Exploring the Primordial Foundation of the Syrian Civil War: Incentives for Ethno-Religious Group Mobilization in Conflict

Exploring the Primordial Foundation of the Syrian Civil War: Incentives for Ethno-Religious Group Mobilization in Conflict

Gabriel White

Between 1976 and 1982, a string of Islamist revolts rocked northwestern Syria. During those years, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood waged an insurgency against the regime of Hafez al-Assad, culminating in the deaths of some 30,000 people in the Hama Massacre.[i] The uprising's leaders were executed or exiled and the Syrian Muslim brotherhood found itself in ruins, yet three decades later many of the same areas that took part in that Islamic uprising would revolt again.

Primordialist approaches traditionally hold identity as a natural occurrence, a product of language and culture that is largely immutable. These identities primarily bear sub-national characteristics, components of group membership are grounded in shared practice and attributes, such as language, race, ethnicity, religion, or regional associations.[ii] Though most scholarly work on identity has shifted away from this framework towards theories of social construction the paradoxical question remains, why do durable primordial-like identities persist?  

An answer can likely be found in contemporary constructivist scholarship. This school sees ethnic and national identities as social constructions, reinforced by categories of memberships by both in-group and outgroup associations, whether they be national, racial, ethnic, religious, or political. Fearon and Laitin argue in Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity, the content of these categories is prone to change over time, as are boundaries between social categories. This flexibility does explain why conflict between groups and even group identification is subject to temporal change, but in the absence of national loyalties primordial like identities persist with remarkable durability.[iii] The sum of these conditions in the Syrian example is a plethora of identities bound at varying degrees to shared conceptions of kinship, some supplanted by national loyalties others defined by its absence.

The origins of the Syrian Civil War are difficult to determine, although commentators mostly argue that the war began in response to a violent crackdown on protests that took place across much of the country in 2011.  Syria, like many of its neighbors, experienced a wave of civil disobedience beginning, in March 2011. Following the torture, imprisonment and murder of a group of teenagers in the southern city of Dara’a, protests emerged in many of Syria’s most populous cities.[iv] In response, government security forces were deployed across much of the country in a campaign of violent suppression. Over the course of weeks hundreds had been killed, members of the Syrian military had begun to defect, and the northwestern city of Jisr al-Shughur fallen into open insurrection for the second time in thirty years.[v]

The turn to violence, undoubtedly capitalized on a number of existing trends, latent tensions, and most importantly identities. The answer for why the conflict devolved so quickly into sectarian war is a result of a cocktail of contingency; its ingredients are numerous ranging from the historical socialization of Sunnis in the country’s north, and their subsequent disenfranchisement from the regime to an inherently weak national identity project.

Throughout the first year of the war, and the transition from protest to conflict the majority of key events in 2011 occurred along preexisting geographical and ethno-religious divides within the country.  The brutality of the state’s response and the use of co-ethnic and religious elements of the military to quell their own ethno-religious groups ensured early defections, and an avenue for Sunni military mobilization under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).[vi]Another popular argument claims that the very structure of state institutions contributed to and perpetuated the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria. Because most of Syria’s national governmental institutions, the military, secret police, and the ruling Ba’ath party were, and remain, firmly controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s own Alawite minority, an opposition would principally emerge from outside rather than from within.[vii] Though there is significant truth to this line of reasoning, the approach fails to appropriately explain why Sunni participation in the regime remains significant. However, that does not mean that the sectarian war narrative is not appropriate.[viii]

The association of particular ethno-religious groups with government institutions amalgamates minority group interests, in the case of Syria, with the interests of the state. The system produces an environment in which ethno-religious distinction is a highly salient component of society. The perception of Alawite dominance of the Syrian security forces ensured a partial Sunni response to manifest along ethno-religious lines in retribution to atrocities committed against protestors in the first months of the uprising. This contingency effectively incentivized the emergence of political-military (armed organizations with distinct political objectives) rooted in apparent primordial identities, yet this cleavage did not manifest universally across Syrian society. The principal question then is why did armed resistance against the regime emerge in some places, namely the northwestern provinces and parts of the south while in other Sunni majority areas it did not?  An answer to this question warrants considering both instrumentalist approaches to identity as well as Syria’s history.

