Reconciliation and Reconstruction: an analysis of spatial politics as a vehicle in conflict resolution in Syria

Wednesday 31 March 2021

Dr Nour Halabi is a Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on borders, migration and immigration policy and global social movement theory. Her work on the long-standing impact of borders and siege tactics in the Syrian context has been published in Space & Culture and the Interventions, the 2018 theme book for the International Communication Association. Further, her research on social movements and political mobilization in Syria and Egypt has appeared in Arab Media & Society and The International Journal of Communication. 

Caterina Barbi is one of the MECACS interns and MLitt student at the University of St Andrews. Her research interests revolve around terrorism, migration and gender.

When speaking of the Arab Uprisings, scholars and journalists alike often mentioned (and still do) sectarianism as a useful framework to understand and analyse the revolutions. Do you agree? Do you think geographically grounded inequality provides a more thorough understanding?

I think there is plenty of really good research that has acknowledged the role sectarianism, which does play an important factor in understanding what took place. It is undeniable that sect continues to inform identity and society. However, there are other factors that inform the dynamics of Syrian society as well, such as ethnicity and linguistic. These are all important variables in understanding how geographies of difference or politics of difference take place in Syrian society. When I say that spatially grounded inequality is important, what I am trying to say is that it is an important factor that we need to incorporate into this bigger picture. Because yes, sect exists in this context and yet, it is a country that is a little bit more homogeneous than we imagine it to be, with an 80% Sunni Muslim population. This kind of geography of distinction is important, because as I argue in the paper, it continues to influence marriages, business relationships, all sorts of how you accumulate social and economic capital. It is all informed by where you are from and what family you were born into, as people will people will want to do business with the notable families that they know. Interestingly enough, there are online lists of Syrian notable family names, so that despite the diaspora, you can continue to identify them.

I think the answer to your question is not that it provides a more thorough explanation, but that it is a neglected, under-theorized, and under-researched factor relative to other things, such as religion or sects. At the end of the day, my study is modelled similarly to any research on walled cities in Europe or around the world, and the dynamics observed are not very different from the dynamics you see in Italy, for instance. I think part of what motivates my work is seeing academia and authors constantly not affording Syrians the same complexity they afford other audiences, and the tendency to distill us to one factor of our identity, such as sect. And this is not how you study or write of less historically essentialized populations, such as Italians or Americans, who are usually afforded several layers of identity. In short, we can all reach a more thorough explanation by incorporating geographic distinction and geographically based inequality into the conversation.

How have different parties to the Syrian conflict mobilised and exploited spatial politics to their advantage?

One sees different approaches, one of which is the oppositional mobilization. For instance, in the informal settlements outside of Damascus, where 50% of the population is estimated to live, the roads are all crooked and narrow, because there is no urban planning. As these were the cores of the uprisings, when protests would happen and the military would show up, it would be very easy to disperse and evade capture because there’s no discernible public space planning to the space. There are plenty of ways in which the factions of the Syrian revolution actually used their inequalityto their advantage. Another way is based on the idea of having nothing to lose. If you have grown up in these forgotten parts of the country, you have less to lose by mobilizing.

Another part of a galvanizing force within the revolution was the idea of needing to get your voice heard, and that is another way in which spatial politics were exploited. On the other hand, you have the regime. The informal nature of these slums makes it easier to criminalize these settlements and to expropriate citizens of their property. In short, the regime punishes them for mobilization by grazing their lands and building new developments. This also happened with agricultural lands and some historical cactus fields just outside of Damascus, that were bulldozed away for no other reason than to punish. And this very much fits the neoliberal nationalism that Bashar has been promoting. 

Nevertheless, people will always use the environment to their advantage, as a weapon of the weak to escalate resistance as much as they can.

During the seminar, you mentioned that the organisation of urban space can help identify seeds of future conflicts, how was that true for Syria and how should it be rebuilt (ideally) to eliminate the causes/roots of the conflicts?

I think it is important to identify the notion of precarious imbalanced equilibrium, in which the status quo through organization space, along with other factors, affects and deepens the inequality in society. The injustice is built in the system simply for the fact that some people own their houses, through legal deeds, while others live in informal settlements. What I argue is that once we have a status quo that is precarious and that can implode at any time, you can essentially identify the seeds of conflict, because there is only so much injustice people are willing to tolerate. And Egypt and the revolution mottos exemplify this. In Syria, this manifested in many different ways, we are not only talking of housing inequality but of sectarian, gender and economic injustice too. So how do you rebuild? The process and the reconciliation need to be informed by these inequalities, in as much as there needs to be a remedy, a compensation for these wrongs. To give a concrete example, if one grazes an informal settlement to the ground to build a new complex, the inhabitants should be granted an apartment in the new complex. It will not be equivalent to their lost homes, but it will be a form of compensation. The only way to move forward is that all of these post-conflict scenarios need to acknowledge the injustice, the loss and the trauma of the people and find solutions that build more stable equilibrium moving forward. What Assad is re-building in Syria will not actually sustain itself without another set of revolutions, because what authoritarian regimes do is quash the dissent without addressing its root causes.

You also spoke of TV series and their representation of the ashwa’iyat, how did they impact the conflict and the understanding of the civil war from a Syrian point of view? 

I do not think the TV series impacted the conflict, but they definitely shine a light on issues of this kind. When it comes to the ashwa’iyat, they also help us better understand how the people in informal settlements lived and as a result, why they were motivated to mobilize. And that adds a new point of view as opposed to more traditional and famous Syrian opposition figures. Scholars who have been looking at Syrian television shows have already noted the fact that they have become the space to discuss social issues. This is because there is a certain degree freedom that is usually not granted to journalists or academics. Television becomes the space to explore issues and key struggles, such as honor killings, sexism, children’s rights and to an extent, even politics. Between 2001 and 2011, we witnessed the rising popularity of a genre that essentially focused on how people lived in these slums. These shows, as Salamandra writes, heavily highlight the hopelessness of these places and the lack of any kind of mobility. The representation of these issue to the Syrian public was fundamental in humanizing these situations.  The dramas open a window on the ashwa’iyat and thus become a tool for researchers too, as they are usually unable to enter these settlements and research them freely.

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