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Historicities of the Bashar Al-Assad’s Authoritarian State’s Modernity Discourse

Info: 8554 words (34 pages) Dissertation
Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Tagged: HistoryPolitics

Table of Contents

1 State’s Authoritarian Surveillance and the Local’s Sousveillance…………….

1.1 Authoritarian Surveillance: The Mukhabarat (Secret Police)…………………

1.2 Stories of Sousveillance of Locals in Syria……………………………..

1.3 Authoritarianism, Anti-Imperialist Rhetoric and Locals’ Sousveillance………….

2 Syria’s ‘Authoritarian Modernism’: The ‘Good’ and the ‘Bad’ Syrian

2.1 Secularism as a Modern Marker……………………………………

2.2 Minorities as the ‘Good’ Syrians……………………………………

2.3 Unveiled Women as the ‘Good’ Syrians……………………………….

2.4 Neoliberal Authoritarian Modernity…………………………………

2.5 Queers? Queers in Authoritarian Syria……………………………….


3 2011 Uprising: From ‘Bad’ Syrians to ‘Terrorist’ Syrians…………………..

3.1 Shift of Discourse on Terrorism and the Spectacle of Terror…………………

3.2 “Homogenous” Syria is Consisted of ‘Good’ Patriot and Loyalists Syrians………..

3.3 Assad and Far-right: Refugees are Terrorists…………………………..

3.4 Exceptional Violence: Detainees as ‘Bare Lives’ and Queer Visibilities………….

3.5 The Sexuality Politics of War and Gendered Visibilities…………………….



Historical Introduction:

Historicities of the Bashar Al-Assad’s Authoritarian State’s Modernity Discourse


In this chapter, I present what I define as the pillars of Syrian state modernity; 1-Arab secularism (tolerance towards minorities, women’s rights, pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism rhetoric), 2-modernization (opening the market for investments, malls, cafes and private schools and unis) and post 2011, 3-‘war on terror’ was introduced as a third dominant state narrative. These three pillars of modernity inform my doctoral research main question: How does authoritarian Syrian state mobilize ‘queer’ in context of ‘war on terror’? In order to investigate this question, it is important to first establish the historocities of pillars of modernity of the Syrian state.

Introduction  In his first speech on 24 march 2011, Assad asserted Syria was “facing a great conspiracy” at the hand of “imperialist forces.” This is the first public appearance in the early few weeks of the protest.

On April 7 2011, Assad granted citizenship to 150.000 of Syria Kurds, who had been stateless, finally responding to long-standing demand of Kurdish advocacy organizations.

Soon after Syria’s independence from the French colonial mandate in 1947, a series of military coupes took over the young state until Hafez Al-Assad, a young Alawite army pilot organized a military coup in 1970 and ever since he had ruled Syria until his death in 2000. This legacy of the father’s authoritarian governance and its political development cannot be dissociated from studying and analyzing his son’s in which this thesis is situated. Hafez Al-Assad’s legacy can be summarized in three intertwined dimensions: Authoritarianism and pan-Arabist anti-imperialism. I discuss them in this first section respectively.

In this chapter I discuss how surveillance operates in authoritarian countries and in this example Syria, as it might mean and operate differently in modern times in other countries, especially in the global north. In doing so, I focus on the implications of such authoritarian surveillance on Syrians living under it for decades and specifically since the foundation of the Assad regime in 1970. Since most of the case studies that are to be discussed in this thesis are located within Syria as a through the memory of Syrian queers when they were still inside Syria. Such experiences and the memories of them cannot be disassociated from the ‘state’s gaze’ on surveilled populations. Therefore, this chapter presents an historical introduction on how authoritarian surveillance in Syria, how it operates, and how does it affect Syrians, including queers.

In our discussion of state’s mobilization of ‘queer’ in the Syrian war, it is imperative to analyze how the Syrian state’s rhetoric and discourse towards both; the Syrian loyalists domestically, and to the international community, especially after documented war crimes. In the sections below, I present what I define as the pillars of Syrian state modernity; 1-Arab secularism (tolerance towards minorities, women’s rights), 2-modernization rhetoric (opening the market for investments, malls, cafes and private schools and unis) and post 2011, 3-‘war on terror’ was introduced as a third dominant narrative. These three pillars of modernity inform my doctoral research main question: How does authoritarian Syrian state mobilize ‘queer’ in context of ‘war on terror’? In order to investigate this question, it is important to first establish the historocities of pillars of modernity of the Syrian state.

My point of departure is therefore this thesis’s exploration of state’s mobilization of queerness is located an authoritarian state. This chapter therefore presents a historical analysis of three essential elements: Authoritarianism, Assad’s modernising project, and queerness. In the first section, I X.

no study or research deals with Syrian queers as citizens inside Syria that would help develop and challenge this historical chapter to the thesis.  Therefore, this chapter is informed by

such queer mobilization, is that of an authoritarian state, therefore the resistance to it, from the local queers, is a resistance to its authoritarian nature first.

