Toward an Alternative “Time of the Revolution”

The international focus on state failure or state survival fails to value the actions of everyday Syrians, ignoring potential new avenues for practicing everyday dissent worldwide.

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Toward an Alternative ‘Time of the Revolution’
Beyond State Contestation in the Struggle for a New Syrian Everyday

by Estella Carpi & Andrea Glioti for Middle East Critique, vol. 27, no. 3
7 May 2018 (original post [paywalled] on Taylor & Francis Online)

The convoluted relationship between the state and citizens in conflict-ridden Syria often has been reduced to a binary of dissent and consent. Challenging these simplistic categorizations, this article analyzes how state mechanisms resonate in the everyday lives of Syrians since the beginning of the crisis. Drawing on ethnographic insights from Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Syrian Kurds in northeastern Syria, this article shows how state, society and political opposition function as relational processes. Then, it identifies the limitations of contemporary strategies of everyday political contestation through the theory of Syrian intellectual ‘Omar ‘Aziz’s ‘time of the revolution.’

This article builds on literature which foregrounds contradictory representations of nationhoodi and the fuzzy lines of demarcation between private and public, state and society, compliance and resistance.ii It does so to inquire into the layered processes of contemporary technologies of contestation in Syria, and it tries to explain: Firstly, their (present) failure; and secondly, why a political revolution collapsed in violence and failed in its purposes. Drawing on the Foucauldian notions of ‘technologies of production’ and ‘technologies of power,’iii we conceptualize ‘technologies of contestation’ as strategies enabling individuals and groups to produce and transform things and orders. They help to shape their conduct to resist and subvert the ruling power. Scholarly discussions around the difficulties and contradictions underlying the process of contesting the state and advancing revolutionary claims remain unsatisfying. Most media accounts focusing on state (in)capacity, as well as ‘abused theories of failing states,’iv progressively have marginalized discussions about the muddled relationship between consent and dissent. They have a tendency to sideline people’s attitude of ‘adhesion’ to power,v that is, how people contradictorily participate in the production of social relations.

This article investigates the controversial relationships that citizens from a variegated middle social class—who defined themselves as ‘political opponents’ and actively took part in the street protests in Syria—continued to weave with the Syrian government to fulfill their personal ambitions, achievements, or—more simply—material needs. While the article groups all these citizens into the analytical category of ‘opponents,’ it does not presume any ideological cohesion or homogeneity among them and their discourse of opposing the state, nor any homogeneity behind an internally articulated government power Those citizens shared contradictory stories that connect their lives to the government, while using the ‘public transcript’vii of revolutionary politics.

As Ann Stoler has argued, state power effects go far beyond geopolitical domination or economic exploitation and inequality.viii Such effects ‘lie in the details’ix of everyday life. They leave room for the reproduction of state power in people’s decisions and acts, and for compliance with how the state organizes and controls time and space. This article analyzes ‘everydayness’ as the unique site where the encounter between the Syrian state, protesters, and authors takes place rather than a cultural object that can be merely studied.x Furthermore, studying everydayness in relation to ‘stateness’—commonly meant as the ontological state of the State—is a way of understanding the impact of ideology and power on lived space, and of connecting interrelated systems that might otherwise appear to be distinct. We therefore concentrate on routines, regularities in social behaviors, and on what happens or not when these ‘implicit rules’ are broken.xi

This inquiry into the everyday failures of anti-state contestation corroborates the argument that the state—and political authority, in general—is a contingent construct, functioning as an effect of power.xii Nevertheless, the scholarly discussion of civil wars and conflictsxiii has failed to employ such an understanding to its full potential. Notwithstanding, this article conceptualizes—in part—the state as a self-standing entity, reflecting how the interviewees thought and acted outside of it. By drawing connections between state strategies and the intimacy of everyday life,xiv this article identifies the terrain on which ordinary citizens continually negotiate their relationship with the state, as they struggle to survive, to preserve their feeling of national belonging, being “patriotic and rebellious at the same time.”xv It does so by examining the narratives provided by Syrian refugees who relocated throughout Lebanon immediately after the spring 2011 uprising and the subsequent state repression, and who still claim a relationship with both the state and ordinary life in Syria. Other accounts also were collected throughout 2013 from Syrian Kurdish political opponents inhabiting the Jazira region in northeastern Syria, while war was raging at full scale in most of the country.

The Syrian case can function as a universal paradigm of technologies of contestation in crisis. The everyday contradictory practices of contestation there possess the inherent ambiguity of any political process.

These accounts demonstrate the complex way local actors think about the state, its repressiveness, and the regime’s survival, because of the uprising and the still unfolding complex civil war—and regional war by proxy.xvi It is not the scope of this article to identify the specific reasons behind people’s choices. Rather, it aims to reveal people’s acts that un-deliberately accommodated the power structurexvii and ineffectively challenged it. This points to the consistency-divide dilemma between human consciousness and practical action.xviii While the article does not argue that the Syrian revolution simply has been ‘arm-chaired’ and turned into a mere illusion, it maintains that effectively fighting for full liberation cannot be a gift bestowed by revolutionary leaders but rather that it resides in “the continuing aspect of liberating action.”xix In so doing, the article provides empirical evidence of the weak and scant character of such a ‘liberating action’ by focusing on some segments of a vast and variegated political opposition.

