Rethinking the concept of revolution through the Syrian experience

Based on years of fieldwork with displaced Syrians, anthropologist Dr. Charlotte Al-Khalili finds that while the Syrian revolution may not (yet) have produced political regime change, it has nonetheless brought about profound and likely permanent social transformations.

An anthropology of the Syrian revolution

Can one still speak of a “Syrian revolution” ten years after the country witnessed its first protests, and as the phrase “Syrian conflict” seems to have imposed itself as the preferred term to describe events on the ground since at least the mid-2010s? Perhaps it seems utopian to talk of a Syrian “revolution”when the dead and disappeared in the Assad regime’s jails number in the hundreds of thousands, and the forcibly displaced exceed 13 million. Little wonder it is now more common to hear of a humanitarian crisis and endless conflict.

My own perspective as an anthropologist, however, is linked to the temporality of my fieldwork, and to the identities of my interlocutors. It is also intimately linked to the anthropological approach that resides at the heart of my work, which started in 2013, and led to a PhD thesis in social anthropology on the Syrian revolution and displacement in Turkey. I conducted over two years of fieldwork in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, located 60 km north of the Syrian border and a little over 100 km from the city of Aleppo. I later settled in Gaziantep full-time, living there until 2019.

My subsequent research has focused on Syrian religious and political circles from 1982 to 2011. It explored the question of revolutionary genealogies, and the formation of revolutionary subjects and projects in the years preceding the defeat of the 1982 armed uprising up until the revolutionary period Syria is now witnessing, or witnessed between 2011 and 2015, according to one’s perspective.

This article summarizes the key conclusions of my doctoral thesis and subsequent reflections based on long-term fieldwork. Some of these conclusions are ethnographic in nature, whereas others are analytical, which is to say they are a translation of the conceptual and theoretical conclusions developed in dialogue with my interlocutors.

My research followed the various evolutions of the Syrian revolution: the different experiences, conceptions, and reconfigurations of revolution and the transformations it led to in Syrians’ lifeworlds, as well as—or maybe especially—its unexpected consequences. How did the Syrian revolution evolve, and what were its consequences between 2011 and 2016?

 

The ethnographic study of revolutions

How does one study a revolution ethnographically? The ethnographic study of revolutions is both recent and peculiar. Indeed, this anthropological subfield has taken on a new dimension with the Arab revolutions of the 2010s, especially through ethnographic studies of the Egyptian revolution undertaken by anthropologists in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities when the revolution started (Abu-Lughod 2012; Mittermaier 2014; Ghannam 2012; Sabea 2012; Schielke 2015; Winegar 2012). These questioned the possibility of studying revolutions ethnographically from a methodological and analytical perspective. On the one hand, how can one do participant observation of revolutionary events that are often unpredictable, as well as both short and violent in their effervescent phase? On the other hand, how can one maintain the “ethnographic distance” that anthropology requires, and the balance between “immersion in the field” and the “distance necessary to write” (Sabea 2012: para. 11) while studying a revolution as it unfolds? Can one even speak of revolution as the events studied are ongoing?

These approaches inspired my work, but in practice things were different, for conducting 18 months of fieldwork in Syria was not possible when I started my PhD. This is one reason why I did my fieldwork in Gaziantep, with revolutionaries who had been forced to flee and/or were moving between Turkey and Syria. During my fieldwork, I lived with women and families, often solely comprising female members, as well as with young activists. I also worked with civil society organizations and representatives of Syrian local councils displaced to Gaziantep.

 

The Syrian revolution and the “Syrianization” of the revolution

This article addresses the experience, conceptualization, and imagination of the Syrian revolution and its defeat from the perspective of the Syrians I worked and lived with. Moreover, it aims to understand how the experience and conceptualization of the Syrian revolution lead us to rethink the concept of revolution itself, and to show how the latter is an ethnocentric concept strongly marked by Enlightenment philosophy, which has mainly been defined in relation to Western revolutionary experiences. I am thus trying to allow for a “Syrianization” of the concept, and of the event of revolution, to borrow Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s term and transpose his idea of the “Palestinization” of the Syrian revolution. In sum, this article proposes a definition of revolution as a transformative, multi-scalar, and multi-dimensional force; a series of deep transformations over the long-term rather than a violent political rupture marking a clear historical “before” and “after.”