Fares Z’ouri, Ali Shiaibi,

. Its official discourse can be divided into three sections; secularism, pan-Arabism and Palestinian rights and resistance discourse to imperialism.

Surveillance operates in Syria in an intelligence formula; the state has secret police scattered in every single space under its sovereign rules: schools, universities, work, hospitals, ministries and streets and army. The state governs the people through the intersection of three institutions; the military, the security forces apparatus[1] and the mukhabarat (intelligence personnel). The Baath ruling party and its members have no real influence over the developments on the ground. Therefore, It is helpful to assert at the forefront of this chapter that this thesis locates its inquiry of mobilization of queerness at times of ‘war on terror’ within an analytical framework of authoritarianism, since Syria is first and foremost, an authoritarian state and there can be no discussion on Syrian without a discussion of its authoritarian governance.

This chapter attempts to lay out the historical context of the developments that led to this thesis’s inquiry of Syrian state’s mobilisation of queerness in the context of the ‘war on terror.’ My point of departure in this inquiry is stating the fact that the Syrian state is an authoritarian state. My investigation of how it mobilises queerness in context of ‘war on terror’ is an extension to this debate. It is also useful to establish this fact at the beginning of this analytical historical chapter, because the history of queerness is surveilled like other local communities and individuals’ histories in Syria. Authoritarianism is influential factor to the lack of literature and studies in Syria on various issues, including queerness. It is helpful to mention here that literature on queerness and Syria has started to emerge specifically following the 2011 uprising and later war, where researchers could access queer interviewees beyond Syrian borders as refugees, not citizens inside Syria. Therefore, the literature available on the conditions that endanger or affect the lives of Syrian queers almost all tackle how asylum regimes are regulated around queerness (citations) and how these hence regulate ‘Syrian gay refugees’ within the global humanitarian aid systems (citations). It is safe to profess hence at the beginning of this chapter that this chapter is more about the history of the state, modernity under Bashar Al-Assad and the emergent ‘war on terror’ narrative, and less about queerness, since queerness is one of the many topics that Syrians are now writing and researching and producing alternative knowledge to what the state’s has been saying since 1971, when Hafez Al-Assad took control over the country in a military coup. The first section of this chapter discusses the legacy of the founding father of the Syrian regime as an authoritarian and security state as we know it today. In other words, this chapter does not historicize queerness in Syria since everything about Syrians is surveilled by the state. This chapter attempts, however, to historicize methods of surveillance and how it is mobilised in the gendered and racialization of Syrian bodies marked as terrorists and those who are invited and allowed to be the citizens of Syria and the patriots.

1          State’s Authoritarian Surveillance and the Local’s Sousveillance

The heart of Syria’s authoritarian state is surveillance; the mukhabarat (secret service). The state watches and controls the population and suppresses any group or individual who tries to challenge the status quo violently and systematically. In this subsection, I discuss how authoritarian surveillance operates, as well as how it is maneuvered and resisted by the locals[2].

1.1        Authoritarian Surveillance: The Mukhabarat (Secret Police)

Syrians have repeatedly mentioned difficulties in attempting to reflect and describe how Syrian intelligence state operated before 2011, which continues until today albeit differently. Many Syrians reflect in their interviews as refugees today how they felt being constantly watched and literally shadowed by the mukhabarat (secret intelligence) when they were still in Syria, and specifically before 2011. Several posts on social media from Syrian users also reveal how it is especially difficult to explain how mukhabarat work to their European friends and elsewhere. I have tweeted recently on social media describing this experience of being under mukhabarat’s watch all the time and everywhere as an isolating experience, even for members of the same community, since everyone assumes the other is mukhabarat, working for the state and writing reports about their politics. Many of detainees before 2011 were detained because of these reports. A neighbor, a student, a friend, an uncle – everyone might be a mukhabarat. Therefore, I see one of the implications of mukhabarat’s surveillance on locals is isolating them from each other. Furthermore, such isolation continues until today, as the attempts to explain it cannot seem to explain it properly, as many Syrian refugees express even in their exile. This explains, perhaps, why many protesters emphasized the notion of ‘trust’ at the beginning of March 2011 in their interviews, that many felt they could ‘trust’ one another for the first time and smoothly – this, although, have put some at risk and often get detained (citation).

Locals described the 2011 uprising as a ‘revolution’; where tens of thousands broke the status quo of surveillance, of being constantly watched, and claimed back the streets and chanted all together: “The people want to topple the regime.” That moment onwards, is historically a turning point in the locals’ modern consciousness, a national realization that many across cities and villages ‘came out’ from their isolation and broke the fear from mukhabarat. The affect of the surveillance state is, therefore, deeply rooted into different sectors of their lives. Perthes (1997) sheds light on how mukhabarat structurally functions in Syria in the excerpt below:

The mukhabarat keep records of passenger movements on domestic overland taxi and bus routes; they have their own controls international correspondence. University students working for the services openly note political comments their teachers make citizens need mukhabarat clearance for, among other things, employment in the bureaucracy, party memberships, and a passport (Perthes, 1997, p. )

