Lehman Professor Christa Salamandra: Syrian Conflict Evolved into a Civil War with Revolutionary Elements


Christa Salamandra is a Syrian media specialist and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Lehman College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.  She received a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, where she also served as Postdoctoral Research Associate. She has served as a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at Lebanese American University in Beirut, and a Visiting Fellow at the New Islamic Public Sphere Programme, University of Copenhagen. She the author of “A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria” (Indiana University Press, 2004).

Q: The conflict in Syria has been referred to as both a revolution and a civil war.  Which description is more accurate?

A: The conflict in Syria began as a revolution with civil war elements; it has evolved into a civil war with revolutionary elements. When protests began in March 2011, most of the activity involved young, peaceful pro-democracy activists who were either secular or promoted religious, sectarian, and ethnic diversity, as part of Syria’s rich social fabric. Pro-democracy activists hope to build a polity that respects all citizens and grants them freedom (huriya) and dignity (karama). At first they called for reform and later, after the government’s violent response, for the fall of the regime. They do so through physical demonstrations when possible, but army crackdowns and mass arrests provoked creative responses on the internet and guerilla art tactics: dying water in the city’s renowned fountains red, tossing golf balls bearing revolutionary slogans from the top of Damascus’ Mount Qasiun. These colorful acts of civil disobedience made for fascinating media reports, but sparked no significant response from the regime. Some frustrated opposition figures took up arms.

Foreigners commonly see Syrian sectarian divisions as primordial, yet sectarian tensions are neither ancient animosities nor the product of a power vacuum or foreign influence. They stem from the regime’s manipulation of difference, a strategy that set the stage for civil war. My anthropological fieldwork in Damascus, begun in the early 1990s, reveals that despite—or indeed because of—the al-Asad regime’s efforts to suppress them, religious distinctions have reemerged, alloyed with those of class and region. Syrians now say that what was once mere daily practice for religious minorities—not fasting during Ramadan and women unveiled in public—have become self-conscious demonstrations of identity in areas that remain diverse.

Q: What is fueling the civil war now?

A: As a Damascene friend put it, people are no longer afraid of criticizing the regime; they now fear each other. Resentment, fueled by a combination of official doublespeak, skewed access to resources, and radical exiled Islamists, instill fear among religious minorities and secularists alike. Secularists, among them Sunni believers who reject the Islamization of public life, dread the influence of the puritanical Salafism that animates factions of the Saudi and Qatari-backed opposition. The rise of Islamist in post- revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt worries them. Staunch nationalists fear Western interference. Most Syrians, urban and rural Sunni Muslims suffering from unrelenting authoritarianism and devastating drought, have less to lose. Underclass youth swell the ranks of peaceful protestors, opposition militias, and shabbiha, armed gangs of regime supporters.

Q: Who are the opposition, and what do they want?

A: There is no unified opposition. The divisions sown during the five decades of Ba‘thist rule have grown into a range of ideological and social positions that render agreement virtually impossible. Various incarnations of exiled opposition groups, such as the Syrian National Council, are variously described as hopelessly divided or answerable to the Syria Muslim Brotherhood, despite a secular figurehead leadership.  Many prominent opposition figures have refused to join or resigned from these organizations.  Both they and much of the armed internal opposition have links to the Saudi Arabian and Qatari monarchies, neither of which advocate a democratic Middle East.

The internal opposition includes secular-oriented militias along with a range of Islamist groups who differ on the role of Islam in a post-Ba’thist Syria. Some of these are merely concerned to return Islam to public life, and to empower a Sunni Muslim majority that has long perceived itself as oppressed. Others envisage an Islamic state with clerics holding the reins of power and shari‘a law governing all aspects of the polity. Reports suggest that Islamist groups garner more support from the Gulf monarchies who fear Shi’ite influence in the region in general, and Iran in particular. Their fighting has been effective enough to attract fighters who do not share their views to join their ranks. Clearly, the internal armed opposition is increasingly islamicized. There is evidence of foreign Jihadists and al-Qaeda-linked forces, but their numbers are either nonexistent or unreliable.

Q: What should President Obama do?

A: Defense experts have been debating the pros and cons of a limited military strike, a punitive measure in response to the chemical attack in eastern Damascus. A recent Russian initiative to secure and disable Syria’s chemical weapons stash may avert a US military operation. Whatever the merits of these proposed actions, they will do little to stem the ongoing death and destruction in Syria. The suffering of the Syrian people, and the potential for instability in neighboring countries, will endure. The only long-term solution is a political one, such as the current U.S.-Russia plan. We have reached a juncture calling for creative, outside-the-box thinking to move beyond this impasse. I believe Obama should continue to promote serious negotiations with Russia, and—crucially—Iran as serious partners. Engaging Iran’s new leadership, and recognizing this country’s important role in the region, will go a long way not only toward stopping the bloodshed in Syria, but also toward defusing dangerous tensions in the wider region. Therefore, engaging Iran, and promoting a true democracy in Syria rather than a Gulf-backed replacement dictatorship, is in America’s long-term interests.