By Rahaf Aldoughli
When Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was running for re-election in 2021, scenes of patriotic regime loyalists piercing their fingers to vote “yes” in blood went viral on social media and in the country’s news blogs. Similar videos of emotional and near-ritualistic support for the regime have been the norm for decades, going back to the initial ascendance of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, in the 1970s. While some of these spectacles may be staged and enforced by the regime, the sheer volume and enthusiasm of loyalist affinity poses a challenge to those who would like to believe that Assad is isolated and that he maintains power only through fear and violence. The ideological and emotional hegemony that is often wielded by dictators should not be underestimated, and it has significant implications for the notion of shared futures and national reconciliation.
Western visions for a post-war Syria often entail the creation of disarmament and reintegration programs oriented toward members of Islamist groups and militias. However, there is less discussion about how the legacies of state authoritarianism in regime-controlled or otherwise loyalist areas will likely hinder any type of post-war reconciliation. Even in countries that have transitioned to democracy after decades of authoritarianism, the process has often been slow and fragile partly due to the psychological legacies and habits of dictatorship, which can lead people to see authoritarianism and patronage as a first answer to any hardship, conflict, or other personal difficulty.
Many analysts and political pundits have categorized Syrians into seemingly clear-cut divisive groups, labelling them according to their sect, religion, ethnicity, or more aggressively according to their political orientation. Terms such as “loyalist” (mwali) and “opposition” (mu’arud) in a binary narrative have also featured predominately among opposition groups and regime officials. Another term, “neutral” (ramady), also became popular among both opposition and regime officials. In his interview with Barbara Walters on Dec. 6, 2011 Assad hailed those with neutral political standpoints, claiming that they provided him with legitimacy. At the same time, those who have an ambivalent political position such as the neutrals are continuously perceived by the opposition as accomplices of the regime; this again imposes a politicized binarism that “if you are not with the revolution, then you are an Assadist.” Such hardened categorization of Syrians underestimates the impact of the process of ideological indoctrination and consequently divides Syrians even more.
While some have framed the logic of support or regime loyalty as stemming from sectarian affiliation, material benefits, or social status, no one has addressed how ideology and socialization over the previous five decades have impacted Syrians’ political judgment and in turn helped form a support base for Assad. Indeed, as in any war and armed conflict, the simplistic classification of parties — dividing Syrians into “opposition,” “loyalist,” and “neutral” camps — reflects an inadequate understanding of how political loyalty, passive consent to a polity, or even mobilization of dissent are to great extent shaped by long decades of ideological indoctrination and coercive tactics.
For more than 50 years the Ba’ath regime in Syria has propagated a model of national ideology that emphasizes a chivalrous and militaristic affiliation with the regime as a form of personal identity and a mode of social advancement. While the top-down control of material resources and information certainly contributed to the maintenance of the Assads’ power, the widespread internalization and replication of loyalist ideology among large segments of the general population have become the central means by which the regime continues to function. Even among those Syrians who do not consider themselves Assad loyalists, there is often a sense of political apathy or lack of belief that a different society could be possible. Such Syrians frequently describe themselves as politically “neutral” or “grey” (ramady) and focus instead on personal material success and stability. Many so-called neutrals as well as loyalists tend to look back with nostalgia on the era of relative social order and the submersion of sectarian and ethnic differences that was enforced under the Baathist dictatorship. With an opposition that is increasingly fragmented among various identities and ideologies, and a war that has dragged on for more than 10 years, there is great reason for concern that political fatigue, depression, and authoritarian nostalgia will continue to plague Syrian politics far beyond any potential political agreement to end the conflict.
The current pressing question that dominates analyses of the Syrian conflict is how to end the war in a military sense. Once that happens, however, we will be confronted with the question of how to build an alternative vision and put Syria back together to prevent a resurgence of violence. The sharpening of sectarian and ethnic lines that has occurred during the conflict will create an obstacle to democratic reforms, as will the continuation of mental and political habits ingrained through multiple generations of authoritarianism. In order to challenge these authoritarian legacies and help prevent a resurgence in political violence, the international community must pay close attention to how U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 will be implemented, and its impacts on identity narratives and citizens’ attitudes.
While no two countries are identical, past examples of post-authoritarian nations offer useful insights for policymakers. In post-Baathist Iraq, the interim U.S.-led regime purged the Iraqi government of anyone who was identified with or linked to the Ba’ath party. Senior professionals holding high-level positions in the political, military, and civil sectors were removed. This resulted in a strong sense of exclusion and disenfranchisement among significant portions of the Iraqi population, and it was commonly viewed as a sectarian effort targeted against Sunnis. In addition, the legitimacy of the interim government was severely damaged by the perception that it was the puppet of a foreign power (the U.S.). The refusal to allow anyone associated with the Baathists to participate in the national reconstruction of Iraq directly contributed to the outbreak of civil war in 2006.