The article moves beyond those cursory and reductive discourses on the strength or weakness of the Syrian statexx to discuss how social opposition to the regime is produced and contradicted. These insights demonstrate the difficulties that social strategies of political contestation face, as they either undermine or hamper the efforts of social movements to promote and materially change the dominant power structures. In this sense, the Syrian case can function as a universal paradigm of technologies of contestation in crisis. These everyday contradictory practices of contestation possess the inherent ambiguity of any political process, influencing and relating to state institutions. The article draws on the ‘state effects’ conceptxxi to illustrate the phenomenological encounter between the state and its opponents. It analyzes the social processes that the state regularly governs and controls, showing how it remains both salient and elusive. To a certain extent, the state epitomizes such social processes. By drawing on this theoretical approach, the article not only empties of human intentions the de facto ambivalence of some segments of the political opposition in the Syrian conflict, but also provides a much-needed radical empiricism that suspends any ethical judgment. While the epistemology that underpins (presently) failing contestation strategies reasserts the theoretical inevitability of blurring the boundary between state and society,xxii it also problematizes an otherwise dichotomized political scenario.

Everyday Life at War: The Ubiquity of ‘Stateness’

The state in Syria still can be viewed as a sovereign apparatus as long as it organizes and monitors health care, education, economic activities, imprisonment, and gate-keeps international aid distribution and the humanitarian agencies on the ground.xxiii The surviving state authority, thus, derives part of its capacity from welfare provision, which is able to produce multiple effects on people’s everyday lives.xxiv The line dividing the state from civil society, however, does not exist:xxv to discuss one side simultaneously sheds light on the other. The state cannot maintain absolute autonomy itself,xxvi and rather operates as an unbounded terrain of powers, techniques, discourses, rules, and practices.xxvii Given these conditions, the Syrian state acquires indirect social meanings through the contradictory ways in which the Syrian people deal and participate with those state techniques used to preserve its rule in the face of an unprecedented decline of governance. The collected accounts of Syrian opponents illuminate the problematic character of these technologies of contestation, as they try to maneuver the ways the Assad regime has managed and controlled everyday time and space for decades.

The decision of the PYDxxviii (Democratic Union Party) to let Syrian Kurdish citizens vote in the 2014 presidential elections exclusively in the polling stations of al-Hasake and al-Qamishli exemplifies such a strategy. By claiming independence from the central state, the emergent Kurdish authority (the de facto autonomous region of Western Kurdistan, named ‘Rojava’) exercises actual power over people’s rights and opportunities in their own territory. Such a decision did not allow those Kurds who identified as Syriansxxix to vote in their town of residence. In other words, it induced local citizens to perceive their own identity no longer as Syrian, but exclusively Kurdish, without considering their political stance toward the Syrian government. This episode demonstrates how alternative forms of statehood on the ground affect individual perceptions of identity.

The politics of coercion explains the elusive and convoluted relationship between the Syrian state and Syrian citizens: people reject, but paradoxically reproduce and amplify the abuse of state authority in the structures of their everyday life. This phenomenon has been named the ‘intimacy of tyranny.’

Oil resources management also exemplifies the complex relationship between state and society in the country. In particular, it sheds light on the nature of sovereignty over economic capital in the ongoing Syrian conflict. As soon as the PYD seized most of the oil fields in compliance with the central government’s consensus, it clearly admitted the necessity of continuing to pump crude oil toward the regime’s The central government initially bribed several factions of the Syrian Arab opposition to protect the oil pipelines in the regime-controlled regions.xxxi These agreements evolved into official deals, selling oil in return for government-supplied electricity.xxxii Even the so-called ‘Islamic State’ reportedly came to terms with the Assad regime by selling oil through the regime’s middleman George Haswani, who consequently became a target of European Union sanctions in March 2015.xxxiii

The Everydayness of State Power among Lebanon-Based Syrian Refugees

The de facto survival of the Syrian state has not been the result of any deliberate moral recognition of the Assad government. As empirical evidence of this, the Syrian refugees we interviewed across Lebanon from 2011 to late 2013, and who came predominantly from areas dominated by the political opposition, often suggested that the Syrian government’s legitimacy was practically upheld through the diplomatic actions of foreign powers. As their accounts will emphasize, Syrian citizens themselves have echoed the survival of the state through their efforts to preserve their own life chances, professional achievements, or their desire to remain legal citizens despite their aversion to the government. In a nutshell, ordinary citizens saw no other alternative than to reconstruct everyday normalcy in a time of crisis.

In this regard, an international Syrian scholar has argued that citizens were in many ways nurturing the legitimacy of the central Syrian state: “At the end of the day, I can see why the revolution hasn’t exactly taken off, when some Syrian opposition people I know haven’t left their government positions.”xxxiv Indeed, in such a generalized authoritarian environment, leaving government-related job positions would have been an oppositional act of protest taking on a collective character.xxxv In our conversations, some foreign supporters of revolutionaries similarly reproached Syrians who had not broken off their relations with the state. The idea that the state is actually something exuding from people’s banal everyday actions, although not limited to that, is certainly not new.xxxvi

In fact, the Syrian central state has continued to survive thanks to its power effects, which keep creating meanings of their own, although they do not reflect citizens’ interests. Such solipsism of state survival and self-recognition can be traced back to the behavioral politics of the Ba’ath Party, especially to Hafez al-Assad’s tacit policy of symbolic simulation of loyalty, rather than any actual feeling of love toward the state.xxxvii The Foucauldian politics of coercion explains this elusive and convoluted relationship between the Syrian state and Syrian citizens: people reject, but paradoxically reproduce and amplify the abuse of state authority in the structures of their everyday life. This phenomenon has been named the ‘intimacy of tyranny.’xxxviii

Dima, from Daraya, recounted that she is unable to quit her job in the Syrian government,

since it is the only source of income for raising my child, and, once I become jobless, I would be hopeless and futureless. I would not have any dreams to realize or objectives to achieve. If I ever decide to have no state at all, I would cease to be a person.xxxix

Dima points here to the potential of the state as a basic guarantee of ‘bare life,’xl the potential to control the very biology of lives, not merely territories. Individuals who express dissent are not accustomed to leading their everyday lives in a heterodox way because they grew up among state narratives that narrowly defined their possibilities of ‘harmonious domesticity.’xli In other words, even those who exclude themselves from the state and oppose its sovereignty and authority through civil disobedience [al-‘isian al-madani] have become interrelated in a complex way with the state orthodoxy of territorial administration and political power.

