- Ghiath Bilal
Reasons Behind the Failure of Work Groups
in the Syrian Opposition
This article is an attempt to social analysis of the multiplication of revolutionary, military and political entities that appeared during the Syrian revolution, their subsequent premature breaking up before fulfilling the goals they were created for. Moreover, this study also suggests solutions to remedy the weaknesses identified.
1. Characteristics of work groups
Goals and group cohesion
Revolutionary groups and “goal deficiency”
Personal goals take precedence over group goals
1.2 Rules and Regulations
Rules help shape collective identity
Dealing with deviants
1.3 Roles and Labels
Assigning role and labels
Conflict of roles
2. Institutional Work as a Tool of Development and Progress
3. The Obstacles that Prevent the Transformation into Institutions
3.1 Communication Difficulties - Technical and Cultural Reasons
3.2 The Lack of Experience and the Absence of Competencies
3.3 Financial and Foreign Intervention
4. Conclusions and Learned Lessons
"I am putting in your hands a nation, half of which are leaders and the rest are prophets." This is a statement many Syrians claim that the late Syrian president Shokri Alquatli has conveyed to the Egyptian president Jamal Abdelnasser on the occasion of handing over authority at the wake of the unity between Syria and Egypt in 1958. Alquatli probably meant to say that the majority of the Syrian people are ambitious and hard to lead. Perhaps if we zoom in on the experience of the Syrian Revolution over the last two years and scrutinize the multiple persons, entities and bodies who claimed to represent the Syrian people and who competed to lead it we could clarify the true meaning of that statement.
Although this statement attributed to the late Shukri alquatli is more than 56 years old, the phenomenon it refers to has not been given a real study in order to examine its veracity, analyze its causes, and suggest solutions to remedy it. In light of the circumstances surrounding the popular revolution that Syria is witnessing, such a study, perhaps, has become more necessary and urgent today than ever.
I have already alluded in a previous essay titled "An Administrative and Critical View of the Syrian Revolution's Entities and Organizations" to some of the reasons behind the failure of these entities. In that article, I discussed some structural and administrative weaknesses. In the current article, I attempt a social analysis of the multiplication of revolutionary, military and political entities that appeared during the Syrian popular revolution, their subsequent premature breaking up before fulfilling the goals they were created for. Moreover, this study also suggests solutions to remedy the weaknesses identified.
1. Characteristics of work groups
Whenever two persons communicate for a period of time a specific relationship between them arises. This relationship has specific delimiters and characteristics. Work groups are no different. Such groups when they increase in number the relationships that form among their members increase in complexity. Nonetheless, these relationships have common trends and characteristics that we summarize hereafter:
- Goals and group cohesion
One lives in groups in which he/she plays different roles: he is a father/mother at home, an employee at work, or a member in a political workgroup. Each of these groups is established for achieving, or increase more cohesion by specifying, certain goals designated as the purpose of the collective work within the group. Usually understanding and harmony within the group are achieved as long as a common understanding of the group’s goals exists. The existence of these goals, a common understanding of them, as well as their inclusion in an executable work plan creates a common working environment where capabilities are displayed and developed and results are achieved together. Working together within such an environment enhances communication among the group’s members thus strengthening the feeling of belonging and solidarity and creating the concept of the “We” as opposed to the concept of “I”. With the creation of the concept of “We” viewpoints are brought closer to each other, but individual behaviors within the group crystallize into roles, thus defining rights and duties. On the other hand, the disappearance of such a unifying “project” ultimately leads the group members to lose the core or center around which they congregated. Consequently, communication among members weakens and teamwork disappears, which in turn causes each member to look for a different group within which to satisfy that hunger for belonging and to play that fulfilling role once played within the first group. With time, members of such “project-less” groups will engage in administrative, organizational, or ideological conflicts that will ultimately tear apart the group and create bitterness among its members.
- Revolutionary groups and “goal deficiency”
The avowed goals of many entities that we have seen so far during the Syrian Revolution were grandiose mottos such as: overthrowing the regime, uniting revolutionary powers in Syria, creating a civilization nation, creating an Islamic state or Caliphate state. The members of these entities, after holding many meetings, try to turn their mottos into practical and executable goals; but they then discover that they disagree on how to achieve these goals though they agree on the mottoes. This disagreement practically led their groups to fail and disintegrate prematurely In other cases, the members of these entities agree on goals, but they fail to turn them into a practical and executable projects, either because of poor experience, loss of competence, or unsuitable circumstances. In such cases the group remains without any real action for a long time save regular meetings which, with the passage of time, suffer from a regular declining attendance till the complete dissolution of the group.