Rethinking revolution as a series of transformations in different domains and on different scales allows us to bypass the success/failure dichotomy often imposed by the classical definitions of revolution. Moreover, it highlights a paradox of a sort: despite its apparent defeat in political terms at the national level, the Syrian revolution was often perceived by my interlocutors as having already had a deep impact on the present. Indeed, the revolution led to profound social changes that are experienced in the present and understood as irreversible. It is this irreversibility of the social transformations that led my interlocutors to say that a second revolutionary cycle or “cycle of anger” was inevitable. The revolution is thus understood as a process that imposes itself on the longue durée, and that has not stopped despite the ostensible defeat of the revolution. It is therefore a process with multiple temporalities and meanings according to the domain in which it unfolds.

 

Was the Syrian revolution in fact a revolution?

It may seem uncontroversial to speak of the Syrian “revolution” when referring to its initial years. Yet in most European academic, journalistic, and activist circles this is far from self-evident. Reference to the “Syrian revolution” is often met with surprise and defiance—except, perhaps, when its Kurdish expression is intended. This dismissal comes not only from an ideological standpoint, or from poor knowledge of the Syrian context. It is also the result of a narrow understanding of the very concept of “revolution,” which forbids these events to be seen in their full radicalness.

A recurrent problem with the literature on the Syrian revolution, and the so-called Arab Spring more broadly, is that it casts the 2011 revolutions within “the Enlightenment rationality and the teleological history it envisions,” reducing their specificity to “the internal logic of a universal History” (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 16–17).

Is it still possible to “envision and desire futures uncharted by already existing schemata of historical change”? This would mean interrogating the possibility “to think of dignity, humility, justice, and liberty outside the Enlightenment cognitive maps and principles” (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 1). Is it possible not to turn Syrians “into legible subjects of the March of History rather than making history the subject of their uprising” (Ibid.: 4)? In other words, it is a Syrianization of history and of the concept of revolution within which one has to operate.

I therefore do indeed use the term “revolution,” for as an anthropologist I choose to take my interlocutors seriously, while also adopting a de-colonial perspective and methodology. 

 

A moving definition of revolution

Al-thawra; the revolution; was the only term used by my interlocutors to speak of their experience for the years 2011–2016. They defined themselves as revolutionaries (thuwwar) even though this term encompassed a variety of activities, identities, projects, and modes of subjectivation. Some had protested for the first time in 2011, while others were part of long-established political groups, and possessed a venerable political culture and practice. Others never participated directly in protests, but took care of their logistical dimensions: they prepared banners; cooked for protestors; and later distributed medicine and other goods to Syrians who fled their bombed or besieged neighborhoods and towns.

All my interlocutors were displaced outside Syria in Gaziantep, or were still going back and forth between the two countries, which remained relatively easy until the closing of the Syrian–Turkish border in 2015. Gaziantep thus constituted a kind of bridge between “inside” and “outside,” and a sort of capital of the exiled revolutionaries. My interlocutors were young activists who often described themselves as secular, and who came from the middle and lower-middle classes, often from Aleppo University and the countryside surrounding Damascus. There were also some Islamists from central Syria and Idlib, as well as former political prisoners and hardened activists; mainly Islamists but also some communists. During my fieldwork I lived with different families, often women-headed households whose families had been close to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, and who hailed from the Homs, Hama, Raqqa, and Aleppo countrysides. Working mainly with women allowed me to understand the central place they have occupied in the Syrian revolution, as well as its peculiar meaning for them. This also brought my attention quickly to the social transformations that resulted from the revolution, because women are often invisibilized actors of revolutionary processes, since they typically represent a minority on the streets during the “effervescence” phase of revolutions. Revolutionary changes, however, take place within people’s homes and over the long term, rather than in short-lived revolutionary protests (Winegar 2012). 