People’s reluctance to reject state institutions does not translate into voluntary acknowledgment of state authority. Their conducts do not translate into pro-active political will or staunch loyalty toward the state. These contradictions are motivated by the impossibility of living an alternative life.

A political member of the Syrian opposition from Afamia, now resettled in Lebanon, argued, “unlike my brother, I would still be allowed to enter Syria to see my family whenever I want.”xlii While he reasserts a political stance against the state, this statement shows him clinging to an ounce of pride for not being classified as an unwanted citizen. The stories people tell about why they do what they do—at times—imply common feelings of passive reconciliation to one’s state, making the material disaffiliation from the social and the political architecture of the state even more challenging. Citizens’ persistent ‘desire’ to think of their life as institutionalized militates against simplistic interpretations of domination by—or disaffiliation from—those in power. In some circumstances, the personal engagement in explicit displays of opposition is contradictory. Moreover, the abovementioned episode illustrates how citizens fetishize the state, which still embodies the apotheosis of rationalityxliii despite the chaos and irrational violence that continue to rage in Syria. The present hardships, largely caused by the Syrian government, which provokes sizable and diversely motivated dissent, tend to produce a longing for order and cohesion in individual experiences.

The controversies entangled in people’s everyday lives often have been reported by our Syrian and international interlocutors as being one of the primary causes of the revolution’s failure. The inevitable contradictions of everyday life largely have been branded as treacherous—a betrayal of revolutionary ideology and something people therefore should try to conceal. In fact, the complex interrelationship between the state and the everyday life of its subjects keeps some Syrian opponents of the regime tethered to considerations of their basic needs and aspirations rather than to the state itself.xliv International media commentators rarely discuss the importance of such complex dynamics when providing briefings on the situation in Syria.

For other citizens, decision-making in relation to the state was more straightforward. A., from Khaldiyye (Homs), for instance, showed an uncompromising attitude toward his relationship with the state. He refused to pay the Assad regime’s troops to cancel his military conscription (a sum of US $5,000):

Are you kidding? If I really wanted to, I could earn enough here in Beirut to be able to pay for that, but…no way. I will not feed the financial sources of the state army, the one that was about to kill me when I was protesting down the streets in Homs in March 2011.xlv

From the Assad regime’s perspective, such existing connections between citizens and the government—through job positions, personal favors, etc.—are positive proof of a general Syrian faithfulness to their state apparatus, and of a genuine desire to live within the current ruling system. From this angle, the survival of the state remains the product of a deliberate and straightforward act of identification. These contradictory ways of contesting the state and reshaping everyday life accordingly, together with the ambiguity of international diplomacy,xlvi fed the Syrian state’s capacity and passion for self preservation, which has survived thus far throughout the uprising and the conflict.

Nonetheless, according to the Syrian opponents with whom we spoke, people’s reluctance to reject state institutions does not translate into voluntary acknowledgment of state authority. Our interviewees constantly stressed that the state still can embody sovereignty independently from the population, for instance by keeping its own citizens at the margins through discriminatory administrative practices. Using the interpretative lens of the interviewees, the only possible political life that either privileged or marginalized citizens can envisage resides in the framework of those surviving mechanisms of the state, the so called ‘state effects.’ Their conducts do not translate into pro-active political will or staunch loyalty toward the state. The interviewees motivated such contradictions with the impossibility of living an alternative life.

In response to the breakdown or wavering of institutional structures, individuals and groups attempt to maintain some kind of social order. In such precarious conditions, local people perceive any sort of effective stateness on the ground as a guarantee of social order.

The historical ambivalence of the statexlvii and of its own citizensxlviii has doomed many Syrians to live with anguishing indecision. As shown previously, the ambivalent relationship that many members of the Syrian opposition hold toward the state too quickly has become the object of praise or reproach from other Syrian citizens and the so-called international community. These reactions prematurely aborted a deeper understanding about Syrian citizens who simultaneously dissent from and support state practices. These citizens face the struggle to unlearn how to be proper subjects of the state, whether in its modern conception—as an alien and abstract authority demanding allegiance from both governors and governedxlix—or in its republican form, as an executive entity delegated by the subjects who compose it. In other words, their struggle is to develop a set of practices that are grounded in an alternative everyday life. Similar dynamics also emerge in the complex relationship between Syrian Kurdish citizens, the Syrian state, and the emerging post-2011 ‘state-like powers’ in the northeastern region, which came to fall mainly under the rule of the PYD.

The Syrian ‘Jazira’ and Local Statehoods

While Syrian troops withdrew from most Syrian Kurdish regions between 2012 and 2013, state employees in these areas continued to receive wages from Damascus. This was not only a ‘Kurdish exception’; several other regions, including ar-Raqqa, the future capital of the ‘Islamic State’ caliphate, maintained relations with the central authority, thus ensuring that teachers, Syrian Telecom staff, and other qualified employees remained on the government’s payroll.l

The case of Rakan, a Syrian Telecom employee in Ras al-’Ayn (al-Hasakah governorate) is exemplary. Although he was a Yekiti Party memberli and had been actively involved in anti-government demonstrations since 2011, he kept working for the state-owned company until 2014. Given the critical economic situation, the job allowed him to raise his three children, and thus he could not afford to quit it. In 2013, one of the Syrian intelligence branches summoned him, probably knowing that he was hosting a Western journalist. Rakan faced an ethical dilemma: answering their call, thus facing possible detention, or ignoring them with the risk of losing his job. To resolve this dilemma, the Western journalist (a co-author of this article) asked to meet a high-ranking official of the PYD in al-Qamishli and request mediation with Syrian state authorities on the ground. The PYD official responded that there was nothing to be done, as he was also exposed to potential arrest and had no sway on the central state apparatus. Rakan eventually quit his job in 2014, but only after he decided to migrate to Turkey.

