Collectivizing Trauma and Narrative in the Syrian War: Sectarianization and Ontological Security

4th Jun 2021 by Rahaf Aldoughli

Collectivizing Trauma and Narrative in the Syrian War:  Sectarianization and Ontological Security

This essay is part of a SEPAD report reflecting on the Middle East in 2050. 

The Syrian conflict has often been described as a clash of identities between minority Alwaites and majority Sunnis (Balanche, 2018: xi; Lesch, 2012: 101). Today there is a significant trend in policy reports and academic scholarship toward describing Syrians through the lens of these sectarian and ethnic categories (Harling, 2012: 4). This shift is notable since throughout the many decades of the Baath regime, Syrians have been prohibited from any public claim to sectarian political identities. The homogenization of Syrian identity, based on an overarching Baathist secular-national concept that intentionally negated ethnic and religious differences, was a long-standing strategy used by the Assad regime to suppress internal conflict and maintain political legitimacy (Aldoughli, 2020). 

The outbreak of the war fragmented this tenuous national identity, and with all parties in the conflict receiving open support from external actors (who often treat the arena as a proxy for their own international conflicts), many Syrians have been cast adrift when it comes to forging new perceptions of who they are as individuals. Ernest Renan said that “A nation’s existence is a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life” (Renan, 1882). When the nation is shattered, however, this tenuously shared ontological vision is lost. Analysts have discussed at length the clashes of sectarian identities during the war (Abdo, 2013: 38-9; Sullivan, 2014: 11), as well as the instrumentalization of sectarianism by various groups for propaganda purposes (Hinnebusch, 2019; Hashemi and Postel, 2017;  Phillips and Valbjorn, 2018; Mabon, 2020). However, these interpretations have often overlooked how the rise of sectarianism in Syria serves an even more basic ontological purpose in re-securing a sense of identity in the wake of a lost national ideal.

In recent months, as the new “Clubhouse” app has become widespread in the region, ordinary Syrians have taken to this platform to discuss at length what sectarian identity means to them. As an observer and moderator of several discussion rooms related to belonging and identity, I have become more aware that sect in Syria is an increasingly existential concern, in a way that goes beyond consolidating authority, confirming power relations, or even religious practice. For many, the question of sectarian identity has emerged as a deeply felt psychological need after the collapse of the Baathist hegemony. This searching is taking place against a backdrop in which multiple groups are weaponizing Sunni identity and claiming representation of it (Aldoughli, 2021). Both the regime and opposition militias have become involved in promoting new concepts of Sunni identity—for the regime, there is a growing effort to champion “moderate” Sunnism as a Syrian state ideal, and to associate itself with Western concepts of “de-radicalization.” For some opposition militias, it is a matter of mobilizing Sunnism as a defiant identity to fight the regime.

In this brief intervention, I employ Jennifer Mitzen’s concept of ontological security as “security not of the body but of the self, the subjective sense of who one is, which enables and motivates action and choice” (Mitzen, 2006: 344). Mitzen uses this approach to discuss the irrational and oppressive behavior of state agents that cannot be explained as a logical effort to create physical national security, but instead only as an imperative to protect the security of identity. In this context, the Syrian state after the start of the uprisings in 2011 has shifted significantly toward securing a particular vision of Sunnism, to the point of abandoning its long-standing secular/neutral outlook. This, of course, is in response to the opposition’s rallying of a re-emergent Sunni identity as a mode of resistance. By describing the lines of the emerging war as a binary conflict between Alwaites and Sunnis, we risk overlooking this tug-of-war and the current amorphousness of Sunni identity in Syria.

Weaponizing Sunnism

The historical relationship between the Baathist regime and Sunni leaders in Syria has lurched between animosity and co-option. As early as the 1982 Hama massacre, the Baathist state under the leadership of Hafez al-Assad used extreme violence against civilians to eliminate any prospect of religious-based opposition. When Bashar al-Assad took over the party leadership in the year 2000, he oversaw a more accommodationist effort to bring into the national fold a larger coalition of local Sunni elites, some of whom had previously held hostile views of the regime and its secular ideologies. These accommodations led to an increasing overlap between state authority and legitimized religious teachings (Aldoughli, 2021). After the start of the war, these efforts at building bridges morphed into a much more rigid stance, in which the regime emphasized a dichotomy between “correct” and “false” Sunnism and began to promote a national-religious front. The resulting state discourse sought to establish firm boundaries between loyal Sunni citizens vs. disloyal opponents, with the latter group automatically painted as holding “false” religious views (Assad speech 2017).