- Personal goals take precedence over groupgoals
During the Syrian Revolution many groups developed clear goals, and clear plans to achieving them. Even in such groups we can see failure due to the erosion of common goals. This erosion happens, for example, when some members develop personal interests that conflict with the group's interests. With time, these individuals start giving their personal interests precedence over the group’s interests. They may sometimes use the resources of the group of the group itself (its name and the labor of its members) to further their own agendas. Such a conflict of interest generates a feeling of deception and distrust, which in turn paralyzes the group and prevents its smooth operation.
1.2 Rules and Regulations:
- Rules help shape collective identity
Within work groups, rules and regulations usually appear naturally or unconsciously. They are often unwritten rules and usually derive from the norms of the social environment inside which the work group has grown after adapting them to the special needs of the group. Every group develops its own concepts of what is right and what is wrong, and what is accepted and what is not. Furthermore, collective activities contribute in bringing viewpoints closer one to the other, deepen the common understanding of the group’s goals, and strengthen the commitment to obey the group’s rules and regulations. These rules may also become values defining the identity of the group. Members feel a sense of belonging when they say “we do it this way”; it the “WE” that creates the concept of the group. For example, I recall that a member in one of the Syrian groups with which I worked who used to interrupt meeting sessions to discuss marginal issues or ones that were not on the meeting’s agenda. Upon repeating this behavior, other members reproached him the violation of the unwritten “commandment”: “one shall stick to the agenda.” I also recall another member who was reprimanded by the group for criticizing personalities rather than criticizing individual actions. “One shall not generalize from one act,” is another unwritten rule that caused the transgressor to be shunned by the group.
Groups automatically protect their rules by either gradually ostracizing the member who breaks them or by labeling him as an "undisciplined person." These rules are enforced by “disciplining” the transgressors thus drawing the lines that “need not be crossed.” These rules are actually far from static; they however change slowly and in imperceptible ways. Changing circumstances may lead to changing the rule. Certain challenges to the rules may also lead to successfully changing them. The latter scenario is more dangerous because some challenges to the established rules may lead to factionalism within the group and that manifests itself through a power struggle to redefine the identity of the group.
Certain members of work groups take the role of the “deviant;” They are those who constantly challenge the status quo of the group. They violate the rules of conduct, or they questions the “consensus,” or they aspire to play roles that are different from those that were assigned to them. The presence of such people is considered normal and necessary since it strengthens the group ties and deepens the concept of "WE" among its members who identify themselves in contrast with the “deviants.” Furthermore, these “deviants” could function as security valves against the built-up tensions. Disagreements and grievances can be vented by displacing the anger toward the deviants, whose “inacceptable” behavior can become symbols by standing for these disagreements and grievances. Power-hungry members can also use the chastisement of deviant members as a display of power or to present themselves as the protectors of the “orthodoxy” of rules and “good behavior.”
Many Syrian entities I worked with during the revolution always attempted to excommunicate such “deviants” at the first opportunity. In fact, since commitment to the group and its goals is a relative concept, it is always possible to create a “deviant” just by labeling. These groups, once they “rid” themselves of the deviant who “disturbed the peace of the group” start searching for another deviant in order to fulfill the aforementioned needs. This “witch hunt” and hyper emphasis on “Puritanism” bleeds the membership and wastes the energy of the group because members fear that they might become victims of the “next purge.” In such situations, a member may prefer to become less engaged in the activities of the group by fear of “making a mistake” or may join one of the factions that appear within the group (“doves” and “hawks” for example) in order to protect his membership or his status within the group. Such groups are consumed by power struggles and lose the ability for growth and development.
It is worth mentioning that often times some members are made into scapegoats not for violating traditions or rules but just for being different; for example, being from a different region, talking with a different dialect, belonging to a different sect or a different social group. Such a person will be considered “a deviant”, and would find quite a hard time escaping this label.
- Dealing with deviants
Successful groups are those who acquired the ability to deal with "the deviants", “the different” and consider him/her as an element of enrichment for he/she may have the ability to think outside the box and have different perspectives that might clarify issue that others find difficult to understand. At the same time, the presence of these “deviants” actually forms a kind of guarantee against isolation and the dictatorship of the “consensus” that no one dares to break. “Deviants” are a reality check that enables the work group to review its rules and regulations, its goals, as well as the foundations of its identity thus. They allow the group to develop new ideas and rejuvenate itself.