This ethnographic account demonstrates how the PYD official lacked the means to protect Rakan or provide him with an alternative job. The Kurdish takeover of the region did not completely erode the administrative sovereignty of the Assad regime. The state continued to affect the ability of citizens to sustain their livelihoods and ensure their personal safety. Rakan only stopped being economically dependent on the central government—and consequently subject to its repressive agencies—when he left ‘liberated’ Rojava. Since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Kurdish regions between 2012 and 2013, the PYD gradually has sought to replace the central government as a major employer and reduce the massive exodus that ensued after the crisis.lii

The Kurdish party, on the one hand, successfully asserted its local governance in several ways. For instance, it gained profits from smuggling goods and people, as well as guaranteeing the distribution of basic services. In 2013, as many interlocutors confirmed, it also put the newly formed security forces [Asayish] and the embryonic army (known as the YPG) on its payroll. The PYD’s capabilities, on the other hand, did not fully replace the official role of the Syrian state as a major employer in the territory where the PYD holds de facto statehood. The Syrian government, in fact, continued to perform as a state by providing welfare. Welfare provision has long been a key element in counter-insurgency strategies and, above all, a strategy for signaling to civilians that the state continues to exert power.liii

The experience of those citizens, who faced the harshness of the Syrian security agencies and then were forced to work in governmental institutions, also demonstrates how the Syrian state keeps functioning and regulating the everyday life of its citizens. For instance, the story of Tawfiq, a 31-year old man, exemplifies this process. As a politically active member of Mazen Darwish’s Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus, Tawfiq endured detention and torture at the hands of Syrian security agencies. In 2013, he returned to his hometown al-Malakiyyah. While he was qualified to teach Arabic and the local language Kurmanji, which, unlike the past,liv now is allowed in Syrian official schools, he struggled to find a job. Left with no other choice, he traveled back to Damascus and looked for a job in the national

The everyday ethics of justice appear highly individualized, as much as the practices of justice become arbitrary. Justice, hence, no longer represents a desirable condition of compensation and equity. Rather it appears as a constellation of contested subjective interpretations.

Education thus constitutes a further sector of everyday life where the power of the Assad regime remains ubiquitous for Syrians, even when they are hostile to it. As illustrated above, numerous university students stopped attending their courses due to the ongoing conflict. In the absence of alternatives to the state education system, however, they found themselves compelled either to return to Ba’athist education or to migrate overseas when feasible.lvi Sheykhmous, a 21-year-old chemistry student, remained in ad-Darbasiyyah for a year hoping that the situation would improve in government-controlled Latakia, where he had enrolled before the war. He eventually decided, in late 2013, to resume his studies in Latakia. Sheykhmous affirmed: “I don’t want either to get stuck in ‘Amuda at my family’s house or migrate to Iraqi Kurdistan, which seems to me a much more conservative society where Syrians are discriminated against.’lvii He eventually took part in a university military camp, an educational experience typically promoted in Ba’athist political doctrine.

Like most residents of ‘Amuda, Sheykhmous participated in anti-government demonstrations in 2011 and 2012. Although he hardly supported the regime, he nonetheless prioritized his education in a government institution. He could not wait for the PYD to gain sufficient power in their state-building efforts to provide education independently. At the time of writing, the local Kurdish authorities still have not established educational institutions for the local population. Indeed, high school exams are still held in al-Qamishli, which leads to a practical recognition of the central state’s exclusive authority for the validation of students’ official results.

‘Alaa, a 25-year-old medical student enrolled at Aleppo University, indicated that she returned to her hometown of ‘Amuda because of the security situation, and that the move had meant “unlearning English and hard work in the family vegetable garden.”lviii ‘Alaa had no ambition to become a peasant and was hoping to return to Aleppo at some stage. Based on the collected ethnographic accounts, few of those who returned to their studies in governmental institutions were eager to recognize the political authority of the regime. They no longer experienced state-structured social life as ‘natural’ in the wake of the popular uprisings. The limited options available for completing their education dictated their pragmatic choices. From the everyday experiences of the interviewees, while this demonstrates the de facto survival of central state education, it does not show the survival of the state as a ‘repository of symbolic power.’lix

While most students needed to rely on the regime’s existing structures, a small proportion of educated youth, staunch supporters of the PYD, decided to quit their studies and defend their ‘liberated’ homeland (Rojava). A female YPJlx fighter in her late twenties in a military training camp next to al-Qamishli recounted: ‘I quit the university to join the guerrillas once I realized that everything I had been taught until then was wrong.’lxi Like all other female fighters, she attended the PYD’s political classes. For the majority of university students, this was the only option available in Rojava apart from returning to national schools.

In response to the breakdown or wavering of institutional structures, individuals and groups attempt to maintain some kind of social order. In such precarious conditions, local people perceived any sort of effective stateness on the ground as a guarantee of social order. “You couldn’t imagine what’s going on in the Deir az-Zor area, controlled by Arab rebels…a son killed his father in a dispute over the profits of their oil well,” said an Arab truck driver upon his return from those regions.lxii “Freedom has unleashed the worst human behavior,” was the comment of a middle-aged teacher from ‘Amuda, stressing the way locals reacted to the withdrawal of the regime’s armed forces.lxiii Shirin, a 38-year old nurse who used to commute for work reported that, “I had to argue with the bus driver to reactivate the old fare to reach al-Qamishli from ‘Amuda…he had doubled it in just two days!” She protested, asking, “Do you want me to spend my whole salary on transportation?”lxiv Indeed, war profiteering has ballooned in Rojava, as elsewhere in Syria. Bus drivers, smugglers, and shopkeepers alike blame the tax levy enforced by the armed factions on the passage of goods to justify increased prices.