Throughout Syria’s colonial and independent history, no singular identity has been able to transform itself successfully into a national identity, but there have been attempts made to achieve one. Pan-Arab nationalists under King Faisal attempted to secure an independent nation-state in Syria after it was clear British promises made during the First World War were second to those of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement which promised Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Eastern Turkey to the French. The project ended in failure following the Franco-Syrian War and the collapse of the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria (March 8th - July 24th 1920). That same year the French Mandate in Syria officially began, dividing Syrian and Lebanese territories into six separate administrative areas.

The French, believing that Pan-Arab nationalists were the greatest threat to colonial rule produced a system of minority promotion and favoritism. The partition of Syria granted semi-autonomous configurations to both the Druze and Alawites, with borders being drawn to favor their ethno-religious supremacy in Jabal Druze and the conglomeration of contemporary Tartus and Latakia governorates that was the Alawite state. The remainder of the Syrian territory, most of it being majority Sunni Arab was divided between Damascus, Aleppo, and the Sanjak of Alexandretta.[ix] Throughout the early history of the mandate there were several revolts including the Alawite Revolt of 1919, the Aleppo Hananu Revolt of 1920, and most significantly the series of uprisings known as the Great Syrian Revolt (1925-27), a collection anti-colonial movements across the mandate instigated by the Druze downing of a French aircraft.[x] What is remarkable about both the frequency and scope of the revolts is that they suggest that the salience of ethno-religious identities was already notable at the offset of the French Mandate.

During the 1930s, Syria enjoyed a brief period of increased national autonomy as the Syrian Arab Republic, ending with temporary suspension following the Turkish annexation of Alexandretta, and the beginning of World War II. The republic gained full independence in 1945, however, after a decade of political instability the country voted overwhelming to support short lived United Arab Republic union with Nasser’s Egypt in 1958. Three years later a group of Syrian military officers led a coup against Nasser’s forces in Syria, heralding in a return of the independent state as it is known today, the Syrian Arab Republic.

In the following years, the country would descend into a period of renewed political instability, with a coup in 1963 installing a Ba’athist government, and follow-up coups altering ruling party structure in 1966, finally in 1970, bringing Hafez al-Assad to power. The Ba'athist regimes of Hafez al Assad and his son Bashar attempted to build a broadly appealing national identity project on top of many preexisting durable ethno-religious identities. The regime of Hafez al-Assad actively cultivated a Ba’athist state ideology, however unlike its predecessors it even attempted to extend national membership to Syria’s most significant non-Arab ethnic group, the Kurds.[xi]


While Ba’athism is, at its forefront, pan-Arab and secular, the Assad regime further dichotomized the state’s identity project by incorporating Islamist elements into institutional practices. Perhaps recognizing the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, both of the Assads carefully navigated Sunni political demands by introducing religious denominational requirements for office, including that of the president, but they did so while seeking to legitimize their own minority rule. While the results are questionable, as is evident both in 1980s uprisings example as well the ongoing catastrophic civil war, there is little doubt that the Assads’ identity projects have failed to penetrate the same niche which had been previously occupied by the state narrative and identity of Baathism’s chief competitor, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reasons for this failure are twofold, building national loyalties through ideological bonds are never easy, and building them on top of existing primordial group loyalties are even more difficult. The success of the state project in winning over some Sunnis of the upper and middle classes, along with the Damascene poor can be attributed both to actual successes in incorporating them into the state - and thus expanding their complacency in the identity project of the regime.

