At the Frontline of the Battle for Syria

Earlier this week PBS’s Frontline aired a powerful new documentary on Syria that lets viewers see the ongoing fighting up close and through the eyes of the rebels, the regime, and those trapped in the middle. It does a fantastic job of integrating the micro-level dynamics of the violence on the ground with the macro-level political forces operating in the country more broadly.

The Battle for Syria is gripping footage and courageous journalism. In the first of two segments, freelance cameraman Jeremiah Bailey Hoover joins The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as the two use smuggling routes to slip inside the country from across the Turkish border. They journey to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and meet a squad of rebel fighters engaged in street-to-street warfare against the tanks, snipers and air force of the regime.

The battle line cuts through the heart of Aleppo. Graves are dug in local gardens, waiting to receive the still-warm dead. The rebels retreat and advance. They kill a sniper and retrieve bodies lying in the street. They receive a defector and capture a spy who betrayed himself by mistakenly praising Assad at the rebel checkpoint. With the front line moving by the hour and death in the air, it’s not clear who controls the neighborhood.

The streets are typically deserted but civilians pop up here and there. In a telling scene, a man approaches the front with an absurd level of nonchalance as he walks hand-in-hand with his young children, ignoring the rebel’s entreaties to stay back, telling them that the regime snipers will not shoot as they walk on by. Another man shouts angrily at the rebels, cursing them for inviting the Government’s artillery and air power to bombard the neighborhood without discrimination.

Just as The Battle for Syria lays bare the micro-level uncertainties that prevail on the frontlines among civilians betwixt and between the two combatants, the film’s second segment recounts the macro-level narrative of how the fighting resulted from a series of increasingly polarizing events beginning with a few kids from the town of Daraa, who had the balls to spray-paint anti-Assad graffiti on the walls of their school.

The film traces how the torture subsequently suffered by the boys at the hands of the regime was recorded and shown on YouTube, quickly becoming a focal point for people to organize collectively and express their outrage. Although their demands were limited and relatively inchoate, the regime responded with a brutal crack-down. Even so, the examples of successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened the people and the protests gained momentum and the repression of the regime only served to empower those willing to use violence to meet the violence.

How is it that such a small spark could light this kind of fire and how does it relate to the broader structural forces that drive political instability in some countries but not others?

Timur Kuran has suggested one way to think about how broad structuralist forces interact with the individual determinants of opposition. In a famous analysis of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Kuran distinguished between an individual’s private and public preferences. Citizens living under authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe were often afraid of expressing their true desires—i.e., opposition— publicly for fear of punishment. Instead, they behaved as though they supported communism in a form of “preference falsification,” cloaking such private truths with public lies.

Individual support or opposition to a political regime is not uniformly distributed throughout society. In Syria, for example, Sunni Islamists have a long history of resentment against the Assad regime and are die-hard opponents; others like the Alawite minority are die-hard supporters, many of whom fear for their lives were Assad to fall from power. Most people, however, are somewhere in between.

Kuran’s second point is that the mere sight of people collectively engaging in public defiance can inspire those on the sidelines to take part. He suggests that the die-hard opponents who mobilize early in protest can lower the threshold of others who, though privately sympathetic, would otherwise remain on the sidelines out of fear or social pressure. The participation of these individuals, in turn, add to the size of the protest movement and make it even easier for even more reluctant yet privately dissatisfied individuals to join in. This process is further accelerated if dramatic events like the torture of children can serve as focal points to channel public dissatisfaction. Subsequent repression by the regime that results in additional casualties can raise grievances and lower thresholds even further. Such a cascading effect helps explain how seemingly minor incidents can have major repercussions. Though apparently unpredictable in advance, they seem obvious in hindsight.

Preference falsification helps us see why authoritarian regimes seems so stable until the eve of their disintegration. In Eastern Europe, when citizens realized that there were thousands of others who were just like them, the regimes collapsed remarkably swiftly. This, according to Kuran, is why seemingly strong dictatorships are actually highly vulnerable to the public expression of political opposition. Indeed, as Lisa Wedeen has shown, fears of public unrest drove a remarkable effort by Bashar’s father, Hafez, to build a cult of personality. That pretty much everyone privately knew this cult was ridiculous missed the point: ensuring the mere semblance of outward support was enough to keep citizens engaging in docile preference falsification and unaware of the true scale of discontent.

In a cruel irony, The Battle for Syria recounts Bashar’s elderly mother, Anisa, chiding her son for lacking the firm hand of his father.

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