1.3 Roles and Labels:
- Assigning role and labels
In every stable relationship, there arise unconscious expectations about what each partner can offer the other partners. Based on these expectations, labels and roles are assigned and are accepted by all sides. Less formalized groups naturally develop roles for their members according to their work, abilities, and leadership. More formalized groups have stable roles that are accepted upon entrance into them; such as the roles of employer and employee, husband and wife, soldier and officer. Sometimes we may be able to choose or negotiate our roles; but at other times they are imposed on us.
One way these roles could be imposed is through labeling and classifications based on first impressions. For example, in Syrian revolutionary groups if one is bearded and is constantly praying then he might be classified as an Islamist, and hence is expected to assume the role of the preacher or the “moral policeman”, or he might be suspected of holding “takfiri” ideas (accusing people of apostasy). On the other hand, if one’s “nom de guerre” (pseudonym) is Guevara then he might be classified as a leftist, and hence is expected to avoid dealing with Islamists or to oppose any moral role of the state in society. Some of these roles of labels turn into prisons that are hard to break, which could lead to a conflict between assigned roles and desired ones.
- Conflict of roles
Through work, or because of external factors, members of the group grow and develop different interests. A better performance could also bring expectations of a different leadership role. As a result, members could feel that their roles are not “suitable” for their skills or expectations. For example, the person in charge of chanting slogans during demonstrations could build more self-confidence due to exposure or could acquire more organizational skills through observation and experience. After a while this person may want to participate in organizing demonstrations, a role already assigned to a different person, which creates a conflict within the person that will sooner or later transpire to the rest of the group. Another example that I observed in some Syrian groups is the case of the “techy” who wanted to move from the role of “up-loader of videos” to the role of “spokesperson” with all what entails from TV appearances to possible “fame” and “stardom”. There is also the member of the “General Assembly” of an organization who wants to become a member of the more exclusive “Executive Bureau”. Ambitions and expectations do lead to conflicts between the current role and the desired or expected one, as well as between the holder of a role and the person or persons who covet it and consider themselves to be deserving of it. These ambitions, expectations, and/or competitions must find “legitimate” and “constructive” channels for their expression and realization, otherwise they become quite destructive.The correspondent who desires to be a spokesperson must find ways to either achieve his/her ambitions or to reconcile them with what is available. If the group has no agreed upon processes for resolving such competitions, the previously committed and caring member may become antagonistic and destructive, and may end up developing the often encountered attitude “if not me then no one” when frustrations reach great heights. The sequence of events leading to such an attitude starts with 1) building alliances within the group in an attempt to gather support for one’s claims; then moves 2) to galvanizing the group around one’s cause thus making it the center of attention and the new definer of “clans” within the group; finally 3) extreme polarization sets in and members are forced into taking sides, for or against, with neutrality leading to marginalization. Beyond such dramatic turns of events, the group is paralyzed and most likely either fades into oblivion because of inactivity and attrition, or splinters into several groups that harbor long lasting feelings of bitterness, rancor, and betrayal.
Within the environment of the Syrian Revolution, given that most groups are based on voluntary activism and unwritten “covenants”, there are usually no “legal” processes for solving disagreements or disputes, the smallest of such problems can spiral out of control. We single out here the conflict of roles as a primary cause for of disputes that if left unresolved can either lead to 1) the loss of members because they do not want to engage in struggle so they prefer to find another group that offers them to more fulfilling role they desire; or to 2) the creation of a large number of ever shrinking groups with a very short “life expectancy”.
Only “open-minded” groups that can tolerate conflicts and disagreements and that can courageously and frankly talk about them within the confines of the group are able to achieve the ability to change and grow. There must be a solution to this continuous fragmentation and attrition of revolutionary groups that goes beyond the randomness of a group of open-minded people finding each other.
2. Institutional Work as a Tool of Development and Progress
If one does not want to leave it to chance, the institutional framework is the only hope for any collective work in the Syrian Revolution to achieve stability, permanence, and continuous growth. Institutionalizing any informal work group provides a healthy environment for competition and role changing by 1) clarifying the definitions and boundaries of the different roles within the group, 2) determining the relations between roles, and also by 3) specifying the legitimate channels for competition and the proper procedures to be followed when desiring role change or advancement within the group.
