that had been the responsibility of the government in the prewar period. Today, the civil opposition faces a similar situation. The political framework for ending the Syrian conflict is for the most part defined by armed combatants and international powers. This makes a sustained civil opposition and a unified vision for Syria’s future incredibly difficult.
The political framework for ending the Syrian conflict is for the most part defined by armed combatants and international powers. This makes a sustained civil opposition and a unified vision for Syria’s future incredibly difficult.
Such challenges were accompanied by a third one: The fragmentation of Syria’s contentious movements meant that no one institution represented Syria’s opposition on the ground or in negotiations. It also meant that no one really spoke on behalf of the millions of Syrians displaced internally or forced into exile. For many of these Syrians, the political opposition was a distant reality, disconnected from their own daily misery, while the myriad military groups operating under the banner of the opposition were simply representatives of their international backers. In time many Syrians felt betrayed by these groups.12
In this context, the legacy of the past took center stage. As Alsarraj and Hoffman as well as Manhal Bareesh show in their pieces, the history of contentious politics in Syria informed the behavior of opposition actors and civil resistance. The civil-nationalist wing of the opposition, discussed by Alsarraj and Hoffman, was composed mainly of individuals and groups who had opposed the regime in the past, whether signatories of the October 2005 Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change or the Muslim Brotherhood and other activists in exile.13
This history of contentious politics also played a considerable role in Idlib Governorate, the focus of Bareesh’s section. There, a semiautonomous government emerged under the purview of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of groups whose main component was Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Bareesh argues that even though the Syrian regime and Russian forces used the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra to portray Idlib as a bastion of extremism, thereby justifying their offensive against the governorate, the reality was quite different. Local resistance to Jabhat al-Nusra’s rule was significant and was sustained through Idlib’s complex social structures and networks. These included political parties with a history of clandestine opposition to the Syrian regime, the middle class of certain towns, charismatic religious leaders, and tribes. Such dynamics, Bareesh argues, may also play a role in resisting the consolidation of regime control over Idlib, if or when it is retaken.
Opposition has developed differently in those parts of Syria under the control of the regime, which is employing every tool at its disposal to consolidate its power and survive. Sawsan Abou Zainedin and Hani Fakhani look at how reconstruction is being used to influence outcomes in these areas.
Using the construction of a new quarter in Damascus called Marota City over what had been the informal settlement of Basatin al-Razi as a case study, the authors outline the ways in which the regime is using reconstruction to reinforce its authoritarian rule. It has issued decrees facilitating the expropriation of informal settlements and private property, while its excessive procedural requirements have left thousands of evicted families caught in a corrupt bureaucratic quagmire as they try to secure alternate housing or lay claim to their property rights. With their limited means, former residents are resisting the project through state and social media, creating groups to express collective demands and share information. Syrians in the diaspora are also mobilizing to counter regime strategies. They have engaged with the international community on principles for just reconstruction, conducted spatial mappings to document property rights and violations, and formulated alternative housing options.
Parallel dynamics are also emerging in Homs, the focus of Jomana Qaddour’s piece. Homs, once hailed by the anti-Assad opposition as the capital of the revolution, was the first governorate to face a military assault by government forces, and by May 2018 had fallen to the regime. The city today is deeply divided along three distinct lines—between those with and against the regime; between sects; and between Syria’s main international backers, namely Russia and Iran. And as in its approach to Marota City, the regime is using the reconstruction of Homs to reward its constituencies and deny former opposition-held areas access to funding, or their displaced inhabitants a right of return. Sectarian tensions and the competing interests of Russia and Iran are fragmenting the city even further.
In this context of weary Homsis focused on their own survival, the prospect for peaceful contentious politics in which groups are able to make claims is very limited. More likely, Qaddour argues, Homs is a place of future conflict, one without a proper transitional justice program in place that engages with Homs’s societal rifts and ensures some form of accountability.
In sum, the different sections show that the regime’s instinct to survive at any cost closed off any possible opportunity for change. Yet resistance at various levels is not only possible, it is actually taking place. Despite all the challenges, contentious politics since the beginning of the country’s uprising has made generations of Syrians aware of their political, socioeconomic, and cultural rights. And the experience of other countries shows that contentious politics can trigger long-lasting change and affect political systems and policy options.
While the possibility of a durable political settlement in Syria seems dim today, thousands of Syrians continue to work for a country that is more just. This comes as a considerably weakened regime is obliged to rely on a broad range of military and nonmilitary actors to sustain its control over recaptured territories. Yet in some areas such as Daraa, the birthplace of Syria’s uprising, people are already back on the streets demanding change. The rivers of contention in Syria today still run wide and deep, and this will continue for the foreseeable future.
About the Authors
Maha Yahya is director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on pluralism and social justice, the challenges of citizenship, and the political and socioeconomic implications of the migration/refugee crisis.
Issam Kayssi is a research assistant at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where he works on contentious politics, mutating states, cross-border conflicts, among other issues facing the region. He holds a master of arts degree in Middle Eastern studies from the American University of Beirut, where he studied at the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES).
1 Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 7.
2 Stephen Orvis and Carol Ann Drogus, Introducing Comparative Politics: Concepts and Cases in Context (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2017), p. 602.
3 Carnegie Middle East Center, “The Syrian National Council,” Syria in Crisis (blog), September 25, 2013, https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/48334?lang=en.
4 Ben Hubbard, “Momentum Shifts in Syria, Bolstering Assad’s Position,” New York Times, July 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/world/middleeast/momentum-shifts-in-syria-bolstering-assads-position.html.
5 Emma Beals, “De-Escalation and Astana,” Atlantic Council, September 2017, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/de-escalation-and-astana/.
6 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018,” 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/5d08d7ee7/unhcr-global-trends-2018.html.
7 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Situation Syria Regional Refugee Response,” updated March 26, 2020, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria.
8 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Syria Emergency,” accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html.
9 UN Department of Political Affairs, Security Council Briefing on the Situation in Syria, Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura, November 2017, https://www.un.org/undpa/en/speeches-statements/27112017/syria.
10 European Council on Foreign Relations, “The Geopolitics of Reconstruction: Who Will Rebuild Syria?,” September 2019, https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_the_geopolitics_of_reconstruction_who_will_rebuild_syria.
11 UN Security Council, “Greater Cross-Border, Cross-Line Access Needed for Assistance to Syria, Emergency Relief Coordinator Tells Security Council,” February 2020, https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14127.doc.htm.
12 Maha Yahya, “Unheard Voices: What Syrian Refugees Need to Return Home,” Carnegie Middle East Center, April 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Yahya_UnheardVoices_INT_final.pdf.
13 Carnegie Middle East Center, “The Damascus Declaration,” March 2012, https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/48514?lang=en.