The need to address and re-integrate regime loyalists (as well as various militia factions) into a shared society raises the question of what kind of process and policies would be more effective. I would argue that authoritarian legacies should be countered by a bottom-up process in which diverse Syrian civil organizations are empowered to mediate reconciliation efforts and to establish new national narratives and common ground. This does not mean that combatants should be given broad amnesty, as occurred in Lebanon after that country’s civil war. In that case, the predominant narrative became one of enforced amnesia, in which underlying memories and tensions were never truly examined and resolved. This again contributed to protracted conflict and civil dysfunction. Thus, the international community should continue to support Syrian-led initiatives to prosecute combatants who are proved to have committed crimes, for example in a process similar to the recent Koblenz trial that convicted a senior Syrian regime official of crimes against humanity. Such prosecutions, however, should not extend to a blanket alienation or condemnation of all individuals associated with the regime. The difficult choices faced by such individuals and the decades of widespread social indoctrination that they encountered should be taken into account, as a starting point for developing new political narratives of democracy and reintegration.
Another potential point of common ground for Syrians can be found in the rejection of foreign “meddling.” Close following of loyalists and even the official page of the Syrian Republic Guard on social media show explicit criticism of Iranian and Russian intervention. Likewise, most of the country’s diverse factions agree that interventions by regional and international powers during the war have largely served to advance those foreign countries’ geopolitical agendas rather than the interests of Syrians. For example, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. in that country’s “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” are widely viewed in Syria as being equally harmful to the opposition’s efforts as they are to Assad. Academics and policy analysts have questioned the benefits of sanctions in overthrowing authoritarian regimes or even changing regime behavior. Moreover, sanctions have also stripped Syrians of their agency, as they have become part of the broader dispute between the U.S. and Russia, turning the Caesar Act into leverage used by great powers to further their own interests as opposed to a political tool in the hands of Syrians. Because sanctions were encouraged by and perceived as an outcome of Syrian lobbying in the U.S., this has created a social fracture among Syrians. Ordinary Syrians living in regime-controlled areas, who are also subject to regime’s entrenched anti-Western propaganda and a narrative that casts any Syrian opposition as a terrorist, fundamentalist, or accomplice with Israel, look with hostility toward Syrian opposition groups and attribute their hardships to Syrians who fled the country. Therefore, Syrians in the diaspora should offer help through civil organizations and the West and the U.N. should facilitate such communal networks. This will help to construct more of an inclusive national narrative — one that goes beyond with/against Assad — and create a sense that Syrians are all one in this. Moreover, effective steps can be taken by Syrian lobbying groups in the West where steps to alleviate economic sanctions must only be made if mechanisms to ensure the safe return of refugees and allow local civil society organizations to distribute aid are implemented first.
Mounting criticism of the regime from its loyalist base for its economic failure can be another common ground among all Syrians. One way Syrian diaspora groups and independent Syrian policy actors can reclaim agency is through producing an inclusive national narrative that focuses on criticizing Assad’s manipulation of sanctions by diverting millions in aid from foreign agencies. Reclaiming agency by producing an alternative narrative by Syrians in the diaspora that facilitates criticism against authoritarianism and cronyism should go in parallel with developing a mechanism to support vulnerable groups in regime-controlled areas to survive a desperate economic situation. This should not be by inducing Syrians inside the country to risk their lives to confront an aggressive regime but by playing an active role in challenging a siege mentality created by the sanctions and in discrediting the regime’s claims to legitimacy, which use anti-Western, “rally around the flag” narratives as mobilizing tools. This in turn could help build a base to challenge authoritarian tendencies in post-conflict Syria. The international community should explore ways to support spaces for political dissidence inside regime areas, simultaneously working with regional actors to support decentralized governance structures in non-regime-controlled areas under their influence. In a similar fashion, many loyalists have become resentful of Russian and Iranian involvement, suspecting that these powers do not really have their wellbeing at heart. Syrians can come together to reclaim their agency by opposing the country’s use as a pawn in international power games, while also tackling issues of authoritarianism and cronyism within Syrian society that help to enable this foreign meddling. Improving local governance and living conditions in non-regime-controlled areas could present an alternative desirable politics for loyalists and neutrals who are concerned with re-establishing order and prosperity.
Finally, the reconstruction of Syria can benefit from the safe return of refugee and diaspora populations and the empowerment of the younger generations. Civil groups and policy makers should also think of how to benefit from the emergence of a new generation of Syrians over the decade-long conflict. Many such individuals today have little allegiance to either the Assad regime or opposition militias. As such, they are well-situated to establish connections with Syrians inside the country and to help depolarize and depoliticize the narrative. It is vital to challenge the knee-jerk authoritarian assumption that differences in political views are grounded in conflicts between different communities, identities, sects, and patronage networks. This can be done by ensuring that reconstruction does not exclude any group or pit one sect or ethnicity against another. We know from prior experiences with democratization that its success depends on the establishment of a new form of political culture and an active citizenry. Therefore, the process of reconciliation and conflict reduction should begin with Syrians looking inward and assessing their country’s own civic conditions, rather than assuming that external agencies or strongmen can step in and rescue us from the destructive legacy of the war.
This article was originally published by the Middle East Institute. This publication was produced as part of the XCEPT programme, a programme funded by UK Aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.