Essentially, the Assad regime’s official discourse embraced a blanket characterization of any protest or opposition as grounded in Sunni religious fundamentalism, which it portrayed as heretical (Assad speech 2014; 2017). This has created a hardening of lines and a vicious cycle in which opposition militia groups who were not initially drawn to fundamentalism (some of them) have increasingly embraced it as a form of solidarity and ontological security. Some opposition militias have contributed to this process by emphasizing a sectarian victimization narrative. Meanwhile, the use of excessive violence by regime forces and associated militias against protestors should be understood not only as a way to affirm material power, but also as resulting from a perceived need to repair and re-consolidate the broken national identity by distinguishing between legitimate citizens and demonized Others (Wimmen, 2018: 60).

The intractability of the Syrian conflict results in part from the way in which ontological security has become linked to a need to annihilate the Other. Rather than falling into the trap of homogenizing Sunnis, Alawites, or any other sect/ethnicity in Syria, it is important to observe the struggle over identity and to recognize that much hinges on the question of, e.g., what kind of Sunni one wants to be. Applying ontological security as a theoretical framework brings these issues into the foreground and provides a better understanding of how Syrians are actively reconstructing their social reality and identities. The increasing importance of sub-state identities in post-2011 Syria, whether ethnic, sectarian, or territorial, should be understood in light of the deeply personal process of psychological realignment resulting from the shattering of the national ideal. Although this process is taking place against a backdrop of instrumentalization and securitization of identity by multiple organizations, we should not disregard Syrians’ agency as they navigate this conflicted terrain. 

Sectarianization as a Form of Ontological Security

Understanding the role of ontological security in the Syrian War can help to clarify the logic of competing identities that strive for survival. The continuation of the conflict reinforces identities that are based on demonizing the Other, and in fact, the prospect of breaking free of the conflict can generate threatening ontological insecurity. A central aspect of this type of identity formation is the collectivization of trauma and victimization narratives, in which any harm, historical or current, is propagated to all who identify with the group. There are long-term consequences of this collective victimization, as it may become the epicenter of group identity and the lens through which group members interact with political movements.

For example, the regime has broadcast as part of its propaganda efforts numerous stories and reports that focus on discriminatory/abusive behavior by Sunnis against Alawites, focusing on the sectarian aspects of these conflicts (Lesch 2012: 108). Some opposition militias, for their part, have called for the immediate annihilations of Alawites. Antagonistic and sectarian rhetoric has become more prominent within Sunni discourse, as can be seen in the increasing influence of sheikhs such as Adnan al-‘Arour, who on Safa TV Channel has mobilized militia participation and criticized Sunnis who are not part of the opposition. The need for ontological security and stronger forms of personal identity in a time of fear and anxiety has driven many Syrians to embrace this rhetoric, relying on collectivized sectarian trauma rather than a strong democratic national agenda as the basis of their political outlooks.

With the rise of the Syrian Democratic Forces as representatives of the Kurds in northeastern Syria, Syrian national army supported by Turkey, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (previously affiliated with al-Qaida) in northwestern Syria, the prospects for a unified democratic political movement against the regime have become increasingly dim. All of the involved parties are now engaging in competitive victimhood dynamics against other groups, with continuing violence overriding any hope of peaceful political transition or the emergence of a new form of shared Syrian national identity. As the situation becomes increasingly incoherent, the psychological imperative for ontological security through rigid self/Other demarcations will only become stronger.

Moving Forward

At the time of this writing, the Syrian conflict is far from resolved. The current constitutional committee has been unable to implement UN Resolution 2254 to establish a roadmap for peace talks. Doing so will require that we directly address the polarized social identities that have emerged in Syria and the role of ontological security needs in maintaining the conflict. A few specific recommendations can be made:

  • Opposition leaders should be called upon to adopt a more inclusive national rhetoric that goes beyond polarizing sectarian affiliations. Current opposition rhetoric fuels binarism and exclusion, which stands in the path of a democratic and peaceful solution.
  • There is a need to establish mediation as a trust-building exercise prior to any peace settlement. Instead of using wajahat (tribal leaders) and sheikhs as part of the formal mediation process, local leaders without strong sectarian affiliations should serve as representatives of Syria’s heterogenous communities.
  • Empowering Syrian civil organizations, including feminist groups and youth in diaspora, is vital to help de-sectarianize the conflict. These groups have a strong investment in promoting narratives that prioritize citizenship and pluralism as the basis of national belonging.
  • It is vital to neutralize the international manipulation and instrumentalization of different groups in the Syrian conflict, and to promote the agency of ordinary Syrians as a means to end polarization.

To break the cycles of violence and impunity that have destabilized Syrian society throughout the past five decades, there is a need to support a Syrian-led and Syrian-implemented transitional justice process. This will allow Syria to confront its past and to begin the process of building a sustainable peace. To restore the dignity of victims and empower them requires creating strong democratic political structures, restoring the rule of law, and securing a foundation for national reconciliation and compensation initiatives. Syrians need to reclaim their agency and political will from external actors and develop a national narrative that goes beyond politicizing and securitizing identities. Perhaps the voluntary dilution of these identities, which traditionally have been antagonistic and mutually exclusive, is the first step towards transitioning to internal peace.