In other words, not only there is a strict security grip over the people but also “there is no private space” in Syria, as many locals would say. It is a national space that is constantly regulated through censorship, detentions and crackdown from the states. The price for expressing these opinions or sentiments have been strengthened after Hafez Al-Assad suppressed violently an attempted coup by the Muslim Brotherhood, and committed several massacres across Hama, Aleppo, Idleb and Homs in the early 1980s, when the state’s carried out airstrikes on residential neighborhoods and reportedly killed between 40.000-100.000 civilians. Hundreds of male members of the families were assassinated and minors have been detained for either 15 or 18 years. Leftist and labor activists protested the war crimes and were hence suppressed, detained and tortured. At the time, tens of thousands were detained for years; some were imprisoned without trials for 15 and up to 35 years. In late 80s, leftists issued statements in condemnation of these crimes and were detained, tortured and eimprisoned for decades. Leftist Palestinian refugee activist, Fares Odeh, was imprisoned for 35 years and he died due prevention of medical treatment.  On the legal system in Syria, Perthes explains further:

All services have their own prisons, and they question, arrest, and detain people without legal checks. They may hand over people to the judiciary or to the special security courts, but the judiciary cannot interfere with the activities of the mukhabarat (Perthes, 1997, p. ).

In the second subsection of this chapter I will discuss in detail the politics of racial profiling of detention and imprisonment against ‘bad’ Syrians most of whom are imagined as Sunni Muslim Arabs. Nevertheless, it is worth stressing here that this this strict command over the country has also been resisted by the locals; through creating safe spaces of selected family and relative members with whom they shared a certain struggle- which what I frame as locals’ sousveillance in this thesis.

1.2        Stories of Sousveillance of Locals in Syria

For example, I remember my late grandmother used to curse the ruling family Assad several times a day, but she was careful to express these sentiments solely in front of us, her daughter’s children, or other mothers whose children were similarly detained or forced into exile in fear of detentions in the late 1980s. Again, trust is an important factor in allowing such dissent politics to take space; it cannot happen randomly and casually with a neighbor, a distant relative, or someone you meet at work. Intelligence personnel were installed and spread across state institutions, security forces apparatus, and public spaces. Of course, not all dissent was built on democratic politics. Strong and widespread of sectarian sentiments and views also exist within urban Sunni Muslim Arab communities. I often heard the word “Alawite peasant[3]” as a referent to Assad. Having established this point, it is important to stress nonetheless that any form of dissent sentiments or viewed against Assad could not be possible without a shared struggle. This is why there has been more of community-based or identity-based dissents in Syria; students, Kurds, migrant workers, sex workers, leftists, Sunni establishment (Muslim Brotherhood), and working-class, bloggers, civil society among others.

These forms of resistances, albeit verbal and secretive cultural ones, are what I call sousveillance in this thesis. This takes me back to this thesis’s topic; how does mukhabarat influence queerness in Syria? Here I would like to draw on the example I mentioned in my Research Outline on the Syrian male gays who felt they had to out themselves by ‘becoming more feminine’ in order to pass the checkpoints scattered during the war and following the 2011 uprising. This example perfectly exemplifies how intelligence and surveillance state operates in Syria; locals ‘watch out’ for what they do or say, and by doing so, they perform whatever that gets them safe under the ‘state gaze.’ Therefore, outing one’s self as gay becomes safe on a checkpoint in war on terror context, since the ‘terrorist’ is racially imagined as Muslim Sunni and Arab; he was the Muslim Brotherhood in late 1980s, and he is the Sunni suburban in the early 2011. The mukhabarat is an important mark on the local’s memory and experience of living in Syria, including queers.

1.3        Authoritarianism, Anti-Imperialist Rhetoric and Locals’ Sousveillance

On the regional front, and while Hafez Al-Assad enforced its control over the populations with series of security forces personnel and secret police, he worked on building a firm alliance in the region; namely Iran, Hezbolla in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. This alliance or ‘axis,’ as the regional states’ media referred to it especially in Iran, became the sole role representatives of the anti-imperialist stances in the region. Especially after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Syria obtained a monopoly of pan-Arab rhetoric as a form of regional and international legitimacy in the region, which gained popularity among the left and nationalists -which now form the ideological support basis for the regime in the region and globally. This pan-Arabism rhetoric and nationalism informed much of the Syrian state’s politics and rhetoric towards the Israeli coloniasation of Palestinians. Syrian state’s foreign rhetoric and ideology is centered on the Palestinians rights. On this point, Carstsen Wieland (2012), argues that the Syrian state’s anti-imperialist equals ‘terrorism’ to the U.S. This is an important point especially in this thesis’s discussion of ‘war on terror’ narrative in Syria, which places Syrians, for the first time, as terrorists instead of Israel or the US admirations. According to Syria, terrorism before 2011 was Israel and U.S. This has shifted after the 2011 uprising where ‘terrorists’ turned into local ones, no longer the U.S. and Israel, but Syrians, many of whom are protestors, internally displaced people, aid workers among others. Because Syria is an authoritarian state, it hijacked ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse and made it its own. One of the discussions this thesis will look at, is how the postcolonial state of Syria, resisted and adopted ‘war on terror’ narrative at different historical times and crisis. It is worth mentioning here that Syria is celebrated by several renowned journalists, writers, researchers, analysts, commentators and leftists around the world as a the protector of ‘Arab resistance castle in the Middle East’ against empires (citations), I will further develop this shift of discourse on terrorism in the second subsection of this chapter.

