dimanche 30 août 2020

Foreword to the book Syria: Borders, Boundaries, and the State

The following text is Nassima Neggaz and Ziad Majed's foreword to "Syria: Borders, Boundaries, and the State", edited by Matthieu Cimino and published by Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2020.
The book gathers a series of papers presented in a conference organized at the University of Oxford in November 2017.

“One, one, one, Amuda and Kafranbil are one, the Syrian people is one.” This was a slogan signed by the local committee of ‘Amuda, a Kurdish town in North-East Syria, at the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011. “Muslims, Christians, all one Syrian people” was chanted across the streets of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo at the same time. Even the occupied Golan Heights territory was part of this all-inclusive rhetoric: “Greetings from the bride of the north, ‘Amuda, to the bride of the occupied South, Majdal Shams,” with Majdal Shams answering with “bows to you, how beautiful would it be to live in the same country.”

At this early stage of the revolution and its peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins that started in Deraa, all signs pointed to a desired unified nation, a sense of a Syrian common identity, and an overwhelming feeling of solidarity among ordinary people from various parts of the country. In that process, the local dialectal differences of one region were used in the slogans of another, and names of little towns and previously unknown villages (for most of the population) were regularly evoked, emphasizing the fact that Syrians were reconstructing ties and connections in their “discovered” and desired country, that was for long possessed and brutalized by the Assad regime. Humor was present to mock Assad, the Ba’ath party and its rhetoric, break the wall of fear and create new forms of expression, sayings and proverbs inspired by local traditions and popular culture.

All these signs pointed to the awareness, by a large part of the Syrian people, of the sectarian strategies that the regime deployed to accompany its brutal repression of the uprising.


These hopes of a unified country were, however, short-lived. Massacres committed by the regime forces and Chabbihas and saluted by its supporters, forced displacement, torture and rape of detainees, and the rise of a decentralized militarisation of the revolution led gradually as of summer 2012 to a full-scale war. In late 2013, the Iraqi born Islamic State (Daesh) raised its flag in the Syrian city of Raqqa, making it its de-facto capital a year later, before the US led international coalition launched “its war on terror” targeting it.In 2015, after three years of massive Iranian military effort to save the regime, Russia declared war on the Syrian opposition groups (armed by Turkey, Gulfy and Western states). The conflict witnessed thus in three years changing national, regional and international dynamics, interventions and configurations.

In fact, as early as spring 2012 onward, the national borders of Syria did not delineate a coherent state any longer, Syria’s territory’s spatial continuity was broken and the very cohesion of its social fabric, already fragilized by decades of despotic rule and oppressive policies, was altered and fragmented. What the posters of the early days of the revolution had warned the world about had materialized, in the most inhumane and unexpected ways possible. The fragmentation of Syria’s territory was as brutal as it was rapid. A map of Syria in 2016 shows a mosaic of areas under the control of different actors: while the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies controlled the coast and areas along the Damascus-Aleppo axis, the Kurdish PYD supported by the US led coalition took charge of the Federation of North East Syria, the Islamic State occupied a large part of East and Central Syria, the Syrian opposition held various discontinuous areas in the North, the Center and the South, and the Jihadist group Jabhet Fateh al-Sham controlled a few areas in the North Western part of the country. While Daesh began minting its own gold dinars, the Turkish lira and the US dollar became used currencies in the country along with the local pound. The borders of modern Syria, which had been thought stable and socially internalized, had been challenged, opening up avenues to new imaginations of space: the possibility of a Kurdistan, but also an umma unified under an Islamic caliphate.


The Syrian case is a demonstration of the complex nature of borders and boundaries, as well as their fluctuant and transient character. As very polyvalent terms, borders and boundaries can denote a dividing line that is natural, political, institutional, historical, legal, imagined, cultural, social, hard or soft, visible or invisible. In the field of border studies, borders (understood as mostly external) and boundaries (mostly internal or imagined) are one of the most ubiquitous features of political geography. A burgeoning field of interdisciplinary nature, border studies has gained renewed prominence in the 21st century across the social sciences and humanities, in line with the current global crises and transformations of our world. Territorial disputes, resource management, migrations, or globalization are among the key topics of this field: these issues are deeply anchored in the Syrian case, as this volume skillfully demonstrates. Central to thiscase and to the field of border studies is the concept of the border as a process: borders are the outcome of processes of bordering and othering, and as such borders are active forces characterized by variability and contingency across space and time. They can be used and manipulated by various actors: state, transnational, or internal players. The Syrian case provides a formidable illustration of these processes at play. The Syrian-Israeli border, despite being a feature of the Syrian regime’s resistance rhetoric, has been the most quiet border over the past decades. As this volume shows, the changing nature of borders in the Syrian case makes their study even more necessary in the 21st century: far from vanishing, borders exhibit transformations and different evolutions.  