My work thus aims to offer a moving definition of the Syrian revolution and the very concept of revolution: moving in the sense of shifting, as well as of being in motion. During the first years of the revolution, the alternative terms used to describe the events in Syria came from Assad regime loyalists as well as a third party; the “neutral” people. From around 2015–2016, however, following Russia’s direct military intervention, and the siege and then fall of Aleppo, my interlocutors increasingly began questioning themselves as to the most appropriate term to describe the situation. Was it still a revolution? Could one still speak of revolution with regards to the initial phase (awwal al-thawra), in light of its later developments? Had it instead been merely an uprising (intifada), and was it now a conflict (siraꜤ), a war (harb), or even a civil war (harb ahlieh)?

This definition of revolution was also “moving” in a further sense, for in my fieldwork I engaged with displaced people and those who were quite literally moving between Syria and Turkey. The meaning of the revolution thus varied according to the positionality of my interlocutors, following the conflict’s temporality. The revolution transformed itself along the routes of exile.

 

Of defeat, end, and tragedy

Despite certain differences among the Syrians with whom I lived and worked, they all defined themselves as revolutionary. It therefore took them a long time to speak of a defeated revolution. For years, it was taboo to speak of a failure or defeat; to refer to the revolution in such terms could cause one to be perceived as a traitor or a defeatist.

It is in this sense that the term “defeat” rather than “failure” of the revolution seems better adapted to account for the lived experience of my interlocutors and, more widely, of the Syrian revolution. The difference between defeat and failure was underlined by Walter Armbrust in his work on the Egyptian revolution (2017). He argues that whereas the notion of failure points to an internal cause of the lack of success, the notion of defeat involves something that comes from the outside, whereby the central responsibility is external. There is therefore something guilt-inducing in the concept of failure: it would be linked to the revolutionaries’ actions themselves, something some interlocutors claimed in their darkest moments. By contrast, the idea of defeat implies one has been vanquished without bearing full responsibility for it. The argument is nonetheless not that revolutionaries should not question the reasons for their defeat and analyze them—as many did indeed start to do from 2015–2016 onwards. It is rather to stay closer to the reality, and the vast inequality between the forces on the ground: peaceful and later lightly-armed revolutionaries, on the one hand, versus a heavily-armed regime on the other, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, using a wide range of weapons up to and including barrel bombs and chemical weapons to exterminate the people living in revolutionary bastions and liberated areas.

This question of defeat, loss, and failure is interesting, for it allows one to think about the revolution beyond failure/success and vanquished/victors, so as also to interrogate the question of the “end” of the revolution. How does a revolution end? Does a revolution ever end? How is this end visible? In the dominant historiography and history of revolutions, as well as in the political sciences and philosophy—which are the main disciplines that classically study revolutions and conceptualize them—revolutions are always successful. To speak of a defeated or failed revolution is an oxymoron. Failed revolutions are consigned to history’s dustbin, as noted by the Caribbean anthropologist and historian David Scott (2014).

 

Revolution and political regime change 

Looking at classical texts about revolutions and the canons of revolution in the collective imaginary—the French, American, and Soviet revolutions—they are all “successful”in the narrow sense that they were popular movements that led to the collapse of the existing political order (the ancien régime) and its replacement with a new regime. That is, revolution is conceptualized according to this classical model as a before-and-after historical rupture which leads to a new temporal cycle at the level of the state, nation, or indeed nation-state. In the Syrian context there has been no regime collapse or change. Nor has there been any rupture in the political field, at least at the level of the state.

Does this mean the Syrian revolution is/was not a revolution? Indeed, why is it perceived as unsuccessful? I hypothesize that it is because there has been no regime change at the level of the state. And yet, very quickly after the beginning of the Syrian revolution, entire areas of the country were liberated and found themselves administered by local councils and other revolutionary and civil society institutions, breaking free of regime rule and reorganizing themselves beyond its reach. In this sense, the Syrian revolution was experienced as a radical change at the local and regional levels, and as a total renewal of political life, with fascinating experiments in self-governance and local democracy, as in the besieged town of Darayya, for instance.

The situation is of course very different now, after the forced evacuation of the last besieged revolutionary areas in the Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs countrysides. There is nonetheless a tendency to see only the tragic and definitive aspect of the defeat—that is, its failure—rather than to interrogate what remains of the revolutionary experience and the revolutionaries’ initial hopes. If the revolution did not lead to a regime change at the level of the state, did it not still lead to other kinds of transformations? If so, where does one locate the revolution: at which level, and in which domain of Syrians’ lifeworld?

