Whither Civil Resistance? Humanitarianism’s Impact on Syrian Mobilization

By Rana Khoury
Submitted to Session P4977 (The Impact of External Actors on Political Economy, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Jordan; Syria; Turkey;
Comparative; Conflict Resolution; Diaspora/Refugee Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the simple narrative of the Syrian conflict, a grassroots uprising met with repression, violence overwhelmed mass mobilization, and civilians became either victims or warriors. Despite the dizzying truth of the violence, a more careful consideration of the Syrian warscape (Lubkemann 2008) finds continued evidence of mobilization among refugees in neighboring countries and activists inside Syria, a proliferation of civil society organizations and civilian governance authority in rebel-held territory, a formal political opposition with generous support from world powers, and abundant humanitarian and development aid and a dense organizational response to the crisis. And yet nonviolent mobilization appears to be ineffective and incoherent, to the point of the simple conclusion that it has all but disappeared. How can we explain the trajectories of grassroots activism in and around Syria, and how are they connected across borders? How do internal dynamics—violence and armed groups—and external dynamics—political, military, and humanitarian intervention—shape these trajectories? Ultimately, this project asks: How has nonviolent mobilization in the Syrian warscape developed and evolved during the conflict, and what is the impact of humanitarian and development (i.e. civilian) aid on these trajectories?

To answer these questions, I build on literatures that consider the role of external actors in conflict, the nature of neoliberal governmentality, expectations about refugees’ political behavior, and the role of resources in contentious politics. My empirical investigation uses mixed methods at multiple levels of analysis. I collect data through two original surveys conducted among activists in Syrian refugee communities and qualitative interviews with aid workers and activist and ordinary Syrians. Case studies of Syrian communities in northern and southern Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, reveal the trajectories of civilian roles and organizations during the conflict, while a cross-state comparison considers the impact of distinct macro-level responses. I identify and trace multiple processes underlying the transformation of a grassroots uprising into an aid-based/dependent response to a humanitarian crisis: the infusion of resources into a competitive environment, the creation of technocrats to resolve technical problems, and a reorientation of the struggle’s language, targets, and outputs. I find that violence and intervention configure civilian roles and institutions to respond to the war as a humanitarian crisis; agency is overwhelmed by militarization and humanitarianization. Finally, I reflect on the long-run processes and implications of this transformation in civilian roles, considering, among other things, how aid may obviate political responses by containing the conflict.