Dr Harout Akdedian: State Formation and Social Conflict in Syria: Causalities, Unintended Consequences, and Analytical Trajectories


Scholars and commentators grappling with causalities and processes leading to armed conflict in Syria have touched on an array of factors and catalysts of social conflict and violence. In light of the multitude of explanatory narratives, differences between causes of conflict escalation and causes of conflict perpetuation have been conflated, and distinctions between causes and unintended consequences were obfuscated. With a dearth of knowledge of ongoing transformations on the ground, commentators have resorted to pre-existing narratives to project Syria’s socio-political future, reinforcing that the current moment is utterly chaotic and hardly legible due to the scale of destruction and disintegration, and engendering a view of the past as dynamic but the present as stagnant. In other words, the extant literature imposes a retrospective and deterministic outlook on society and politics in Syria— characterizing the Syrian context by a past full of dynamism, a disrupted and chaotic present, and a future that remains suspended. This approach excludes exploration of how Syria is transforming and confines the discussion about the country’s alleged illegible future either to narratives of perpetual violence or to pre-existing and overstated historical references of authoritarianism, political Islam, and/or geographic segmentation. 

The chapter is a critique of predominant narratives of dynamics of post-independence social conflict in Syria. The paper first reviews the dominant explanatory narratives regarding the outbreak of violence after 2011: 1) the militarization of Syrian politics and state capture, 2) economic restructuring and marginalization, 3) nation-building and sectarianization, 4) geopolitics in the Middle East and the role of exogenous influences. The second part of the paper focuses on the framework of State Formation Theory to highlight the shortcomings of these isolate narratives and put forth a more holistic account of conflict dynamics in Syria leading to the disintegration of the monopoly of violence after 2011.

State Formation Theory is useful in highlighting the correlations and dialectics between the seemingly isolated factors contributing to social conflict, pointing out macro-level processes that have influenced the course of post-independence Syrian political history up to 2011. Thus, in the wake of popular uprisings, the literature on Syrian politics and society has been predominantly characterized by content on broad processes rather than detailed accounts of how such processes manifested within localities. The continued reliance on this framework to discuss post-2011 developments leads to the cyclical return to the same dominant explanatory narratives, rather than break new grounds and explore novel and unchartered developments.

After 2011, popular uprisings and militarization took different forms in Syria’s different localities. Syrians underwent highly contrasting shifts, and the trajectories of change have been different in different provinces.

Through distinct features of class structure; rates of poverty, unemployment, and education; demographics of employment; scale of destruction and patterns of internal migration, each locality had different conditions to function in and resources to draw upon. These led different localities to respond and react differently to undergoing changes.

Similarly, oppositional armed activism had a clearly and explicitly local base and expression as well. Here,

in light of significant deficiency in knowledge about Syrian localities and the sociopolitical transformations therein, the limitations of the literature preoccupied with broad processes were exposed.

Locality should not be understood as the measure of accuracy. As David Harvey states in The Condition of Postmodernity, studying locality while disregarding broader processes such as economic restructuring and methods of political organization, only leads to “fetishizing” locality (Harvey, 2000). Localities, no matter how isolated, cannot be assumed to be separate entities as even their isolation could be an outcome of exogenous pressures and broader processes. With this in mind, local dynamics in Syria demand special attention given the de facto disintegration of the state as a superstructure. This brings us to the question about the here and now.

When the superstructure has shrunk to the scale it has in Syria, the locality is left to its own devices to organize and govern itself. This leads the locality to become a field where a multitude of power groups and new power relations are forged.

This applies to rebel-held, government-held, and Kurdish areas alike. In other words, locality is not synonymous with a territorial area or “place” but is rather a social space with complex topographies of power and evolving power relations and structures. In this sense, the post-war sociopolitical scene will not be divorced from these local conditions. Without a focus on locality in the scholarship, whatever the post-war situation may be, knowledge about post-2011 developments will be deficient.

