North Africa, West Asia

Syrians do not feel they need a state

Syrians were allowed to fear or abuse the state, never identify with it. No wonder if they have clung even to unfamiliar groups with terrifying ideologies that provided their basic needs.

Louay Hussein
19 November 2014
Overlooking Aleppo. All rights reserved.

Overlooking Aleppo. All rights reserved.

Louay Hussein, a prominent Syrian dissident, was detained last week by the Syrian security services and accused of "weakening national sentiment". He is now behind bars for writing the following article, published in Arabic on al-Hayat. His colleague, Talal Mayhani, gives further insight on the case in his article 'Why is the Syrian regime afraid of Louay Hussein?'

Syrians did not build their state in the second quarter of the past century according to the usual struggles, or agreements that go into building states; we inherited state institutions established by the French mandate. Thus, it was easy for successive military coups, which swept the country a few years after independence, to turn the state into a tool of control rather than an institution that organises the common interests of all Syrians. 

Is it not up to the people now to pick up the pieces? No. Instead it is the responsibility of those who have appointed themselves their political leaders: all their programs, attitudes and statements must focus on issues like national unity and central authority. This does not contradict the administrative de-centralisation that was necessary in order to build the new modern Syrian state, based on justice and equality for all Syrians, if by any chance one day this Syrian crisis comes to an end.

This became much clearer when Hafez Al-Assad ascended to power, and especially after he had consolidated his authority—which lasted for a long time. Political and military authorities quickly turned state institutions into agencies to oppress citizens and transform them into subjects, in the economic sense, but also socially and politically.

After three decades of Hafez Al-Assad’s rule, and over ten years of his son’s, Syrians saw the state as something alien, an entity which they might appease, con, abuse, fear, and from which they hide their opinions—everything that reinforces the dynamics separating a state from society.

Thus, receiving any services from a public office is considered an act of “generosity” by the official, since according to regulations he can do whatever he wants with public money, including leaving it to his relatives and entourage. For ordinary Syrians, even public property is considered state property—meaning the regime's property—not a commons. We can understand why Syrians show no interest in taking care of, or protecting, public property. Public property was seen as a resource to exploit, rob and misuse when possible. In short, Syrians have not experienced a state. This has serious implications and requires extensive research.

According to this understanding of state-society relations, one can understand how, a year after the eruption of the Syrian uprising, some rebellious areas demanded their independence from the state. At first, they spoke in terms of security and judicial independence, as some local leaders told Mr. Kofi Annan during negotiations in spring 2012. Back then, they didn’t have a clear idea of what this independence was, and had tried to demand it within the frame of a unified Syria.

Even the armed struggle against the security regime was mainly a regional phenomenon. Most of the armed militias remained in their indigenous areas after expelling regime and state institutions. The local militias sometimes fought against regime forces positioned in nearby areas, but they did not intend to expand their control. The slogan “overthrowing the regime”, was in actuality a regional slogan rather than a national one.

As communication between local activists and foreign governmental and non-governmental organisations grew, and as the authorities started losing more and more territory, the idea of forming local councils to take care of public affairs crystallised. Civil and military personnel formed separate town and regional councils that achieved a considerable standing during the conflict, their strength measured either by the control of armed groups, or by strong relations with external parties.

One of the most important tasks of these councils was to oversee food and medical supplies, as well as the sources of weapons and ammunition. Yet a major disadvantage of these councils was that they were formed as local entities, independent from one another in a way that prevents any need for a state.

With time, as the members of these councils assumed that they would continue to receive external funds, clearer arguments emerged for independence. This agenda went beyond independence from security and judicial systems to include other issues such as services and political representation. This was justified by claiming that independence would be a temporary condition that would terminate as soon as Bashar Al-Assad’s rule ended. But once independence was established, it would probably be hard for these areas to rejoin a central state, even with Al-Assad gone.

These regional positions are the natural outcome of the absence of any legal connection between the people in their local communities and the central state, of a sense of citizenship, or even a basic Syrian national identity; the missing element that could give clear meaning to their affiliation through common values they feel, accept and defend.

In addition to that, the regime destroyed all pre-state social structures, such as tribes and sects, and failed to build, and stopped others from building, a civic identity that establishes reciprocal relations between citizen and state. Thus, during the struggle, Syrians found non-national or pre-national social structures as a safety net to land on. This national identity crisis meant people welcomed any group that could offer them some protection and basic needs, even if they were fundamentalist groups with unfamiliar ideologies.

We can therefore understand why people in rebellious areas, or even the areas where protests were crushed, did not respond to political programmes concerned with national unity, or the common interests of all Syrians. This situation is indicative of the collapse of the Syrian state, and is also an indicator of the true danger of fragmentation of the Syrian political entity.


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