Returning to 2011, the introduction of violence into the question of ethnic identity begins to explain how a series of protests and their suppression could yield an increasingly intractable sectarian war, as it takes only one group’s mobilization along ethnic grounds to spur many others. The historical examples of this phenomena numerous but the most telling is that of Yugoslavia – which clearly demonstrated the rising opportunity costs for failure to mobilize coupled with the dynamic of a state entity associated primarily with one primordial group.  The use of excessive force against protesters incentivized group mobilization primarily in the same societal niche that had participated in the earlier Islamic uprising. Yet therein lies a dichotomy, if the threat a forceful suppression is intended to de-incentivize civil disobedience, then why did groups form not only along a basis of protest, but also to fight back?

Existing literature on the violent suppression of peaceful movements suggests that ironically that the act of suppression itself produces armed resistance.[xii] This apparent dichotomy, the incentive to fight (and possibly die) as a response to existing violence is however equally symptomatic the preexistence of a belief system and highly durable shared conceptions of group membership. Furthermore, within a system in which ethno-religious group associations are highly salient when violence does occur one might expect it to fall along boundaries between groups, whether latent or newly created. Once more, the association of security forces with a particular group — the Alawites — reinforced both outgroup stereotypes, along with in-group membership criteria. Defining difference becomes an integral aspect of defining in-group conceptions of membership. In Syria, it should be unsurprising that shared religious practice has become, perhaps the most significant component political-military organizational identities.

A sub-set of social constructivists theories, namely instrumentalism, suggest that formations of group associations may be attributed to social or economic incentives. While both aspects certainly feed into the cocktail, the striking disparity in resource wealth between the opposition groups of Idlib to the Kurds of Cizire is worth noting. One might expect social association costs to be similarly linked to economic opportunity — in the Kurdish example the incentive to revolt was certainly amplified as it promised control over significant oil fields in the country’s northeast. In Idlib, no such resource such as oil exists, and such no clear economic incentive for revolt can be found other than in general autonomy, but the social incentives particularly among the mostly homogenous Sunni areas are numerous — particularly after the war had begun and the opportunity cost for active association (and insurrection) were diminished.

A secondary component to instrumentalist approach should consider both the proximity of Sunni majority population centers to the regime’s coercive capabilities as well as those populations’ overall participation in regime institutions. This line of thought would indicate that those who had the most to lose in terms of social status or economic position, as well as those who were most likely to be killed early would naturally not revolt.   The instrumentalist arguments offer critical insights into incentive based decision making and affiliations, but they must also be coupled with latent durable identities that predated the conflict. In a sense, the formation of political-military organizations rooted in primordial like ethno-religious identities was possible because both the shared conception of these identities existed and the social incentives were in place for them to be fully realized.

Mobilization can therefore be explained as a result of a cocktail of contingency. Latent primordial identification had pre-imposed understandings of kin and kinship, a lack of national loyalty while governmental disenfranchisement made and maintained conceptions of that group. The use of violence threatened that group and incentivized mobilization, and finally the association of the regime with other primordial groups hardened in-group and outgroup associations. The formation of Sunni political military organizations against the state in the northwest sent reverberations across the country, increasing the salience of boundaries between some ethno-religious groups, and diminishing others.

Group mobilization incentivizes further mobilization by other groups, both in response to potential competition but also from the increasing costs for the failure to mobilize. In the instance of Syria, the mobilization of a Sunni group against the state incentivized the counter mobilization of the Kurds as a means of securing their own interests.[xiii] In the Kurdish majority parts of the country this mobilization in turn yielded further counter mobilization, with the formation of National Defense Forces, not unlike the isolated pockets of Shia in Syria’s northwestern cities of Nubl, Kafarya, al-Zahra and al-Fauh.[xiv]

End Notes

[i] Brynjar Lia, “The Islamist Uprising in Syria, 1976-82: The History and Legacy of a Failed Revolt,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, Issue 4, 2016

[ii] Murat Bayar, “Reconsidering primordialism: an alternative approach to the study of ethnicity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 32, Issue 9, 2009