In light of disintegrating state-structures, the rise of informal actors, paramilitary groups, militias, war economies, and the devolution of various state functions to new actors, the focus of State Formation Theory on state–society relations does not capture transformations that have been taking place since 2011. With the devolution of state functions and state authority, studying the consequences and dynamics triggered by state atrophy requires an approach other than state formation. There is the need for novel language and conceptual tools to capture power relations emerging and evolving beyond the confines of state structures.

The current stage of the Syrian War cannot simply be assumed to be a transient period of chaos resulting from the breakdown of the Syrian state. Rather, the environment in Syria is such that new actors and power relations are emerging in the informal fields of war economy, networks of violence, and local government. The chapter mentions new and valuable research heading in this direction. However, given that this scholarship is newly emerging and local circumstances are still evolving, the existing literature remains insufficient and inconclusive.

Processes of devolution after 2011 are not entirely divorced from pre-2011 developments—specifically in the context of the triadic constellation of religious networks, business networks and networks of violence that are the pillars of power structures in Syria. Despite this connection, post-2011 dynamics of disarticulation continue to yield an ever-changing reality—religion, the state, and social structures at large have been transforming according to novel roles, functions and power relations between a multitude of centers and margins.



Emerging Scholarship on the Middle East and Central Asia: Moving from the Periphery will be released in September 2018. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781498558433/Emerging-Scholarship-on-the-Middle-East-and-Central-Asia-Moving-from-the-Periphery#


The book provides fresh analysis and cutting-edge critique of phenomena and events across the region. Working out of diverse disciplinary traditions, the authors call on varied theoretical frameworks in order to challenge entrenched stereotypes and long-standing perspectives. This volume explores emerging directions in scholarship across a range of issues, including: the Gulf; Saudi strategizing; Afghan refugees in the Islamic Republic of Iran; contemporary Turkish politics; the current Syrian conflict; Middle Eastern and Central Asian art; perceptions of security threats from Afghanistan; and the potential future role of China in the region. The authors in this volume have given wide-berth to dominant approaches to scholarship on the region, while grappling with overlooked issues and marginal populations in order to advance new frameworks. On the Periphery deserves a central place in future scholarly engagement with the Middle East and Central Asia.


Table of Content:



Introduction: Alternative Frameworks: Accounting for the Overlooked, Katlyn Quenzer and Maria Syed

Chapter One: Emerging Trends and Debates in Gulf Studies, Matthew Gray

Chapter Two: Impending Decline? A Reassessment of Saudi Power, Maria Syed

Chapter Three: Iranian Nationalism from its (Afghan) Margins, Elisabeth Yarbakhsh

Chapter Four: Between (Ethno-)Nationalism and Political Islam: The Kurdish Movement as a “Third Way” in Turkey, William Gourlay

Chapter Five: State Formation and Social Conflict in Syria: Causalities, Unintended Consequences, and Analytical Trajectories, Harout Akdedian

Chapter Six: Seen from a Distance: Political Contexts for Middle Eastern Contemporary Art, Sam Bowker

Chapter Seven: The Afghan Threat to the Security of the Central Asian Nations: Myth or Reality?, Azam Isabaev

Chapter Eight: When East Looks West to the Middle East, Ian Nelson

About the authors



The thought-provoking essays brought together in this volume address many of the most complex issues facing the contemporary Middle East and Central Asia. The meticulously researched and clearly presented papers within this volume not only provide rich empirical insights into these challenges, but also raise intriguing questions about the prospects of peace, stability, and prosperity across the region.

— Benjamin Isakhan, associate professor, Deakin University

Asking why we often fail to capture the uncertainties of political and social trends, this volume creatively interrogates conventional scholarly approaches. Based on a skilful reading of events from Syria to Afghanistan, it persuasively brings home that which is important. To understate the formative influence of local context, agency, and resistance is to miss the subtleties of Middle Eastern and Central Asian politics.

— James Piscatori, Australian National University