How does sousveillance operate with anti-imperialist cooptation from the state? In 2000, when the Second Palestinian Intifada broke out, I remember that many students myself included protested on Damascus University’s campus against the Israeli killings of protestors. There were a few protests and in one of the ones I participated in, a few civil men whom we instantly knew were the secret police, asked us whether our protest against Israel, has been ordered by the CIA. “Did the USA tell you to protest?” they asked. Logic does not matter in the surveillance state of Syria; it does not acknowledge any movement outside its order and supervision as legitimate, even if it aligns with its Pro-Palestine discourse and policy. To the secret police, their job is to make any independent movement illegitimate, however legitimate it might be. The men even tried to detain two young men amongst us, and the female students pulled them from their hands and we all ran away. This was a protest in solidarity with the Palestinians, in a state that presents itself the ‘last castle of resistance to imperialism’ and ‘protestor of Palestinian rights.’ The next time I protested imperialism in Syria was in 2003, when the U.S invaded Iraq in 2003, and I remember I was given the president photograph to hold it while protesting. These two examples show how any movement or mobility in public in Syria has to always align itself with the ruling family and president personally. Anti-imperialism becomes associated with Assad, and the absence of him poses as a national security threat and accused of being agents of the enemy. What is important about this example is that.

2          Syria’s ‘Authoritarian Modernism’: The ‘Good’ and the ‘Bad’ Syrian

The previous chapter formulates the governance structure of Syria as an authoritarian state and discusses how authoritarianism works through the mukhabarat surveillance, which controls every aspect of Syrian social, economical, political and private life, and I also mention how such surveillance has always been resisted by locals in different forms. This subsection extends this discussion and examines how Syrian national identity, advocated by the Syrian state, has been moblised in constructing who is a ‘patriot Syrian’ and who is not. I also argue that constructions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Syrians that shape its national is moblilised to maintain its authoritarian rule. In other words, in order to provide a domestic and international legitimacy for a dictatorship, the regime strengthened racialization of Sunni Arab Muslims marked collectively in certain neighborhoods as Muslim Brotherhood, and considered them as ‘national’ and ‘threat before 2011 uprising, and it called them terrorists post 2011 uprising, while depicting itself as the ‘modern’ the secular Syrian model, and the savior of minorities and women’s rights. While this thesis deals with post 2011 dynamics, this chapter provides a pre 2011 history to it.

2.1        Secularism as a Modern Marker in Syria

Hafez Al-Assad built his strong regime on the monopolization of several progressive struggles in the region; secularism is one of them, which has been on the forefronts of its official rhetoric. Two main reasons helped the Assad regime in maintaining this image: First, Hafez Al-Assad comes from a minority group, which made many of the ethnic and other confessional minorities see him as a less threatening than Sunni political groups. This monopolisation was reinforced following the Muslim Brotherhood’s coup Hafez Al-Assad crashed in late 1980s, as mentioned earlier. That sectarian discourse and killings committed by the Muslim Brotherhood at the time, which also reached Christians in Aleppo, paved the way for a general fear from Islamists in Syria, maybe from Sunni Muslims as a whole. In other words, secularism has become an ideological framework serving as a collective savior for minorities in Syria. Many local progressives and leftists atheists from Sunni background advocate for secularism but due to mukhabarat surveillance these voiced have been coerced and silenced. Therefore, this ‘savior’ narrative of minorities in Syria that has been associated with Assad the father and son alone. This could not have been possible perhaps if he was not from a minority group himself. The patriot Syrian is, therefore, not only a secular Syrian, but also a Syrian who is most likely from a minority group.

Quote from Assad Hafez on secularism, minority

Terrorism and uslims

Hafez Al-Assad pushed the secular discourse of Syria in order to shaped an image of an alternative Arab in a region where all leaders are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims with the exception of Lebanon where the president is agreed to be assigned a Christian following Al-Ta’ef decree in X which also ended the fifteen years of the civil war in the country[4]. The case is similar with Bashar Al-Assad who strengthened his father’s Arabist and secular rhetoric and sought a more focused vision of moderning Arabism he defined in his inauguration speech[5] as “economic, social and scientific strategies that may serve both development and steadfastness” of Syria. While the father Assad wanted to build a secular and Arabist Syria, his son wanted to create a modern copy of it. Secularism has been one of the basis of this nation-building.