Syrians face a crisis in developing technologies of contestation for two main reasons: first, the architecture of state power which continues to exercise control and surveillance over their social spaces; second, the historical difficulty of opening laboratories for alternative forms of protest. Faced with these challenges, some Syrians tried to develop and theorize how to create an alternative and successful revolutionary project—such as the Syrian intellectual ‘Omar ‘Aziz.

In these accounts, the everyday ethics of justice appear highly individualized, as much as the practices of justice become arbitrary. Justice, hence, no longer represents a desirable condition of compensation and equity. Rather it appears as a constellation of subjective interpretations,lxv which those who inhabit the sample social space constantly contest. During wartime the emerging ‘jungle’ of individual interests reinforces the collective illusion that only an unwavering state can guarantee order. People maintain an abstract idea of the state that masks the real power relations underlying the so called ‘public interest.’lxvi As a result, the interviewees often expressed regret and hopelessness, as Yadelxvii Mahwosh used to proclaim every time before sitting for lunch in ‘Amuda: “I swear we had a better life when the regime was in power! You didn’t have to pay all this money for a kilo of tomatoes.”lxviii

In these accounts, the state somehow produces rather than merely constrains people’s acts and choices.lxix However, a group of our interlocutors, who all defined themselves as political dissidents of the Assad regime, still argued that the purposes of popular resistance come from outside and not within the realm of the state. The resistance to the state, therefore, grew within the state-generated moral universe and its social processes, when considered under the structural effect that the state itself emanates. Moreover, the ‘public transcript’lxx of the revolution back in 2011, which the media have crafted, repeatedly has tried to disguise the actual scantiness, or even absence, of everyday revolutionary acts in their intimate lives, in the intention to promote the dissent performance as a holistic way of living. Not even the ‘infrapolitics’ of somelxxi—resistance that does not openly declare its intentions in times of domination—always turns into political action, let alone into revolutionary politics. Many interviewees, therefore, preferred to depict the state as a self-standing entity, clearly separated from Syrian society. In so doing, their rejection of an analytical view pointing out their complex relationship with the state created an epistemological tension with the authors.

These ethnographic accounts show how Syrians face a crisis in developing their technologies of contestation for two main reasons: firstly, they struggle to overcome the inevitable architecture of state power in their everyday life, which continues to exercise control and surveillance over their social spaces. Secondly, they face the historical difficulty of opening laboratories for alternative forms of protest, as the Syrian ‘repertoires of contention’lxxii are still young. Also, these struggles for new laboratories of contestation challenge the idea that those who either opposed or supported the regime drew on—that is, that crisis and resilience to crisis both stem from a moral collective sense of being a whole (‘sameness’). Sameness in fact constitutes the official habitus of Syrian nationhood; however, sameness can subsist only in heterogeneous forms. The flowers that the revolutionaries used to throw at the soldiers in the street protests reflected this feeling of sameness.lxxiii Some Syrian anti-interventionist opponents reasserted further this feeling when the specter of US invasion and intervention was raised in the wake of the chemical attacks in August 2013. Against the backdrop of sameness and resonating with the epistemological tension between authors and interviewees, opponents referred to the Assad regime as a “foreign creature,”lxxiv and the state presence as an “occupation” (ihtilal), alluding to the Israeli occupation in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. Faced with all these challenges, some Syrians tried to develop and theorize how to create an alternative and successful revolutionary project—such as the Syrian intellectual ‘Omar ‘Aziz.

Technologies of Contestation in Crisis: What Alternatives to a State-Shaped Everyday?

In 2011, the Syrian activist ‘Omar ‘Aziz,lxxv whom other contemporary Syrian activists usually labeled as an intellectual anarchist, founded the first local committee in Barzeh, a district on the periphery of Damascus. ‘Aziz’s thinking identifies a lack of synergy between popular revolutionary activity and people’s everyday life. By identifying the failures of the contemporary phenomenologies of protest which cut across ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ societies, he showed how sterile and harmful it was to remain embedded within the authoritarian structures of the Syrian state, while advocating and struggling for its departure. In this regard, ‘Aziz,lxxvi who died in the Syrian regime’s prisons in ‘Adra, theorized the possibility to identify the ‘time of the revolution’ [zaman ath-thawra] and the ‘time of power’ [zaman as-sulta].

Revolution, in the first instance, requires a technology of contestation that operates in alternative spaces and an alternative time to trigger concrete changes in the subsequent transitory stages.

For ‘Aziz, the ‘time of the revolution’ meant permeating every aspect of people’s everyday life in order for the revolution to succeed. The establishment of self-governing local councils—majalis mahalliya—was meant to give birth to a pragmatic alternative to the Assad apparatus. These councils arranged the autonomous distribution of food and goods, turned houses into hospitals, and made the civil resistance an actual societal reality by acting outside of state institutions.lxxvii ‘Aziz also realized that people could appear reluctant to embrace a hypothetical non-state (and anti-state) ruling power and provision of basic services, because it bears no historical reference in Syria. Furthermore, citizens’ mistrust of one another “cancels out the possibility of any more promising form of collective action than opting for a solution ‘that maintains the status quo.’”lxxviii

‘Aziz envisioned a future Syrian society in which civil society and the military would work together. The militarylxxix would offer logistical and security support to the initiatives of civil society that maintain the status quo. This would enable a horizontal coordination to take place between all of the popular committees—tansiqiyyat—which cover different geographical regions and aim to mobilize the population politically. To immerse people’s everyday life in temporary alternative state structures would make it easier to boycott the official structures of statehood: by refusing to pay utility bills and organizing a general strike, for example. In the absence of an alternative structure of monitoring and protection able to guarantee service provision, citizens cannot envisage any other possibilities for asserting their social, cultural, and political persona in everyday life—and, sometimes, even their survival. Consequently, the revolution, in the first instance, requires a technology of contestation that operates in alternative spaces and an alternative time to trigger concrete changes in the subsequent transitory stages.

