When peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria erupted into a civil war, the bulk of the violence was attributed to cracks along ethnic boundaries. But according to political scientist Kevin Mazur, these ethnic lines are much more blurred than they appear to be.

On Oct. 8, 2021, Mazur, a Future of Conflict Fellow in the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project at Princeton and visiting political science researcher at Northwestern, discussed the writing process and overarching concepts in his new book, Revolution in Syria: Identity, Networks, and Repression, at Global Lunchbox. The online conversational forum is hosted weekly by the Weinberg College Center for International and Area Studies.

Mazur started the Q&A by delving into how, when initiating research for his book, he was faced with the challenge of compiling objective information. He saw major discrepancies between national coverage of the conflict, which displayed people amassing in large public squares and making demands for freedom, and local or state-level coverage, which showed people amassing in public squares to support the president and oppose the uprising.

To reconcile with the multiple narratives at play, Mazur triangulated sources and pieced together journalistic reports, quantative data about violence rates and qualitative narratives, interviewing activists, ex-civil servants and people who were displaced as well as regime supporters.

“Our default is to adjudicate and say that all of the things that are coming out of the media that we don’t watch very much are completely wrong, and I think that … you have to investigate this a little more carefully,” Mazur said. “What I ended up doing was reading a lot of different sources and then doing my own interviews and talking to people who had interviewed on the ground of these places, which don’t show up in either source.”

This sense of polarization is also prominent in ideas about the progression of conflict in Syria as a whole, Mazur said.

“We tend to think that there was a peaceful phase and a violent phase,” Mazur said. Instead, “it’s overwhelmingly peaceful but not entirely peaceful in the beginning, and when you have a violent phase, you still have much more peaceful demonstration and organizing going on,” he added. “There are a bunch of different narratives that are going on. We have to accept that there’s a variety, and then say ‘what are the mechanisms that are pushing it from one way to the other?’”

Mazur implored people to think about the conflict in a less binary sense of “ethnic or not ethnic,” but rather to consider which aspects have ethnic appeals, which symbols are influenced by ethnic groups and which networks are contained within those ethnic groups. Those are the choices that influence support and expansion of a conflict or cause, Mazur said.

Mazur’s interviews along with his consideration of the conflict’s underlying structures prompted the political scientist to focus on more local considerations rather than looking at the crisis from a national perspective.  

When asked about the limitations of viewing the Syrian conflict as a national crisis, Mazur said that the idea of a nation-wide calling for a new citizenship contract with the state has a restricted spatial and temporal scope, excluding those who are disconnected from governmental issues and lack the resources to prioritize the national interest over personal interests.

“The idea of it being a national revolution was limited precisely because you had all of these other elements of people who don’t think about how they’re behaving and what they can get from the state,” Mazur said.  “They don’t have good connections. People that are not part of … an urban elite are going to express grievances in a different way. The idea of a national citizenship contract doesn’t mean much to them.”

Addressing dynamics such as elders limiting direct communication with the state, and attempts at self-defense by bringing weapons to protests which further antagonized the state, Mazur linked complexities at the local level to the escalation of violence.

“These different strands [are] analytically separate, but they pull together at some of these sites,” Mazur said. “When that type of escalation happened and you get these sustained clashes in some of these public squares, of course, that shifts the direction of contention and makes it more violent, and it also shifts the people that are in it.”

Mazur concluded the webinar by providing concrete contingencies and scenarios where ethnic boundaries were unable to define opposition, emphasizing that understanding this multifaceted conflict involves having a dynamic, grounded view on the influences of ethnicity.

“[Ethnicity] clearly doesn’t matter for some people,” Mazur said. “There are people today with the regime that is ethnically dominated that are Sunni. There are businessmen that are Sunni that are dealing with [the regime], that are more with [the regime] than those that are the same ethnicity as the regime that have been pushed out of the country by the regime’s oppression. In any conflict that has ethnic structuring to it, there’s still going to be people who don’t conform to what their ethnic group ‘should’ do.”

Thumbnail courtesy of the Weinberg College Center for International and Area Studies.