In fact, the debate on Assad’s secularism is conflicted amongst analysts and Syrians themselves; while many of the western scholars on Syria seem to suggest that the Syrian state is indeed secular (citations), Syrian opposition writers and activists suggest that Assad’s secularism is fake, and this is argument is usually supported by his biased policies towards Alawite members of the community, where they get hired easily in state institutions and especially in the army and high-ranking political positions. Nevertheless, I argue that Assad is neither secular nor sectarian, but precisely a ‘modern’ authoritarian, who co-opted secularism as an appealing tool domestically, regionally and even internationally, to legitimize its rule. This argument has been partly suggested by Syrian journalist Mohammad Dibo (2014) in his article, “Assad’s Secular Sectarianism,” where he notes that the state’s political monopoly over secular discourse has tightened after Muslim Brotherhood attempted military coup in 1982 (Dibo, 2014). He expands further on this point in the excerpt below:

With the Muslim Brotherhood appointing themselves as representatives of Sunnis in Syria and throughout the region, while referring to the Assad regime as “the Alawite regime”, they provided the regime with the perfect alibi. From then on, the regime would crush any discussion on sectarianism with secular slogans, and would present itself as the only guarantor for the protection of minorities, especially Alawites (Dibo, 2014).

It is worth to differentiate here between the state’s official rhetoric on secularism from its security personnel on the ground many of whom have been described by previous prisoners and detainees inside detention cells as sectarian in their treatment in detention. Dibo (2014) gives several examples of how security officers would insult Muslim Sunni prisoners specifically, and would deliberately attack their religious and sacred symbols. So it is important to stress here that ‘secularism’ as discourse advocated by Assad and Syrian officials is mobilised in both national and international levels serving by portraying itself as the only secular, hence modern Arab state, that is also “resistant” to Israeli colonisation and U.S. imperialism. Secularism is mobilised by Assad as a modern marker of its authoritarian regime. Going back to Dibo’s argument on secularism, he lists examples where Syrian writers were detained for calling for a national debate around sectarianism, some of these writers were Alawite and Christians. To understand the state’s motives behind such arrests, Dibo summarises three reasons why Assad’s forcibly co-opted secularism and pushed it as the forefront of the state’s official discourse that marked its national identity:

  1. “To present itself as the only guarantor against sectarianism.
  2. To strengthen its ties with the country’s minorities.
  3. To tarnish the reputation of dissidents and opposition groups (Dibo, 2014).

This is an important point to make especially in context of today’s war, where the Syrian state says it is conquering an “Islamist terrorist enemy” (citation). Hafez Al-Assad’s regime had started its eternal mantra of foreign conspiracies against Syria and the danger of Islamist attacks since he won over the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1980s. With Bashar Al-Assad and specifically following the 2011 uprising, secularism has been weaponized to defend the regime, this time from popular and grassroots protests from the around the country. Assad therefore evoked the familiar and simplistic alternative of ‘us and stability or them and chaos and islamism” (Weiland, 2012, p.23).

Conclude this section with summary of minorities, sunni, alawite, and muslim brotherhood quotation.

Change the subsection title

Then start with the uprising.

secularism and international dynamics, socialism, anti imperialism

this self image is aligned with war on terror narrative as I will argue later


  1. 1.1 -Religious Minorities

The Baath government made efforts to present itself as a mediator between the religions and guarantor of the religious tolerance that has evolved over the course of Syria’s history. Assad liked to be filed by Syrian television when he received Christian patriarchs. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Syria with his much publicized prayer in Ummayyad Mosque in May 2001, one year after Bashar Assad inherited his late father’s presidency, was a welcome highlights meant to underline the regime’s political interest in propagating religious tolerance. During the Iraq war, Assad praised the pope for his anti-war stance. He said that religions again had a common position after the disruption of Christian-Muslim relations following 9/11. To reinforce this welcoming attitude towards Christians in Syria, the government opened the world’s first center for Aramaic language in Ma’loula, north of Damascus, in July 2004. The remaining Christians who still command of Aramaic live in this monastery town. Post 2011 uprising, the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Beshara Boutros Rai warned that a collapse of the Baath regime in Syria would endanger Christian minorities and called on the Western state to give Assad a chance for political reform. Syrian priests made these calls too, and some were on international tours advocating support for Assad against ‘foreign conspiracy’ and ‘Islamic terrorists.’


  1. 1.2 Secular “Islamic Reflex”

“The first Islamic reflex occurred in early April 2011 when the government re-allowed female teachers to wear the niqab. The facial veil has been banned following a heated controversy in summer 2010. Some 1.200 instructors had been banned from teaching and moved to administrative positions instead. Simultaneously in April, a casino was closed and Islamist political prisoners were released. Founding an institute for religious sciences, Islamic and Arabic studies, the establishment of religious TV satellite channel. In Syria, sectarian cleavages were more easily exploited because the Syria minority mix is more complex and a governing minority regime. In a bitter irony of events, the same regime that had officially stood for anti-sectarianism and the protection of minorities had now chosen sectarian strife as its emergency survival plan. “

“During his years in office, Assad managed to introduce important changes in everyday life in Syria. For example, he cut required military services from thirty months to two years. Since the fall of 2003, children have been wearing new school uniforms. Instead of military green, the boys’ uniform was change dark blue/light blue and the girls’ dark blue/pink. At the same time, corporal punishment in classrooms was abolished, and some military elements were deleted from school curricula.