In addition, ‘Aziz blurs the divisions between social classes in Syrian society, whose segmentation heightened further alongside confessional fractures by the Assad regime’s politics of community division and alienation.lxxx In this regard, ‘Aziz differs from Engels’ theory—as mentioned in Lenin’s The State and Revolution.lxxxi The German theorist hypothesized that only the temporary dictatorship of the proletariat could dismantle the central state as a special coercive force. Conversely, ‘Aziz does not consider social class a fundamental component of the revolutionary political project. In his writing, local committees and councils constitute the only possible transitory of the ‘free people’s state.’lxxxii Ultimately, he never describes what the victory of the revolutionary process would entail: whether the state per se should “wither away” (that is, what Engels was advocating in reference to the “bourgeois state”) and end with the Assad dynasty; or whether, by contrast, a new liberal and democratic state can emerge from the revolutionary committees and councils. Overall, it remains difficult to gauge to what extent ‘Azizism’ promoted the once-and-for-all disappearance of the state as its ultimate goal. This becomes even clearer in light of an idea of statehood as a network—which the committees in the Syrian revolution could have formed more strongly—rather than a self-standing organismlxxxiii or a mere site of struggle.lxxxiv Other Syrian intellectuals, however, took over where ‘Aziz left off. Going beyond the empirical form of the state and its capacities to perform power, others have emphasized the need to identify and support a post-Assadist future built by a new Syrian majoritylxxxv working concertedly against the “Assadist confiscation of the public sphere.”lxxxvi

Aziz’s theories and, in general, the domestic theorization of alternative forms of statehood too often have gone unheeded in the interpretation of the Syrian crisis.

Yet, media discourses and news-making often produce the idea of a chronic and irresolvable emergency, thus catastrophizing political life in Syria.lxxxvii Such discourses of catastrophization trigger ordinary people’s sense of fidelity to the classical idea of the state and its domestic legitimacy, even when state security and power strategies act far beyond democratic standards. This fidelity is a product of a common belief that orients people toward the classic idea of the state as the only viable alternative to the current violence and an unknown future, where people only would face new unpredictabilities and strategies of violence. In so doing, such discourses risk contributing to the legitimization of an authoritarian state. The present phenomenon of the catastrophization of Syrian society and politics has fed further the de facto survival of governmental sovereignty in the international arena. According to the interviewees, such a process undermines further the possibility for the Syrian opposition to create a coordinated network of administrative actors and self-sufficiently provide welfare to citizens. Similarly, such a network would leave room for the more efficiently ‘revolutionary’ everyday life that ‘Aziz was theorizing and attempting to construct in Barzeh. It could offer an alternative to the everydayness produced by the state, creating the possibility of reforming the anti-state technology of protest from within.


‘Aziz’s theories and, in general, the domestic theorization of alternative forms of statehood too often have gone unheeded in the interpretation of the Syrian crisis. On the one hand, the so-called state apparatus,lxxxviii conceived as separated from the empirical reality it produces, still serves as a discursive strategy to refer to the Assad regime’s ownership of resources and infrastructures in the face of multiple forms of social discontent and impoverishment. It reflects our interviewees’ idea of thinking and acting outside of the central state. As the present article has sought to demonstrate, the state, on the other hand, takes shape in society in a fluid and reciprocal manner. Society is also a paradoxical reproduction of state strategies, thus a result of a mutual structural penetration. The conflicted relationships between dissident citizens and the central state, as much as the supposedly simple binary between popular dissent and consent, require a phenomenological epistemology. Indeed, there can be no clear-cut distinction between what inherently constitutes the state and what gives rise to an imaginary freestanding ‘civil society.’ Both only can be observed as a network of practices and relationshipslxxxix through which the sociopolitical order struggles to be maintained.

This raises the importance of recognizing the complex articulation between how to think about state and society and how to observe them in their empirical processes and practices. In this article, we argued against analyses based on the notion of self-standing statehood, which fails to capture adequately the reality of statehood as practiced in everyday life. Instead, we tried to foreground the thinking and actions that individual citizens incorporate.xc The ethnographic insights exposed how the state empirically manifests itself in daily life. Statehood—and not only ‘stateness,’ that is, the ontological condition of the State is itself a phenomenological process, not an entity. Thus, it functions as a network, a complex terrain where controversial processes, desires, practices, and policies intertwine.

While it remains ontologically impossible to delineate where the state begins and society ends, opposing processes and intentions can be identified in such networks. The article did so by addressing how the actions of individual citizens practically comply with the state strategies, despite their explicit desire to oppose them. Several material factors explain how this micro-reproduction of state power in people’s lives continues in Syria. The state not only maintains control of the ports and other points of access to Lebanon, but also provides an acceptable level of welfare service to a relatively populated area of Syria. In addition, the state’s ability to pay civil servants and keep national schools and universities open in its controlled areas—thus exempted by government shelling—also contribute to its micro-reproduction.

The quotidian experience of citizens is a product of the contradictory relations that they weave with surviving or emerging statehoods on the ground. The international focus on state failure or state survival in Syria has not only failed to unearth, explain, and value these everyday actions, but also to shed light on new avenues for practicing everyday dissent, there and around the world.