This aforementioned institutional framework requires the following:
· The setting in writing of the group’s formal structure which consists of roles, job definitions, and job stratifications.
· The setting in writing of bylaws that contain the rules and regulations governing the group’s dynamics, as well as the conditions and procedures for accessing the different jobs within the group.
· The reformulation of the group’s initial goals into a mission statement, a set of goals signaling the achievement of these goals, and a number of strategies for achieving them.
· Devising clear procedures for conflict resolution.
By defining roles and relations and setting up rule to govern their working an institution allows for change and fixes its dynamics thus slowing its pace without forbidding it. Slow and smooth change allows the group to have time for collective production, collective growth, as well as personal growth. By formulation the group’s mission and detailing it in clear and achievable goals an institution builds a common identity around working for a common objective. Here, it is important to mention that experience has shown that registering the work group with the authorities of a chosen country could successfully start the process of institutionalization. It many times provides the necessary legal framework of reference, as well as the initial instructions for creating and running the institution.
3. The Obstacles that Prevent the Transformation into Institutions
Most revolutionary entities were unable to transform themselves into institutions that are able to accumulate experiences, manage energies, and overcome obstacles of competition and change. It is noteworthy that the element of structural stability, being the basic condition for institutional work, is the one element most sorely missing on the Syrian revolutionary scene. Based on our personal experience and observations, we offer hereafter some reasons we think prevented the transformation of many groups into the institutions we just described.
3.1 Communication Difficulties - Technical and Cultural Reasons
Undoubtedly, the means of communicating among activists have been detrimental in obstructing the work of many groups and in preventing their institutionalization. We can group these difficulties into two categories, one technical and the other is cultural.
- Technical difficulties
Security pressures and the arrest and torture of activists have imposed severe restrictions on communication among activists, especially among those inside Syria.n Digital social networking technologies such as Skype and Facebook may have facilitated oral communication but ruled out face-to-face contact. In many cases the activist does not know anything about his associates except that they have been recommended by a trustworthy acquaintance. The majority of activists used and still use fake names to mask their true identities. These activists did not have any common bonds prior to the revolution, and could not develop such bonds just by exchanging sound bites over the net. The bad quality of the Syrian communication networks (mobile phone network or internet network) made for some long hours of choppy voices, interrupted calls, and dropped sound bites. If this was not bad enough, the ability of the Syrian regime to buy the latest eavesdropping technology on the international market made the life span of the best proxies no more than a couple of months. The personal security of activists was constantly compromised and many activists were confronted after arrest with recordings or printouts of their communications over Skype.
In the absence of body language (e.g. hand gestures, facial expressions) and social cues, the process of building bridges of trust and drawing healthy boundaries among activists was seriously compromised. Electronic messages are limited to spoken or written words; they therefore lack the components of visual impressions and spatial memory that are crucial for the clarity of any communication. In such circumstances, the same turn of a phrase can be understood as a compliment, a mocking gesture, or a provocation. Any language is inherently ambiguous; therefore one really needs the extra layers of visual and vocal cues in order to clarify an important message.Furthermore, communication over Skype for example makes it easy to connect with several people in a short time or simultaneously and in parallel, thus enabling a fast pace of information (good or bad) circulation and accelerates the dynamics of alliance making and “conspiracy” within a group. One could be in a meeting while at the same time opening parallel chatting lines with some of those present in the meeting. Any information revealed during the meeting can be immediately and in real time fed back into the “conspiratorial” mill thus changing the dynamics of the meeting itself, let alone the group; all that in a very short time. Such a possibility makes everyone self-conscious and in constant fear of being “out-witted” or “laughed it” by others within the group. It is reasonable to say that it is impossible to build a working group over the Internet.
- Cultural difficulties:
Undoubtedly, the suffocating surveillance and fear imposed by the dictatorial regime on Syrian during the past forty years has prevented many generation of Syrian from developing the necessary skills and cumulative knowledge necessary for collective work. Communicating with others who are outside the familiar circle, listening to them, expressing frustrations respectfully, and negotiating solutions for disputes are all skills that have to be build by experimentation under the expert eye of a mentor or a teacher. These teachers are usually the senior members of divers groups built around common interests. Their diversity is key in exposing members of these groups to the necessity of prioritizing needs, negotiating, formalizing relations, creating tools for conflict resolution that are based on abstract notions such as fairness and equality. In the Syrian Revolution one can easily observe that most work groups are based on familial, tribal, or sectarian ties that supply pre-set rules, dynamics, and structures not always conducive to fairness or freedom of expression. They also exclude the rest of society thus limiting the possibilities for growth in number.