As the first volume dedicated to the study of Syria’s borders from the mandate period till the rise of Daesh, this book could not come at a more opportune time, both for a better understanding of Syria, but also at the global level given the recent political, social, and environmental developments. First, it is a timely work for a better understanding of the present Syrian conflict, examined here through the lens of borders as well as geographical space and imagination. The Syrian conflict is the foremost example of a local one that has become a global crisis: from international players leading proxy wars, transnational groups and foreign fighters establishing their battles within its borders, to global migrations and an unfolding humanitarian crisis that has impacted territories as far as Europe or the United States and Australia. With the migrations of Syrian refugees and the internationally-led attacks on Daesh, Syria’s porous borders suddenly became a problem for the international community, one it could no longer ignore. If it was too late of a wake-up call, the Syrian scenario is one that reminds us of the necessity to care and solve crises before they aggravate. Second, at the global level, it seems that borders have never been so crucial for academic examination: their changing nature and their porosity call for a greater attention to their future. While wars and instability are driving many outside of their state borders, climate change is becoming an alarming factor in the influx of population migrations. At the state level, but also at the local and micro level, many communities are leaving their areas as food becomes too scarce because, for instance, fishing or agriculture are not viable options any longer. Other communities are chased outside of their borders such as the Rohingya in Myanmar. These phenomena will, unfortunately, only aggravate in the years and decades to come. This is why this book will be a valuable tool not only for specialists of Syria and border studies scholars, but also anyone interested in pressing global issues.

The Place - Tammam Azzam

Starting with the creation of modern Syria and the Sykes Picot drawing of its new borders up until the establishment of a Caliphate encompassing Syrian and Iraqi territories, this volume is important by its many temporalities. The case studies provided go way beyond these timely markers (1920-2017): Ottoman legacy, but also the long-term history of the Kurds going back to the 16th century, or the references to the early Islamic empire by Daesh are all examined by the contributors. They have successfully demonstrated that each actor in the conflict should be studied through a unique timeline. When the ancient or Islamic past is recalled, there is much to satisfy the imagination in the case of Syria given the rich history of its borders. A cradle of civilization, Damascus is known as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Following a rich pre-history, Syria was a territory under the Mesopotamian rule, the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires, and in the latter several parts of Syria acted as a buffer zone under the Ghassanid state. Syria was then integrated within the Islamic Caliphate after the conquests, becoming the seat of the Umayyad empire, and later played a key role during the Mamluk empire being united with Egypt, and finally as a province of the Ottomans up until the early twentieth century. The legacy of the Ottoman era is swiftly integrated to this volume, enabling the reader to get a grasp of a long-term border construction and internalization process. Many key questions are raised. When do borders become legitimate and internalized, and through what processes? How and why do state and non-state actors manipulate borders? What was the legacy of the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria under Emir Faisal in 1919? The Kingdom proclaimed Syria as a territory between “its natural boundaries” from the Taurus mountains in Turkey to the Sinai desert in Egypt and became a source of inspiration for many Arab nationalist movements. What is the relationship between localism or regional identities and nationalism? When and how do local identities become predominant? In the height of the ongoing war, many Syrians spoke of their country as a historical patchwork made up of different regions that were not one entity, a discourse that was scarcely heard in the early days of the revolution. These discourses were the outcome of current events and the splitting of groups who supported various factions in the conflict. This raises the question: how do perceptions of self and territory change depend on present events?

