- Ghiath Bilal
Scholars of social organisation explain the emergence of different communities within societies through the multiplicity of narratives social actors hold.
Effective narrative is capable of transforming a group of humans into an organised social group capable of making an impact, through providing a common understanding for the aims and functions, and mobilising through crystallising the “us”.
Narratives are constituted of four main elements: (1) who are we? (2) What do we want? (3) How can we achieve it? (4) When should we start?
Disagreement over any of the answers to those main questions creates a new narrative, which leads to the creation of an identity that is different from others. This leads to the creation of multiple communities and identities within society, as well. Disagreement is also the reason for the fragmentation and division among groups after their construction.
The most threatening among these disagreements are usually related to the question of who we are, because they lead to the multiplicity of grand narrations within a community, which feed the seeds of significant fractures within its structure. Multiple narrations relating to ‘who we are’ are considered one of the main roots for civil war. If a group becomes exposed to severe injustice, which cannot be resolved through dialogue, negotiations, and peaceful tools for change, it will become excluded and will cluster around its own narration. The narration will also include a discourse of injustice, which increases its differentiation from its surroundings and crystallises its own identity.
Between March 2011 and Ramadan in July of the same year, the Syrian revolution preserved a singular narrative that was held by all rebelling factions, and which was composed by all elements that constitute a narration. All coordination committees in every single rebelling neighbourhood adopted this singular narrative. The narrative can be summarised as follows: an aggrieved people, which was exhausted by injustice and humiliation, and they went out on the streets demanding an authoritative regime to grant them freedom, dignity, and rights. The people utilised peaceful demonstrations and protests, and decided not to stop until they become included in the decision-making with regards to the affairs of their lives.
At that time, toppling the regime was not agreed on, but that did not lead to wide fragmentation in the revolutionary narrative, and could not have lead to the fragmentation of the grand narrative that was prevalent at that time. However, many groups and factions that had their own narrations emerged, and those still held strong to the main elements of the grand narrative, discussed above. The Union of Syrian Coordination Committees (USCC) and the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) were organised groups that represented most local activists, while the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) tried to represented the elite and the minorities among the activists.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) emerged shortly after, and introduced itself as representative of the revolution and the demands of the people, and chose to work on the political front to achieve the aims of the revolution. The council included prominent opponents to the regime, who were organised in committees that opposed the regime before the revolution. The narratives of all these entities completely matched that of the grand and prevalent revolutionary narrative at that time.
The Fragmentation of the Original Revolutionary Narrative
Since the beginning of Ramadan (June 2011) during the first year of the revolution, the Syrian regime drove the army and heavy weapons to the heart of rebelling cities. The regime occupied Al-Asi Square in Hama, and its tanks settled in the cities of Dayr al-Zawr and Idlib after protesters in millions joined demonstrations, which constituted the largest peaceful demonstrations against a totalitarian regime in modern history. The number of demonstrators on Friday was estimated at 20 per cent of the total population in Syria according to numerous Arab and international organisations that monitored peaceful protests at that time.
The regime’s excessive use of violence pushed the revolution to transform from organised peaceful protests to random and arbitrary local armament, in order to resist the regime and deter its military power. This later transformed into relatively organised militarisation across different areas, and armed groups had their own visions for the administration of the state and society. Consequently, armed groups had their own narratives, which were at times conflicting, and that lead to internal division among armed factions.
One Revolution and Multiple Narratives
Nowadays, there are three different grand narratives that are fundamentally different from each other in terms of defining ‘who we are’. This difference is reflected in the existence of three different groups with three different flags, which try to achieve three different visions. The groups include the Syrian regime, the terror org. of Islamic State, and the remaining factions of revolutionaries who despite their dispersion still believe in the project of a new free Syria and who are proud of the independence flag.
There is also the narrative that is relevant to the Kurdish component in Syria. It is a main narrative that has its own symbols, flag and project. The Kurdish narrative, however, predates the revolution and for that reason it will not be addressed in this article.