Starting from this point, it is interesting to show the different scales and depths at which a revolutionary defeat takes place. Such an exercise  pushes us to rethink this defeat beyond the success/failure paradigm, while shifting our focus onto the revolution’s predictable and unpredictable transformations and imagined, unexpected, and unpredictable consequences. This is what an anthropological take on revolution allows: to locate the effects, both expected and unexpected, of a revolutionary event in all the domains of Syrians’ lifeworld. In this way, the revolution no longer appears as a violent political rupture, but rather as a series of social transformations that reconstitute Syrians’ world. This obliges one to shift focus from the political domain to the intimate (the subject) and cosmological (the spatiotemporal coordinates), as well as the social sphere (the relations, everyday life, gendered norms, and kinship).

In other words, one has to ask what “defeat” does to the concept of revolution, or to enquire, paraphrasing David Scott, about the tragic consequences—that is, the unthinkable and unexpected—of a revolution’s defeat. Scott explores this question beautifully in a 2014 book dedicated to the forgotten—because unsuccessful—Grenada revolution of 1979, questioning the effects of a tragic defeat on the experiences and conceptions of time, history, and revolutionary utopia. Here I transpose his question, focusing on the effects of the defeat of the Syrian revolution on Syrians’ lifeworld: how are Syrians’ relations to time, space, religion, and the self reconfigured? In other words, what is the transformative power of a thwarted revolution? Where does one locate the ruptures, disruptions, transformations, and displacements produced by such an event? How do new worlds emerge from the unexpected and unpredictable consequences of a political project that did not achieve its initial aims? What happens when one’s plans are thwarted?

 

Revolution: A series of multi-dimensional and multi-scalar transformations

By the time of my first visit to Turkey in 2013, the Syrian situation was already deemed a “war,”“civil war,” or “conflict” by the international press. My interlocutors, however, spoke of revolution; thawra. Hence the question was: what did they define as a revolution? Where does one see the revolution? What traces did it leave? Where does one locate the revolution’s spirit and legacy?

In Gaziantep, the revolution was omnipresent in the landscape and soundscape. The landscape was saturated with revolutionary symbols: the revolution’s flags; weekly protests and sit-ins; martyrs’ pictures; etc. The revolution also formed a soundscape in protests and marriage celebrations, where revolutionary songs and slogans were sung and the dabkeh dance was performed to revolutionary songs, reproducing the festive atmosphere of the first protests inside Syria.

As one tries to map out the various depths and speeds of revolutionary transformations on Syrians’ lifeworld, one sees that they have different temporalities that inscribe themselves in the short, medium, and long terms. The revolution thus becomes a process that needs to be analyzed in the longue durée, and that appears at different intensities. Some interlocutors described this process as a revolutionary cycle made up of a succession of dead and active times.

“How long did it take for the French revolution to succeed? A hundred years?” asked a friend from Douma rhetorically in 2015, before adding, “We still have a long way ahead of us!” Here one sees that a future success for the revolution was still considered possible by my interlocutors, many of whom linked it to social and personal changes that had already happened and were perceived as irreversible. If a political rupture—i.e., a regime change—was appearing less likely a prospect, social transformations were already happening in the present, and these deep transformations would eventually lead, they said, to a total political revolution, whether after a generation or a hundred years.

This line of thought was supported by the example of liberated areas that rejected the rules imposed by the Jabhat al-Nusra Islamist group, which tried to impose new clothing restrictions on local women and to prohibit men from smoking in public after they gained control of these territories. In Idlib, for instance, women organized protests to oppose these new rules and/or continued their practices. Even though they often had to eventually submit to the restrictions, according to my interlocutors these acts of resistance against new forms of oppression (zulm) imposed by illegitimate authorities were proof of the revolution’s legacy and enduring spirit inside Syria (Al-Khalili 2018). 

Outside Syria, this was especially visible among women and youths in particular, in their relations to religious and social norms and authorities. The most striking and widespread example among the people I lived with was probably in the shift from endogamous marriages to “politically endogamous marriages” (Peteet 1991: 181). In a manner analogous to that described by Julie Peteet in her work on Palestinian revolutionaries displaced to Lebanon, for many of my interlocutors the endogamous marriages that previously happened within a circle of families that knew each other and/or between people who were socially and spatially close were now taking place between people of similar political orientations.