Each one of the chapters in this volume is the work of a scholar who knows the local languages, has done fieldwork during their career, and has used a variety of sources ranging from archival documents, to local newspapers, interviews, geography and history school textbooks, etc. Most scholars who have contributed to this volume have been working on Syria or its neighbors for many years and are specialists in their subject matter, be it Jordi Tejel on Syrian Kurds or Thomas Pierret on Sunni Islamists in Syria, for instance. The depth and breadth of the chapters ranges from micro-level analyses and ethnographies, such as Sule Can’s study of Antalya’s ‘border landers’ or Kevin Mazur’s examination of Dayr al-Zur, to more macro-level analyses such as Matthieu Rey’s work on the legacy of the Ottoman Tanzimat on Syria’s modern borders, allowing for a historiography of border construction. The Turkish, Lebanese, and Iraqi borders with Syria are examined in detail, only leaving out Jordanian and Israeli case studies. A multiplicity of disciplines, perspectives, and methods of investigation is presented here: modern history, but also anthropology, geography, political science, or sociology. It is the aggregation of these various perspectives and studies of different actors that allows us to get a clearer picture of Syria’s challenges and shifting borders and boundaries until the present day. Because borders are defined by at least two states or groups, each border examined here looks at various actors, such as the Turkish and French states in Seda Altug’s piece, which showcases how the border was at times made impenetrable and at times unsafe and chaotic to serve state interests. Key moments in Syria’s modern history are examined in detail: the French mandate and the popular contestation of its imposed borders on Syria by Idir Ouahes, but also Pan Arabism under the Baath party, as both a key moment and ideology in the internalization processes of Syria’s borders in Souheil Belhadj-Klaz and Mongi Abdennabi’s work. Non-state actors and their representation of Syrian territorialities is amply examined: Daniel Meier’s study on Hizbullah’s borderland strategy, but also Nehmeh Hamdans’s work on the various territories of the opposition, or Matthieu Cimino’s chapter on Daesh’s recasting of Syrian territory all offer in-depth investigations of specific actors and their relationship to Syria’s borders.


The editor of this work is both a colleague and a friend of ours. The genesis of this volume is a conference held at Saint Anthony’s College in Oxford in November 2017 under the title “Exploring Syria’s Borders and Boundaries.” Matthieu was then a Marie Currie Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, working with Professor Eugene Rogan. We, Nassima and Ziad, were both invited discussants to the papers of the conference – Ziad was also the keynote speaker of the conference, with a talk entitled “War crimes, crimes against humanity and territorial fragmentation: are peace and reconstruction possible in Syria?” Both of us have deep links with Syria, both academic and personal. Ziad has authored, co-authored, edited and translated a series of publications on Syria, its intellectuals and its modern political history. I (Nassima) lived in Syria for a year studying at the French institute of Arab Studies (IFEAD) in Damascus. I later wrote a paper on the impact of the Syrian revolution on Arabic language in Syria, which won an academic award by the International Sociological Association. I met Matthieu while being an Early Career Fellow and Lecturer in Islamic History at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University (2015-2017) and a Senior Member of Saint Anthony’s College. Matthieu and I had shared interests in modern Syria, but also Iraq, as well as Islamic history. Matthieu’s work combining political analyses of contemporary Syria with an exploration of the historical sources of Daesh’s rhetoric is a case in point. He asked me to be a discussant of his work during the Conversation Series of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, where he presented his early project on Syria’s borders. Islamic medieval geography manuals, as Matthieu demonstrated, played a key role in the rhetoric of Daesh and its conception of the space, dar al-islam; the analysis of the Islamic past was necessary to shed light on contemporary ideologies and movements. We both worked with our esteemed colleague Professor Eugene Rogan, Director of the Middle East Studies Center at Saint Anthony’s College, and author of groundbreaking work on the topic of Ottoman borders and state restructuring during the last decades of the Empire, notably Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire: Transjordan, 1850-1921 (2000).


Perhaps the most challenging borders for the future of Syria are non-tangible and symbolic ones: the border between a possible form of justice and the full impunity that has prevailed for years; the one between those who have lost their lives, families, homes and property and those who think they have won, i.e. the regime supporters. It will take a lot of work, time, and a strong will to overcome this deep fissure in the social fabric of Syria.

Nassima NEGGAZ, New College, Florida, USA 
Ziad MAJED, the American University of Paris, France