The emergence of multiple statehoods—negotiating, overlapping with, and fighting each other, which the PYD’s political experience reveals in northeast Syria—is a complex political phenomenon. Political totalitarianism does not simply restrict citizens, whether they are hardliners or willing to compromise. Citizens rather reproduce and respond to the forms of power they experience on an everyday basis. The empirical lack of viable, alternative forms of everydayness explains the undesired reproduction of state strategies in the intimate forms of everyday life.xci This had led to the temporary failure of political opponents to boycott the forms of everydayness that the central state produces. By this token, our interviewees’ intimate and public transcripts of politics represent the exact opposite of the “quiet encroachment of the subaltern.”xcii

In conclusion, the emerging statehood of the PYD, the central state, and popular resistance are hybrid terrains of mutually conditioned practices. The Syrian state and its rival (or occasionally allied) statehoods function as political processes rather than separate entities. The quotidian experience of citizens also is a product of the contradictory relations that they weave with the surviving or emerging statehoods on the ground. Popular resistance, hence, takes place within state-related networks.xciii The international focus on state failure or state survival not only failed to unearth, explain, and value those everyday actions, but also to shed light on new avenues for practicing everyday dissent in Syria and worldwide. While the current political process in Syria becomes an international paradigm for contestation in crisis, to think and approach the state and practices of resistance as relational political processes could help overcome such a crisis.

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i      Michael Herzfeld (2004) Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (New York and London: Routledge).

ii     Achille Mbembe (2001) On the Postcolony (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press); Lisa Wedeen (1999) Ambiguities of Domination, Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); L. Wedeen (2013) Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria, Critical Inquiry, 39, pp. 841–873; Bassam Haddad (2012) Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

iii    Michel Foucault (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, edited by Luter H. Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton (London: Tavistock).

iv    Charles T. Call (2008) The Fallacy of the Failed State, Third World Quarterly, 29(8), pp. 1491–1507.

v      Paulo Freire (1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Penguin Books), p. 19.

vi     Raymond Hinnebusch (2011) The Ba’th Party in Post-Ba’thist Syria: President, Party, and the Struggle for Reform, Middle East Critique, 20(2), pp. 109–125.

vii    James C. Scott (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press).

viii   Ann Laura Stoler, Carol McGranahan & Peter C. Perdue (eds) (2007) Imperial Formations (Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press).

ix     Catherine Lutz (2008) Empire is in the Detail, American Ethnologist, 33(4), pp. 593–611.

x      Michel De Certeau (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).

xi     Joe Moran (2005) Reading the Everyday (London, UK: Routledge).

xii    Timothy Mitchell (1991) The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics, The American Political Science Review, 85(1), pp. 77–96.

xiii   Brent Eng & José Ciro Martinez (2017) Struggling to Perform the State: The Politics of Bread in the Syrian Civil War, International Political Sociology, pp. 1–18.

xiv   A. Mbembe, On the Postcolony; M. Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State.

xv    M. Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy, p. 91.

xvi   Christopher Phillips (2015) Sectarianism and Conflict in Syria, Third World Quarterly, 36(2), pp. 357–376.

xvii  Asef Bayat (2000) From ‘Dangerous Classes’ to ‘Quiet Rebels’: Politics of the Urban Subaltern in the Global South, International Sociology, 15(3), p. 543.

xviii Anthony Giddens (2000) Sociology (Oxford: Polity Press).

xix    P. Freire (1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Penguin Books), p. 112.

xx     Anshel Pfeffer (2016) ISIS Flourishes in Failed States: Syria, Iraq, Libya and Now Belgium, Haaretz. Available at:, accessed February 5, 2017.

xxi    T. Mitchell, The Limits of the State.

xxii    Ibid.

xxiii  Begona Aretxaga (2003) Maddening States, Annual Review of Anthropology, 32, p. 398.

xxiv   A. Mbembe, On the Postcolony.

xxv    B. Eng & J. C Martinez, Struggling to Perform the State: The Politics of Bread in the Syrian Civil War.

xxvi   B. Haddad, Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience.

xxvii  Wendy Brown (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), p. 174.

xxviii The Syrian branch of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Ocalan.

xxix    Local residents of Rojava mention that the Syrian government had provided them with the possibility of voting via Whatsapp for the 2014 presidential elections (authors’ informal conversation with Syrian journalist Bahzad Hamo, March 6, 2017; the news is also reported on al-Araby al-Jadeed, June 4, 2014. Available at:, accessed February 16, 2016.

xxx     Andrea Glioti (2013) Syrian Oil Becomes Fault Line in War, Al Monitor. Available at:, accessed February 16, 2016.

xxxi     Ibid.

xxxii   Ben Hubbard, Clifford Krauss & Eric Schmitt (2014) Rebels in Syria claim Control of Resources, The New York Times.

xxxiii  David Blair (2015) Oil Middlemen between Syria and ISIL is New Target for EU Sanctions, The Telegraph. Available at:, accessed February 16, 2016.

xxxiv  Author (Estella Carpi) informal conversation, Beirut, November 2013.

xxxv   Reinoud Leenders (2013) ‘Oh Buthaina, Oh Sha’ban, the Hawrani is not Hungry—We Want Freedom!’: Revolutionary Framing and Mobilization at the Onset of the Syrian Uprising, in: Joel Beinin, & Frédéric Vairel (eds) Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, 2nd rev. ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 255.

xxxvi   Diane M. Nelson (2004) Anthropologist Discovers Legendary Two-Faced Indian! Margins, the State, and Duplicity in Postwar Guatemala, in: Veena Das & Deborah Poole (eds) Anthropology in the Margins of the State (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press), p. 138.

xxxvii  See Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination; and idem, Ideology and Humor in Dark Times.

xxxviii  Mbembe, On the Postcolony.

xxxix     Author (Estella Carpi) interview, Tripoli, November 2013.

xl           Giorgio Agamben (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Daniel Heller-Roazen (trans.) (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

xli         Aretxaga, ‘Maddening States,’ p. 403.

xlii        Author (Estella Carpi) interview, al-‘Abdeh, December 2013.

xliii       Veena Das & Deborah Poole (2004) State and its Margins: Comparative Ethnographies, in: V. Das & D. Poole (eds) Anthropology in the Margins of the State, pp. 3–34 (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press).