For my interlocutors, there was thus a continuity between the political struggles they fought for and the social transformations they experienced. This continuity was located in the spirit of defiance developed by Syrians and their refusal to submit to any kind of illegitimate authority, and to the oppression of the regime or other political actors. In line with this, some expressed their feeling that even in regions retaken by the regime a more radical revolution could happen, even if only after a generation.  

The underlying idea here is that the revolution has had a permanent impact at the social level. The social transformations that have taken place were perceived as too deep to be reversible, and as fertile soil for a future revolution that, this time, would lead to the regime’s downfall. The revolutionary spirit thus appeared as one of defiance and deep anger, as well as the engine and producer of transformations in Syrians’ reality.

One thus sees that instead of analyzing these transformations from the perspective of the counter-revolutionary moment, which would lead to a teleological reading of these events, it is more fruitful to read them from the perspective of the multiple temporalities of action, mobilization, and defeat of a revolution. Such a standpoint allows us to perceive the unexpected consequences of a revolution, and to focus on the social transformations to which the defeated revolution led. “Revolutions, no matter their immediate success or failure, have much more severe implications than their initial aspirations […] They hold the potential to outlast their immediate horizon of expectation and actually circumvent it” (Haugbolle and Bandak 2017: 194).

This pushes us to adopt a new temporal focus exploring near and distant horizons, and simultaneously to examine the short and longue durée of revolutionary events. This draws on an ethnographic distinction: my interlocutors distinguished between changes in the short and long terms, and spoke of deep and superficial transformations to differentiate between social and political consequences of the revolution. If, in the first years of the revolution, they expected major political changes, and thought the Assad regime would fall, these hopes were thwarted by the revolution’s defeat. Convinced that they could not bring down the regime in the near future, those who defined themselves as activists and worked in civil society and local councils hoped nonetheless to bring about deep change in their society, in order that this would eventually lead to irreversible transformations in the long term. They thus chose to focus on education; primarily that of children. Their initial aim to defeat the regime thus quickly shifted to the hope to transform their society in-depth.

One therefore sees how a revolution defeated in the political domain (at the national level) may nonetheless produce a series of deep ruptures in the social field, as well as in political imagination and aspirations.

 

Revolution, exile, migration

With the massive exodus of Syrians in mind, one can however question the survival of the revolution’s spirit in exile—in Turkey and other countries neighboring Syria, as well as in Europe.

What is the legacy of the Syrian revolution? Where does one locate the revolution’s spirit? The revolutionary heritage appears particularly visible among the nascent Syrian diaspora, with revolutionary experiences and savoir-faire that travel and move, redefining themselves, yet within which the initial spirit of the revolution remains, spreads, and reinvents itself.

By rethinking revolution as a series of transformations at different levels and in various domains—that is, as an event with ontological dimensions (i.e., that redefines what is; new ways to say and to be in the world) as well as cosmogonic ones (i.e., it is a novel way to “make world”)—the Syrian world’s coordinates are being replotted.

The aim of this article is therefore to redefine the levels upon which a defeated revolution plays out. In other words, one has to focus on the transformative power of seemingly defeated revolutions rather than solely conceive of revolutions as events radically transforming political systems and social structures. This also allows one to move the focus of studies of revolution from socio-political and economic structures to religious, kinship, personal, and spatiotemporal horizons—domains that have usually been marginalized in the past. Eventually, this pushes one to place at the center of the study of revolution that which typically lies at its margins: the intimate, the exile, and the woman, to start with.

In conclusion, it seems that by studying the Syrian revolution through its defeat, but also by de-centering it; by going beyond the political defeat at the level of the state; one can observe its multiple consequences and ramifications in the intimate sphere, social relations, the experience of time and space, and the political and religious imaginations. This eventually leads to a provincialization of the classical and Eurocentric definition of revolution. Indeed, it invites us to open up this definition to other possibilities; other revolutionary practices and concepts that can follow classical definitions of revolution but also move away from, divert, and transform them. This finally allows one to widen the concept of revolution to other experiences and modes of action, to other layouts and temporalities.