Despite a general frustration among opposition figures with regard to political reforms, it was nevertheless true that the areas of arts, media, and government-monitored NGOs were more colorful than under Hafez Al-Assad’s time. Artists had more space to maneuver if they abstain from touching the issue of politics. Indirect reforms of expressions compensated for the lack of open discussions be it in the debates about corruption, homosexuality or other subjects. Syrian TV series such as Bab Al Hara, Boqa Dou or Maraya have developed a tradition of social critic and became popular among Arab countries as well.

Youth and education is traditionally a jealousy-guarded field of action in totalitarian systems. The Baath party had monopolized education since taking power in the 1960s. One of the early measures of young Assad was to break this privilege. Since 2001, local and foreign investors were allowed to engage in education. Private universities were granted licenses under strict surveillance of the state.

By 2010 some twenty private institutions had been licensed, fifteen which had begun operating. Most are located on large campuses outside the city of Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, and Homs.

Since the state of emergency that ushered in Baath rle was  declared in 1963, the freedom of opinion media that is mentioned in the country’s Constitutions was severely strict.

When Bashar took power, the country was one of the most isolated societies in the world: Almost no access to internet; satellite TV officially forbidden (although used at personal risk); and with a few state run media strictly controlling the flow of information. Shortly after Hafez Al-Assad’s death, the first internet cafes opened, and cell phones became available for the politically privilege for connection fees of about 1000$ per line. Nevertheless, the authoritarian state blocked 241 websites from mid-September 2009, of which were Kurdish websites, 35 opposition websites, 32 social networking sites and 15 Islamic sites.

Bashar al-Assad’s project, on his accession to power, was to open the economy to the world market and adapt the country to the age of globalization through measures such as introduction of the internet. Ba’athist ideology was abandoned; yet, in the absence of a substitute blueprint, reform proceeded by trial and error, and incrementally to avoid destabilization and provoking enemies before Assad had built up his own reformist faction. His first priorities were to foster modernizing cadres and strengthen state institutions through administrative reform.12 In principle, the regime sought a ‘middle’ way, expanding the private sector while reforming rather than privatizing the public sector, and maintaining social protection during economic liberalization, as embodied in the slogan of the ‘social market’ economy adopted in 2005. However, this middle road, designed to retain the regime’s old base while adding new support, failed because the regime had no strategy for actually implementing a ‘social market’ economy. Moreover, the jettisoning of Ba’athist ideology left a vacuum, which neo-liberalism and Islamism would compete to fill.”

Liberal assad and nedoliberal bashar


2.2        The Sexuality Politics of War and Gendered Visibilities

In speaking to some women friends visiting Beirut from Damascus seeking a short period of relaxation from the ‘city of checkpoints,’ they often mention the emptiness of young men in the city. Checkpoints are installed in the city for various reasons but detentions and compulsory military enlistment have become their prime purposes. All men aged between 18-49 are required to serve in the army even if they have already completed their military services (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, 2017). As a result, Syrian young men have either left the country, sometimes illegally, or hid inside their homes (Ajjoub, 2015; Madar al-Youm, 2015; Reuters, 2016). Privileged young men have paid up to $28000 to be exempted from joining the army’s reserve list (Syria Direct, 2015). In 2015, local Al Souria website reported in 2015 that the government was forced to minimize mass raids on restaurants, public institutions, cafes and work places after many men stopped from showing up to work, which gradually caused the “slow death” of the city (Al Souria, 2015). Women friends in Damascus joke on social media on how they are now flirting with military personnel on checkpoints in absence of young men. NPR published a report saying that gender roles are “reversed” in Damascus, where men stay indoors and hide from checkpoints and mass raids, while women leave to shop (Sands, 2012). Regardless of the essentialist claim on gender dynamics and roles in Damascus, the report among many vividly conveys the politics of invisibility of young men in Damascus during the Syrian war. Indeed, one of the implications of the Syrian war domestically is young men’s invisibilities and lack of mobility.

2.3        Exceptional Violence: Detainees as ‘Bare Lives’

For example, on the 16th of December in 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report authenticating what has been known as ‘Caesar files’, a code-named military police photographer who defected in 2013 from the Syrian government and smuggled 53,275 photographs of at least 6,786 detainees “who died in detention or after being transferred from detention to a military hospital” (HRW, 2015). The 86-page report entitled “If the Dead Could Speak, Mass Deaths and Torture in Syria’s Detention Facilities,” verified 27 detainees in the photographs through former detainees, doctors and families of the detainees. HRW said that forensic pathologists established evidence of “torture, starvation, suffocation, violent blunt force trauma” (HRW, 2015). In an interview with American Foreign Affairs magazine, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad denied the authenticity of the photographs, saying they are “all allegations without evidence,” and their source is anonymous, “they’re just pictures of a head, for example, with some skulls” (SANA, 2015a).

