Skip to main content

Syria 2011–2013: revolution and Tyranny before the Mayhem


Azmi Bishara’s series of books on the Arab uprisings have attracted considerable attention from diverse audiences who are interested in understanding authoritarianism and resistance in the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, Bishara’s holistic examination of sociological factors and micro-level drivers of conflict, such as the key processes of identity formation and the contentious instrumentalization of those identities, provides a valuable corrective to other analysts’ tendency to overemphasize political economy and to discuss sectarianism in essentialist terms. The recent English- language release of one of Bishara’s central works, Syria 2011–2013: Revolution and Tyranny before the Mayhem, which includes a new ‘Critical Account of Developments since 2013’, is an excellent example of these nuanced contributions. Bishara takes as his subject matter the question of how and why the Syrian protests turned into an armed revolution, emphasizing the related shifts in regional dynamics, the regime’s unwillingness to contemplate reforms, and the fractionalization of the political opposition. Rejecting what he describes as a ‘misguided’ analytical emphasis on economic pressures and social repression, which he correctly indicates were commonplace in Syria long before the conflict began, Bishara instead draws our attention to the political ‘mood’ of the populace, the emerging desire for self-rule, and the shifting contours of Syrian identity (pp. 2–3). Drawing from Bishara’s extensive knowledge of the region and its people, the book serves as a firsthand presentation of the internal and external dynamics that shaped the course of events in Syria.

Bishara begins with detailed account of Bashar al-Assad’s first decade in power, starting in the year 2000. While this period included some degree of economic liberalization in Syria, the process was carefully controlled by the regime and was dissociated from any motion towards greater democracy. Assad’s incessant discourse about external ‘imperialist conspiracies’ facing Syria served to justify his authoritarianism via a never- ending ‘state of emergency’, while the limited privatization that he orchestrated mostly served to entrench patronage relationships between the ruling family and a new economic elite (pp. 18–25). The associated alienation and sense of disappointment felt by many Syrians, especially in rural and low-income areas, contributed to the rise of multiple overlapping social movements in the 2000s.

To his credit, Bishara carefully narrates these pre-2011 events. Many accounts of the Syrian uprisings begin with events in Daraa in April 2011 (in which expansive anti-corruption protests emerged and were violently repressed), but Bishara traces preceding movements such as the 2008 protests against the abolition of fuel subsidies, the 2010 student protests against new university dress codes banning the niqab, and the Feb. 2011 Hariqa Market protest against police repression (pp. 33–37). Documenting such incidents adds a richer and highly relevant interpretive layer that improves our understanding of the social concerns at play.

As the book proceeds in subsequent chapters to discuss the expansion of the protests and the eventual descent into violence, Bishara’s narrative is attuned to vital details, such as the 

individual organizer involved in the protests is overlooked, and Bishara’s narrative of these events is backed up with meticulous documentation (pp. 50–77). By providing us with intimate details of the protests and the regime’s responses, Bishara exhibits scholarly rigour as well as a moral responsibility towards clarifying the sources of violence. These details about the early peaceful opposition and its outcomes are sometimes elided in other accounts of the Syrian conflict, but here they provide an important foundation of understanding when Bishara then turns to discuss the beginnings of the armed revolution. In Chapter 5, Bishara explains the perspectives of opposition leaders as they started to accept the need for protestors to arm themselves against crushing regime brutality, and the frustration that was felt as the movement began to turn towards the protection offered by militias. Bishara accurately recounts how many opposition leaders only slowly came to accept such a direction, and that they did so only after losing hope for any effective international response to halt the regime’s massacres (pp. 96–100). The chapter delves into a complex analysis of how each suburb and its opposition groups came to justify bearing arms against the regime.

Subsequent chapters directly tackle the issue of sectarianism. Bishara refrains from essentializing heterogenous Syrian communities, and instead discusses how the regime as well as populist demagogues sought to cast the conflict in religious terms and thereby ‘manufacture’ a sectarian rift, inciting intolerance and violence that was not previously characteristic of Syria’s diverse religious communities (pp. 168–172). The material in this section of the book traces the subsequent inhumanity perpetrated by multiple factions, documenting the sad litany with Bishara’s customary attention to detail. The book discusses each of the involved factions, including the various Islamist brigades that were established after 2011. Finally, in the closing chapters, Bishara turns to analyse potential political solutions and the impact that international actors can have in achieving them.

Bishara’s approach is notable in that he steers away from much of the abstract comparative and analytical literature regarding drivers of civil conflicts, and prefers to let the outlooks and actions of the involved Syrian parties speak for themselves. This ground-level perspective, combined with Bishara’s unapologetic moral compass in declaring support for democracy and human rights, has led some scholars to dismiss his work. In a cursory review published in the Middle East Quarterly, for example, Micah Levinson concluded that, ‘Those seeking objective analysis of Syria’s civil conflict should look elsewhere’. Another hasty review by Professor Eyal Zisser directs its criticism to Bishara’s positionality and political background rather than the content of the book. Such responses are misguided, if not outright prejudicial, particularly because much of the strength of Bishara’s work is in the level of objective detail that it provides. Dates, names, and events—these thoroughly sourced and fine-grained accountings of the conflict provide the grist for the conclusions that Bishara draws, which are themselves notable for their precision and specificity. Those critics who dismiss Bishara without engaging substantively with the content of his scholarship, often while negatively referencing his participation in Arab political movements, can be reasonably implicated in the politics of ‘positional superiority’ (to adopt the words of Edward Said)—that is, they broadly attribute partiality to Bishara based on his positioning, while the critic’s own social context is ignored or deemed irrelevant.

The truth is often quite the opposite, as proximity to one’s subject matter can enrich scholarship with more robust data and sharper argumentation. Bishara’s Syria 2011– 2013 is a valuable exemplar of this phenomenon. The book’s overarching contribution to the scholarship on the Syrian conflict is in its vivid narration of empirical details, providing an insider’s account of the country’s recent culture and politics. Any conclusions about topics such as the role of sanctions and other forms of international intervention need to be grounded in such insights. Thus, at the very least, Bishara’s work should be read and celebrated for its robust historical documentation of the day- to-day events and operational agendas of the Syrian uprising. What I found most compelling in this work, however, was its sense of intellectual responsibility in conveying the complexity of lived experiences while recognizing Syrians’ agency, responsibility, political decisions, and capacity for self-understanding.

Rahaf Aldoughli

Research at Harmoon Center 

© 2023 Rahaf Aldoughli