The nature of authoritarian rule in Syria remains little understood outside the country. As a notoriously closed society with limited access to the outside world before the 2000s, with few journalists and academic venturing into the Arab republic, a substantive knowledge gap has developed. However, the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Syria turned the country from one that few talked about, to one at the centre of political and ideological debates in cities across the world.
American anthropologist Lisa Wedeen is one of the few western scholars who have documented Syria for decades, and so her book on how the dictatorial rule of Bashar Al-Assad has endured and what effect this has had on Syrians, is one I anticipated eagerly. Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment and Mourning in Syria does not offer any analysis of military matters or specific policy decisions; rather it looks at how Syrians have responded to the uprising, civil war, and Assad remaining in power for the time being.
A significantly large segment of Syrian society chose to support neither the revolutionary forces nor the Assad regime. Why? Wedeen’s book tackles this question, looking at both supporters of the regime and the uprising.
“If the Arab uprisings initially seemed to herald the end of tyrannies and a move towards liberal democratic governments,” she writes, “their defeat not only marks a reversal but is of a piece with new forms of authoritarianism worldwide.”
Of course, it goes without saying that no book could ever capture the whole spectrum of Syrian attitudes, experiences, and interactions over the past 10 years, nor can any book, including this one, represent what Syrians think in general. What it can do, though, is offer us a framework for understanding some of the responses. I found Wedeen’s book to be a mixed bag containing both useful and problematic insights.
Syria has been an authoritarian country throughout most of its recent history, but what characterises the difference between Hafez Al-Assad’s regime from that of his son Bashar is not an unimportant question. Assad Senior’s was a classical strongman regime similar to both Communist and Fascist leaderships in the 20th century, whereas Bashar, by contrast, offered a new kind of distinctly 21st century dictatorship, one underpinned by neoliberalism and the promise of a better life.
However, the brutal response by Bashar’s regime to the peaceful protests in 2011 was the final nail in the coffin for the idea that it could provide a better life or that Assad Junior would be a soft dictator, but some Syrians continued to act as if the regime could give them a better life. This is an area which Wedeen tackles.
Assad and his wife Asma sold themselves as the model modern couple empowered by neoliberal reforms and an aspiration for the citizenry: “By disarticulating regime from the state, the ideal of the moral neoliberal ruling couple provided a new basis for public dissimulation; for acting as if the glamorous neoliberal automatic regime was not personalitic, patronage-based, kleptocratic and violent; for acting as if its lip service to individual voluntarism and civic empowerment could actually offer a civil, moral solution to the problems of governance that the corrupt, tired, crude, overly brutal developmentalist party state of old did not.” The couple acts as if the impossible is possible, to know and not to know at the same time, and this is an area towards which this study accelerates.
The ability to disavow knowledge enabled many Syrians neither to oppose the regime nor to back it. It is often said that Syria was “sectarianised” after the uprising; a key spreader of sectarianism in Syria was the proliferation of rumours. Looking at an incident in an Alawi village where Sunni groups were accused of smashing car tyres in the area, Wedeen shows how locals did not believe Sunni groups had entered the village and thus were not responsible for the attack, and that pro-regime forces were the responsible party. Yet, even with this belief, they were able to disavow what they believed with the following logic: we do not believe the Sunnis did this, but they could have done this, and although the regime did this, it was acting to protect us. The book offers a useful insight by exploring this way of thinking and offers a key understanding of how and why so many citizens stuck with the regime.
Lisa Wedeen’s book has a massive flaw, though, with its postmodern take on the Syrian uprising; if there are two competing truth claims, the book treats them both as equal and does not seek to disprove one over the other. Where this becomes hugely problematic is in the section that discusses the 2013 East Ghouta chemical attack. Pro-regime denialism, conspiratorialism and alternative facts are treated as being on a level footing with the so-called “oppositional narrative” about the attack, namely that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on a Damascus suburb. The evidence that the regime was not behind the chemical attack and that oppositional forces were responsible is virtually non-existent, whereas the case against the regime is very strong.
This distinction is not made in the book, and elsewhere in its pages, it felt as if opposition supporters were being equated with the regime. While this might not have been Wedeen’s intention, it does weaken the study significantly and undermines some of its useful insights. Overall, this is a useful book to get us thinking about modes of neoliberal autocracy. However, in my view, it falls on its inability to make this critical observation.