xliv       Ahmed Mawfq Zidan (2017) In Syria… One Massacre After Another, Orient-News.Net. Available at:, accessed February 4, 2017 [Arabic].

xlv        Author (Estella Carpi) interview, Beirut, October 2013.

xlvi       William Hague (2012) Syria’s Assad Lost Legitimacy, Arab Times. Available at:, accessed February 16, 2016; Joshua Keating (2013) Does the US Recognize Asad as Legitimate Now? Did it Ever Not? Slate. Available at, accessed January 31, 2016.

xlvii      Wedeen, Ideology and Humor in Dark Times.

xlviii     Lisa Wedeen has named this ambivalence ‘neoliberal autocracy,’ a condition in which the autocratic state also becomes an arena for domestic security, economic liberalization, national identity, and the imagination of a multicultural accommodation, beyond sectarian strife; see ibid, p. 843.

xlix       Talal Asad (2004) Where are the Margins of the State? In: V. Das & D. Poole (eds) Anthropology in the Margins of the State (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press), p. 281.

l            Morgan Winsor (2015) ISIS Threatens Teachers in Raqqa: College Graduates, Educators in Syrian City Forced to Repent, Teach in Islamic State Schools, International Business Times. Available at:, accessed February 10, 2016.

li           Christian Sinclair & Sirwan Kajjo (2011) The Evolution of Kurdish Politics in Syria, Middle East Report.

lii         Wladimir Van Wilgenburg (2015) Syrian Kurdish Parties: Don’t Go to Europe, Al-Jazeera English. Available at:, accessed November 26, 2016.

liii        Eng & Martinez, Struggling to Perform the State.

liv        Annika Rabo (2011) Conviviality and Conflict in Contemporary Aleppo, Religious Minorities in the Middle
, 108, pp. 123–147.

lv         Author (Andrea Glioti) interview, ‘Amuda (Syria), June 2013.

lvi        Andrea Glioti (2013) Syrian War Keeps University Students at Home, Al Monitor. Available at:, accessed February 16, 2016.

lvii       Author (Andrea Glioti) interview with Sheykhmous, ’Amuda, September 2013.

lviii      Author (Andrea Glioti) interview with Alaa, ’Amuda, May 2013.

lix        Mara Loveman (1998) The Modern State and the Primitive Accumulation of Symbolic Power, The American Journal of Sociology, 110, p. 1679.

lx          The YPG women’s branch.

lxi        Author (Andrea Glioti) Interviewi, al-Qamishli, June 2013.

lxii       Ibid, ‘Amuda, May 2013.

lxiii      Ibid.

lxiv      Ibid, June 2013.

lxv       Deborah Poole (2004) Between Threat and Guarantee: Justice and Community in the Margins of the Peruvian State, in V. Das & D. Poole (eds) Anthropology in the Margins of the State (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press), pp. 60–61.

lxvi       Aretxaga, Maddening States, p. 400.

lxvii      Yade means ‘mother’ in Kurmanji, or Northern Kurdish.

lxviii     Author’s (Andrea Glioti) informal conversation with Mahwosh, ’Amuda, September 2013.

lxix       Mitchell, The Limits of the State.

lxx         Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts, p. 23.

lxxi       Ibid, p. 201.

lxxii      Leenders, ‘Oh Buthaina, Oh Sha‘ban, the Hawrani is not Hungry—We Want Freedom!’ p. 246.

lxxiii     Lina Sinjab (2012) Darayya Death Shock Syrians, BBC. Available at:, accessed November 26, 2016.

lxxiv     Leenders, ‘Oh Buthaina’ p. 258.

lxxv      ‘Omar ‘Aziz (2013) Sous le Feu des Snipers: La Révolution de la Vie Quotidienne. Programme des Comites Locaux de Coordination de Syrie (Paris: Éditions Antisociales).

lxxvi      Ibid.

lxxvii     Ibid.

lxxviii   Wedeen, ‘Ideology and Humor in Dark Times’, p. 865.

lxxix      At the time of ‘Aziz’s theorizing, the Free Syrian Army acted as the only identified heterogeneous military.

lxxx       Lorenzo Trombetta (2013) Siria. Dagli Ottomani agli Asad. E Oltre (Milan: Edizioni Mondadori Università).

lxxxi      Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1918) The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State & the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution, Collected Works, 25, pp. 381–492.

lxxxii     In the 1970s the German Social Democrats often used to resort to this expression.

lxxxiii    Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Massumi, B. (trans.) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 385.

lxxxiv    Louis Althusser (1971) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 127–186.

lxxxv     The Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh condemns the international community for not having actively worked toward the delineation of this potential Syrian majority and a post-Assadist future. The divide-and-rule sectarian strategies of the regime, in addition to a widespread sectarian etiology of Syrian society and crisis, further impeded such support.

lxxxvi    Yassin Al-Haj Saleh (2016) Majoritarian Syria. Justice in Conflict Resolution, Available at:, accessed January 29, 2017.

lxxxvii   Antonio Y. Vazquez-Arroyo (2013) How Not to Learn From Catastrophe: Habermas, Critical Theory, and the ‘Catastrophization of Political Life, Political Theory, 41(5), p. 748.

lxxxviii  L. Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Notes towards an Investigation.

lxxxix    Mitchell, The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics; T. Mitchell (2006) Society, Economy and the State Effect, in: A. Gupta & A. Sharma (eds.) The Anthropology of the State: a Reader (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing), pp. 169–186.

xc           John Peter Nettl (1968) The State as a Conceptual Variable, in World Politics, 20, p. 577.

xci         Mbembe, On the Postcolony.

xcii        Bayat, From ‘Dangerous Classes’ to ‘Quiet Rebels,’: Politics of the Urban Subaltern in the Global South.

xciii       Mitchell, The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics; Mitchell, Society, Economy and the State Effect.

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