Two years later, Amnesty International published a report documenting up to 13.000 cases where prisoners and detainees were secretly hanged between 2011 and 2015 in Saydnaya military prison, located 30 kilometers north of the Syrian capital Damascus (Amnesty International, 2017). The report entitled “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison,” is based on a one-year investigation and involved first-hand interviews with 84 former Saydnaya guards and officials, detainees, judges and lawyers (Amnesty International, 2017). The report said “death sentences are approved by the Grand Mufti of Syria, and by either the Minister of Defense or the Chief of Staff of the Army,” both of whom act on behalf of Assad (Amnesty International, 2017). In an interview with Yahoo News, Assad was asked whether it is legal in Syria to carry out these mass hangings, “execution is part of the Syrian law,” he said after denying such claims, adding that “if the Syrian government or institution wants to do it [execution], they can make it legally, because it’s been there […] since independence (SANA, 2017). Assad then asks: “Why do they need it, if they can make it legally? They don’t need anything secret” (SANA, 2017). Assad was also asked whether he is disturbed about the findings of these reports, “No,” he said, “I’m disturbed about what’s happening in Syria. It’s being destroyed by proxy terrorists” (SANA, 2017).

Amnesty report said that these mass hangings and executions occurred after “a perfunctory, one or two-minute procedure at a so-called Military Field Court.” Such hangings, according to Amnesty’s report, are “extrajudicial”. Below is an excerpt from the report:

The convictions issued by this so-called court are based on false confessions extracted from detainees under torture. Detainees are not allowed access to a lawyer or given an opportunity to defend themselves – most have been subjected to enforced disappearance, held in secret and cut off from the outside world. Those who are condemned to death do not find out about their sentences until minutes before they are hanged (Amnesty International, 2017).

The report described the “extrajuridical” mass hangings as a “policy of extermination” that is “designed to humiliate, degrade, sicken, starve” the detainees and prisoners, some “were raped or in some cases forced to rape other prisoners” (Amnesty International, 2017). These accounts and many others on torture policies at Sednaya military prison are reminiscent of the violations committed in the U.S. military prison, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and others around the world (Borger, 2004). Drawing on the concept of ‘bare life’ and state of exception by Giorgio Agamben (Agamben, 1998; Agamben, 2005), and bringing decolonial and queer feminist work on ‘queer necropolitics’ and sexual exceptionalism (Haritaworn et al., 2014; Puar, 2007) in the context of the ‘war on terror,’ will help analyze ‘unequal regimes of living and dying’ in the Syrian war.

2.4        “Homogenous” Syria is Consisted of ‘Good’ Patriot and Loyalists Syrians

In September this year at the “the General Assembly for the Syriac Youth in Syria 2017” conference, president Bashar Al-Assad delivered a speech addressing the Syriac community of Sednaya city, in which he asserted that Syria is a “diverse” country, yet a “homogenous” country. Below is an excerpt of the summary of the speech published on the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA):

The President said that the power of the Oriental Christians comes from their living with other religions in our region, and in Syria, for centuries, as Syria is a homogeneous country, a thing that made some sides target Christianity in our region in order to disturb this harmony and divide the region into religious and sectarian states in order to legalize the existence of the Jewish state in the occupied Palestine, a matter that will not be accepted by any Syrian.

President al-Assad added that the failure of attempts to exert pressure on the Christians pushed our enemies to target them through targeting Islam by extremism, in a bid to produce an extremist mentality that can never live with any other that doesn’t adopt the same mentality, but we, as Syrians, have not and will never allow anyone to sabotage our country by his underdevelopment or his limited vision (SANA, 2017).

Assad’s definition of “homogeneity” is a violent one; it has been shaped in praxis during the seven-year war with live ammunition, use of state army’s aircrafts on civilian neighborhoods, besieging and forcibly evacuating towns’ residents. On a discursive level, Assad’s “homogenous” Syria has been defined repeatedly in his speeches and interviews or in state official media as a secular state, protector of minorities and an advocate for women’s participation. Furthermore, this ‘homogeneity’ has been defined vis-a-vis the state’s enemies; the ‘imperial-backed’ protestors, the ‘infiltrators’, dissidents and the sectarian extremists, all of whom have been marked as the Islamist killers of Christians and terrorists, the non-homogenous Syrians and refugees- Assad suggested in an interview with Yahoo News that there are indeed many terrorists among the refugees fleeing to Europe (citation). This violent division of us/them has been mobilised in valorization of two parallel and interconnected hegemonic narratives; ‘war on terror’ and modernity (superior notions of secularism, sovereignty rhetoric, and the cooptation of minorities). Indeed, the Syrian state since 2011 has extended modern notions of western and colonial civilizational discourse to create oppositional Syrian subjectivities and patriotic citizenship, where homogenous and secular Syrians are the included citizens into this national imaginary, and the non-secular and non-homogenous Syrians are the disposable terrorists. In the Syrian war, ‘war on terror’ narrative cannot be disassociated from modernity, nor modernity cannot be dissociated from ‘war on terror.’ Both narratives are at play in Syrian state’s justification of methods of war. Bashar Al-Assad neoliberal state (Arslanian, 2016) is not just an authoritarian state that uses violence to monopolize power over local communities; it is also a modernizing authoritarian state that has mimicked and discursively performed civilizational discourses by relying on ‘war on terror’ narrative by which marking, and homogenizing, all protestors, dissidents, and the communities that hosted them, as Islamist terrorists.