[iii] Keith Darden and Harris Mylonas, “The Promethean Dilemma: Third-party State-building in Occupied Territories,” Ethnopolitics Vol. 11, Issue 1, 2012

[iv] Kareem Fahim and Hwaida Saad, “A Faceless Teenage Refugee Who Helped Ignite Syria’s War,” The New York Times, February 2013

[v] Joseph Holliday, “Middle East Security Report 2: The Struggle for Syria in 2011,” The Institute for the Study of War, December 2011

[vi] Rashad Al Kattan, “Decisive Military Defections in Syria: A Case of Wishful Thinking,” War on the Rocks, September 2016

[vii] Heiko Wimmen, “Syria’s Path from Civic Uprising to Civil War,” Carnegie, Middle East Center, November 22, 2016

[viii] Cyrus Malik, “Washington’s Sunni Myth and the Middle East Undone,” War on the Rocks, August 23, 2016

[ix] Philip Shukry Khoury, “In Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945,” Princeton University Press, 1987, page 515

[x] Michael Provence, “The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism,” University of Texas Press, 2005

[xi] Ola Rifai, “The Identity balance during the Syrian uprising: a vehement reconstruction?” Center for Syrian Studies, University of St. Andrews, January 2014

[xii] Adria Lawrence. 2010. “Triggering Nationalist Violence: Competition and Conflict in Uprisings against Colonial Rule,” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 2

[xiii] Mark R. Beissinger, “Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State,” Cambridge University Press, 2002

[xiv] Robert Fisk, “Syria civil war: The untold story of the siege of two small Shia villages - and how the world turned a blind eye,” Independent, February, 2016


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I think that we can all agree that rebellions have both primordial and instrumental origins, particularly where the Middle East/North Africa and Balkan regions are concerned.

I was surprised that Mr. White did not touch on the role of Arab Nationalism in the postwar period and its great strides in nation-building in the face of sectarian and tribal identities.

Arab Nationalism was broken on the rock of Israel, with Hussein's adventures in Iran and then Kuwait being mere last gasps.

After the Yom Kippur War, Ba'athism and Arab Nationalism degenerated into hollow ideologies that merely existed to support tyrannical dynasties that seemed no more legitimate than the monarchs and clerics they had overthrown in decades past.

Yet is Arab Nationalism really an antidote to the transnational decentralized political violence of Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Daesh, et al?

Not only did Arab Nationalism lead to at least 5 major wars, but it caused at least 2 nuclear-armed great power confrontations and led to various nuclear and chemical weapon proliferation scares.

Perhaps we should take some solace that a coalition that could be attempting to overrun Israel, overthrow the Gulf monarchies or seal off the Strait of Tiran is instead fighting among itself...

Interesting thesis. One interesting test would be to see if there is correlation between the proportions, number, and concentrations of these "primordial" groups (first I've seen these identities generalized beyond ethnic group to religious identity, sep topic tho). What strikes me as needing a little more attention is the capacity of an ethnic group to mobilize resistance.

In Syria, as in Libya and Yemen, the Arab Spring's descent into chaos was precipitated by Army defections. In the Muslim Brotherhood example we have a financed, organized, party that was able to mobilize sufficiently to oppose the Assad regime, for a little bit. So I wonder, even if the mobilization-counter mobilization conclusion holds, does it not stand to reason that had the Army not began fracturing, all that mobilization would have gone south faster than the Muslim Brotherhood one, seeing as how these were much more spontaneous and thus less organized?

Which brings a wider point, the periods of Arab revolts and counter-revolts in the post Ottoman period were marked by military coups and periods of weak militaries. In virtually every case where a central government gained (or maintained) a hold of the Armed forces, periods of relative stability followed, granted they were in oppressive environments that usually privileged minorities to maintain control,rather than robust civil society. Every Arab spring collapse except Yemen was against a powerful and fairly oppressive monarchy.