Haian Dukhan is a Carnegie postdoctoral fellow at the Central European University’s Centre for Religious Studies. He is the author of State and Tribes in Syria: Informal Alliances and Conflict Patterns (2019). Follow him on Twitter @DukhanHaian.
Iranian support for what some refer to as the “Alawite regime” in Syria, to suppress what is labeled the “Sunni opposition,” supported by Turkey, has dominated analyses of the Syrian conflict and often obscures other dimensions of the civil war. Ten years after the beginning of the Syrian uprising that turned into a civil war, debates among Syrians on the causes, consequences, and even the very starting point of the war seem to have gone beyond the sectarian narrative. Is it the March 15 protest in urban Damascus or the March 18 demonstration in comparatively more rural Dar'a that mark the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011? Intensive debates among Syrians on the actual start of the uprising reflect a deeper rural-urban divide in Syrian society.
Intensive debates among Syrians on the actual start of the uprising reflect a deeper rural-urban divide in Syrian society.
Most recently, Samir Nachar, a well-known opposition figure from Aleppo, has claimed that the Syrian uprising failed because it was led by the rural people who militarized it and Islamized it. His tweets elicited strong reactions among the Syrian public, who accused him of expressing an elitist and superior view of the rural people. The fact is that this debate and many others that have recently resurfaced reflect an important dimension that characterized the Syrian conflict. This is the rural-urban divide, which has often been neglected during discussions of the Syrian Civil War. On the tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, it is important to illuminate the fact that the rural-urban divide was one of the features that characterized the Syrian conflict since its start.
The Politics of Rural-Urban Migration in Syria from 1970s Onwards
Between its independence from French mandatory power and the 1970s, Syria’s rulers came from the major urban centers. Hafez al-Assad was the first ruler in the history of Syria to be of peasant extraction, and he was unreserved in declaring this. In addition to building his power based on a network of Alawites who held strategic positions, Hafez al-Assad broadened the base of his regime and co-opted a large proportion of the rural Sunnis— particularly from the Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and Hauran regions—into the party leadership, the army, and security apparatus. These institutions became important channels for achieving some sort of social mobility for individuals and groups who came from marginal rural communities.
Hafez al-Assad broadened the base of his regime and co-opted a large proportion of the rural Sunnis into the party leadership, the army, and security apparatus.
These changes were accompanied by large-scale migration from the rural areas to the major cities including Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. The Syrian anthropologist Sulayman Khalaf describes how in the 1970s, peasants started streaming into the cities to stake their claim on the spoils of the revolution and how Damascenes would, with obvious bitterness, mock the character of the aggressive village people who, according to them, were “naively crude and lacking urbane city ways.” For a period of four decades until the death of Hafez al-Assad, it could be argued that Syria was ruled by an alliance of rural people who were always considered of a lower status by the urban people. This alliance would crack and lead to the uprising of the marginalized rural community in 2011.
The Syrian Uprising: A Rural Uprising?
Bashar al-Assad narrowed the coalition that his father had built as he mainly relied on his family and the city merchants, while excluding the lower and middle strata of society in the periphery. At the very top of this hierarchy, there was a shift in the balance of power within the elite, against the rural class. At the same time, the regime embarked on a set of liberalization policies that mainly benefited the urban upper-middle class and the urban Syrian bourgeoisie. This is not to say that the major cities prospered during this period. There were numerous belts of poverty in the outskirts of the cities.
Bashar al-Assad narrowed the coalition that his father had built as he mainly relied on his family and the city merchants, while excluding the lower and middle strata of society in the periphery.
The regime’s ruling class was no longer made up of the sons of the rural class that Hanna Batatu neatly described. It is the rural areas and the outskirts of cities that have been marginalized and impoverished by the regime’s policies—this is where the spark of the uprising started and where its major developments took place. Affluent parts of the cities, particularly in Aleppo and Damascus, did not play a major role in the uprising. The Syrian uprising appeared to be the revolt of “periphery against center.” This is not to say that there was no opposition to the regime in Aleppo and Damascus. There were small sporadic protests, and many opposition figures who spoke against the regime came from these two cities. However people from rural areas have often described urban people as the ramadeyin (the grey people), in reference to Syrians whose political position was deemed unclear.
Rural-Urban Divisions in Syria’s Civil War
The rural-urban tension led to a situation where large number of the urbanites became afraid of the uprising, and perceived it as coming from rural areas that would eventually destroy their welfare and social status. The rural class, on the other hand, perceived the urbanites as not standing by their side against a regime that was brutally suppressing them. As soon as the uprising turned into an armed conflict, the majority of those who had joined Free Syrian Army Brigades came from rural areas of Syria. Rural armed opposition in the countryside of Damascus and Aleppo besieged the two major cities for more than three years and managed to take the eastern side of Aleppo city in 2012, with the help of rural migrants who lived there. In 2014, a Free Syrian Army officer said, “We liberated the rural parts of this province. We waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn’t. We couldn’t rely on them to do it for themselves, so we had to bring the revolution to them.”
Understanding Syria from Below: Whither Sectarianism?
In 2015, Russia intervened to prop up the Syrian regime. This intervention managed to defeat the opposition in Aleppo and Damascus. The failure of the opposition to topple the regime created new spheres of debates and discussion among Syrians on the underlying reasons behind the failure, exploring ideas that go beyond the sectarian narrative, which has become repetitive and superfluous. While sectarian dynamics should not be dismissed when we discuss the course of the Syrian uprising, it is important to stress that sect is neither the only identity marker, nor solely responsible for all the tragedy the country has suffered over the past decade. In order for Syria to overcome its calamity, future governments need to invest heavily, not only in developing the rural areas but also in bringing the war-torn rural neighborhoods on the outskirts of the cities back to life.