3.2 The Lack of Experience and the Absence of Competencies:
When the popular revolution started in Syria’s cities and towns, hundreds of young men and women took to the streets. Most demonstrators were between the age of 16 and 35. Older generations had a more humble participation which can be attributed to two factors: first the memory factor, i.e. the haunting memories of the eighties, especially the massacres of Hama in 1982; second the maturity factor which puts a damper on the adventurous urge. But with age comes experience and general life skills, especially those organizational and communicational skills acquired through work and building a family.
Moreover, the first generation of demonstrators included university graduates. From the early days of the revolution, the regime realized the importance of such people and hence started targeting them. Within the first three months most of them were either assassinated by snipers while demonstrating, arrested and tortured, or escaped outside Syria. We may sound elitist, but the loss of these educated potential leaders the young and uneducated were left alone without knowledge, analytical abilities, and organizational skills; in other words, reactive masses without a compass.
3.3 Financial and Foreign Intervention:
Many countries have interests and agendas in Syrian. While direct intervention in Syrian affairs could prove complicated, acquiring proxies through money and equipment. Those proxies, located in different groups had no respect for the common goals of their groups and tried to orient them in the direction that serves the interests of their financiers. The "Political money" which entered Syria through such individuals has created “false” centers of attraction that polarized many groups and caused them to fragment; while at the same time not offering an alternative leadership with real capabilities.
Even well-intending “donors” have produced unintended consequences when they inundated the emerging groups with funds without them having the skills to absorb these funds and put them to good use. The building of institutions does not really require large sums of money for its building, even though they may require these sums for their development. Sound goals, commitments, structure, bylaws, and organizational experience do not need money. However, once these factors are in place, they can use money to produce good actions or services.
4. Conclusions and Learned Lessons
Many entities in the Syrian Revolution started with significant numbers of participants. Within a short period of time they splintered into smaller groups, became inactive, or disappeared all together. Many of them changed membership at such a high rate that the initially achieved “name and fame” did not reflect the decaying reality of the group. Many of them developed one or more of the following destructive characteristics:
- Stifling healthy differences: by harshly dealing with “deviants” many groups created an atmosphere of fear that stifled opposition to the “consensus” and mislabeling “difference” as “deviance”.
Factionalism and exclusion: elimination of “unwanted” elements because of their perceived “danger in difference” has created factions within groups for the purpose of protecting one’s membership to the group or one’s interest within the group. With time, such factions either ousted all other factions or became independent groups with a smaller number of members. The process of factionalism and fragmentation continued in the resulting groups thus disseminating many of them or sapping them of their ability to function.
- Abusing institutional tools: Institutions and their practices are not magical recipes against disorder and inefficiency. They are predicated upon a common ethos of trust, commitment, and respect of the rules. It is not difficult to use the institutional tools to create more disorder. We see this mostly with voting. Voting is a tool for reaching a decision when consensus is not achievable, but it assumes a fair competition of all participating opinions and a promise not to exclude the “loser”. We have witnessed in many Syrian groups the manufacturing of fake majorities through machination of the rules and then the imposition of the dictatorship of the “majority” as if voting legitimized the opinion of that majority and delegitimize all other opinions. This method leaves behind unhealed wounds and enmities among group members.
Conspiratorial alliances: aided by social networks, instant alliances have created unstable “majorities” that lacked the elements of trust and commitment to common goals, factors that were usually sacrificed for the sake of quick wins and fear of marginalization.
- The Syrian revolution has exhibited unique characteristics when compared to recent popular revolutions:
§ Despite the brutality of the regime and the technical difficulties, the presence of new communication technologies has enabled persevering Syrians from keeping the “battle field” exposed which has working many times to prevent atrocities and may work to convince the international community to help end this very costly conflict.
§ Despite the many weaknesses in organization that this paper is trying to identify and explain, the Syrian people have shown a great ability to learn and organize. From the Coordination Committees, to the Relief groups, and ending with the fighting groups, it was not easy for a society to be self-sufficient to this degree.
Syrians do not lack the talent or the knowledge they may however lack the institutional structures and tools to put this talent to good use for the sake of achieving freedom from oppression. The "nation half of which are leaders and the rest are prophets" needs the proper working tools in order to coordinate its efforts and make good use of its energies.