Homogeniety, War on terror and sexuality

As stated above, Assad’s ‘homogeneity’ is based on identity-politics framework of inclusion; gender, confession and ethnicity. While sexuality has not been included in the president or state’s official discourse, a quick look at loyalist local media shows how the state has been described as “tolerant” towards queer and trans visibilities in recent years (Shahla, 2017 –add rest). Talking to some friends in the communities from Damascus and Latakiya, they also speak of such tolerance from the government as a general policy, while acknowledging at the same time what some called “security forces’ arbitrary crackdown” on visible male gays and transwomen specifically. The crackdown is then generally attributed to security personnel and not to the state’s policy. They also say that such tolerance have increased post 2011 uprising and that even their transwomen friends expressed that their “situation is better” in recent years. One friend mentioned a trans person was exempted from forced military enlistment. Moreover, some were surprised of the government’s response to a case that was the first to be reported on local media and cause social media debate; earlier this year, a male gay couple published photographs on their social media accounts of their symbolic marriage in a church in Damascus (AlMjhar, 2017). Despite the fact that homosexuality is punishable by law in Syria- and it is imperative to stress here that such laws are derived from colonial French penal code (Al Farchichi and Saghiyeh, 2012), the state nevertheless issued the release of the first most visible married male gay couple in Syria after one-night detention (AlMjhar, 2017). Ironically, in 2015, the parody website Real News Right Now made-up a story entitled “Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage” on a Muslim gay male couple who married in a mosque (Hobbus J.D, 2015). The story somewhat becomes true two years later with the symbolic marriage in a Damascene church. Despite that colonial-driven anti-queer laws still exist in postcolonial Syria today, the state is represented by local media as ‘tolerant,’ and the general reputation from some members of the queer community I spoke to is in agreement. Nevertheless, stories of arbitrary crackdown on visible male gay and trans persons exist and are left unreported, and the persons subjected to state security crackdown are left without protection, nor their cases are being followed up by anyone but by their peers within the community in the area. In this context, there are two realities at play; a discursive image that is being performed that the state is harmless against the queers, and an unknown and undocumented reality lived by the queer communities under such colonial laws.  Having established the identity-politics framework of inclusion above, in which state is perceived as tolerant towards the queers, it is imperative to discuss the domestic state practices of this inclusio

3          Queers in Authoritarian Syria

I am considering adding these points below to give a context of the state and queer rights before 2011:

  1. The Syrian law and constitution and queer rights.
  2. State crackdown dissidents, bloggers, oppositional party members, Kurds and queers.
  3. List examples of state crackdown of queer community in Syria.

Spectacle of Terror

In the Syrian context however, the founding father of the Baathist party state in 1970, Hafez Al-Assad, created an authoritarian state, therefore social and political liberties were non-existent and hence, forty years later the 2011 uprising erupted after his son took control.

The postcolonial and modern Syrian state have borrowed western colonial narratives; of modernity and ‘war on terror’, and mobalized them to crush the uprising and to remain in power.

[1] (not the police)

[2] In this thesis, I will use the word ‘locals’ frequently instead of ‘Syrians’ or ‘citizens’ because not every Syrian was granted citizenship in Syria, namely the Kurds, who were deprived of citizenship in Hafez Al-Assad’s rule as he sees them as a demographic threat to Arabs. Kurds were hence paperless; they could not work nor own a property. Also, authoritarianism did not affect Syrian citizens, but also migrant workers and others. I use ‘locals’ to refer to those who live in Syria and are influenced by the state’s policies within its borders.

[3] Alawites are an Arab confessional minority group that were long oppressed in the Southwest Asia by different powers; the Ottomans, the French and later the Sunni Arab merchants -who views Alawites as a lower’ class’ since it suburb-based community mostly. Conservative  and also sectarian views as a non-Sunni followers.

[4] It is worth mentioning here that the civil war ended in 1975 in Lebanon after Hafez Al-Assad invaded the country with the Syrian Arab Army troops. The troops remained throughout his lifetime and only there was a decision to be withdrawn by US pressure following Hariri assassination in 2005. There has been grassroots resistance from the Lebanese against the Syrian troops and surveillance there and until to this day, many Syrian male refugees get attacked by being called “mukhabrat” by Lebanese. Syria is argued to still be maintaining power over Lebanese through its main ally in the region, Hezbolla, which holds in the cabinet.

[5] Bashar Al-Assad inconstitutional.

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