One can notice different narratives within the three main ones, which are often in accordance with the grand narrative that relates to the question of who we are and that differ with regards to the method. For example, Al-Nusra Front and IS (or ISIS) share the same self-definition, as international Jihadi Salafi organisations, and for this reason one can notice that their banners and flags are similar. They also agree on the aim, which is imposing Sharia law and establishing an Islamic state according to their own vision. However, they differ in terms of the utilities they use to achieve their vision. IS for example uses shallow and literal interpretations of texts and seeks to achieve their project hastily. On the other hand, Al-Nusra Front followers believe in the need to wait because they have a different order for their priorities. It also seeks to establish agreements and understandings with others, and resorts to politics whenever possible. This has lead both groups to become two different groups, which are even sometimes at war, even though their self-definition in relation to their pursuits is the same. The fact that they share the same grand narrative also facilitated the move of their members between one group to the other, despite the tensions and fighting among themselves. However, it is difficult to find cases where their members defected and joined other groups that hold a completely different self-definition.
On the other hand, we can still find a large number of civil, military and political organisations that believed in the revolution of dignity and that preserved the initial narrative of the revolution. These groups have also the independence flag as their symbol, but the means through which they try to achieve their vision of a new all-inclusive Syria are different. Some of them believe in political activism and peaceful protests, and others believe that rights can only be attained through the use of force. There are numerous groups that fall between both visions. This has lead to the multiplicity of groups and organisations that belong to this category. In addition to that, the fact that these groups agree on affiliating themselves to the revolution of freedom and dignity made it easy for its members to move between the different organisations within it. This also amplified the high dynamism of the life cycle of these organisations.
The Syrian regime, on the other hand, used one narrative since the beginning of the revolution and throughout the years that followed. The regime identified itself as a secular regime protective of minority groups, and remained the ‘resister’ of US hegemony and Israeli occupation. The regime has also claimed that it is coming under a universal conspiracy due to its resisting role, which prompts a decisive and urgent response to protect the country from falling into the hands of Takfiris, or to prevent it from falling into the hands of Western governments, allies to Israel.
The Assad regime includes a large number of loyalist groups and organisations. These groups share its narrative as a mobilizing factor, even though they sometimes criticize its behaviours and claim to be in opposition to it. Observers, however, can barely notice this multiplicity of narratives among regime loyalists. This might be due to the very narrow margin of freedom the regime allows its followers, or those who remain under its control. This would prevent regime loyalists from responding quickly to the challenges that would arise if their grand narrative falls. This could particularly happen due to their absolute buy-in and the lack of alternatives that could potentially create new groups from within. Therefore, it would be very difficult for them to reorganize in new groups and organisations within a short period of time.
The Revolution and the Narrative of Change
Currently, Syrians derive their desire to create change needed for a better future from the pain and suffering they experienced before the revolution, as well as the suffering they experience now. The pain emerged following the realization that there is a fundamental difference between reality and how the state of affairs should be according to our values, which are based on justice and that has been significantly absent from our daily lives for a long time.
Real social change cannot be achieved without a segment of social actors that feels the pain and realizes the difference between reality and what can be achieved. This segment of social actors cannot create change without the ability to organize and mobilise and the capacity to become part of a highly priced struggle. This requires administrative competence, appropriate culture and knowledge of professionalism, as well as strategies and tactics of competition and conflict.
The Syrian Revolution would not have erupted if this segment of social actors were not available, and the continuation of the revolution and its evolution would not have been possible without the capacity to mobilise and organize. However, these capabilities were not able to adapt to the reality created by the direct intervention of the regime’s allies. This has also prevented social actors from arriving at a decisive settlement on their own.
Nowadays, Syrians need to agree on a clear and comprehensive narrative for the change desired for the future in light of the current situation. This narrative needs to be based on a clear theory of change; one that illuminates the means through which resources of the groups that believe in this change can be transformed into strengths and power invested to achieve the desired change. However, arriving at a comprehensive theory of change that is based on correct hypotheses requires an understanding of the status quo. In other words, it is important to understand the circumstances that contributed to the current situation with all its complexities and painful realities, in order to identify the lessons learnt and avoid the previous mistakes that created a suffering for the Syrian people throughout the past years.
The real measure of success for the Syrian Revolution is its ability to create social change adequate to create a collective consciousness that can push for a political system that guarantees freedoms and dignity in Syria. The only guarantee for a better future of the new generations in the arab world is to achive a political and social system that guarantees their freedom and dignity and provides them with equal opportunities in their country. Nowadays, Individuals become part of institutions and communities become organized cells that work together according to complex mechanisms and dynamics that allow the sharpening of skills and abilities and push them to work and compete for the benefit of society. So, other guarantees do not provide much security.