This week marks five years of war in Syria. To enhance our understanding of one of the most complex foreign policy and humanitarian crises of our era, we talked to Wendy Pearlman, an associate professor at Northwestern University. She has studied or conducted research in Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She has written two books about the Palestinian national movement, focusing on the causes and consequences of political violence and rebellion.
Her current book project examines participation in high-risk protest with particular attention to how individuals submit to, work through, or defy political fear. To that end, she has interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey about their experiences in the Syrian uprising and war. Her long-form narrative pieces, Love in the Syrian Revolution and Fathers of Revolution, tell the stories of some of the extraordinary people whose testimonials she has collected.
Wendy has been a Fulbright Scholar, a Fellow at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad at the American University in Cairo, a Junior Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Which all goes to say…let’s listen up.
FPI: At a recent talk on Syria, you dove into the Palestinian movement and its history with the view toward providing takeaways for the former conflict. What are some of those?
I’d never given a talk of that sort or written anything on lessons per se of what the Palestinian national movement can teach for Syria. I’ve spent 10 years of my life studying the Palestinian national movement. I wrote two books on the Palestinians and I spent a lot of time in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel. When I was invited for a talk on Syria, I wanted to come up with something useful to say.
The first takeaway is very general – the human need for dignity will always pop up, and it can be suppressed and people can suffer indignities but there is always a human desire to be treated with respect and live a free life. It can be quashed for only so long; people will crave to be able to express their dignity. That craving is part of the cyclical set of rebellions in Palestine, one generation gets tired but the next one wants to rise up and fight for something better. We need to show respect for the heart of the Syrian uprising: the fight for freedom and dignity. We haven’t forgotten that this is what it’s all about and as much as it can get covered with all this ugliness and ideologies, we can’t lose sight of that beginning. It was a cry for freedom.
The second takeaway is also a basic idea about the escalatory effects of repression, which can be summed up by a simple formula: governments use violence against peaceful protestors and the protests become armed and escalated and there’s violence against peaceful protestors and they’ll become violent as well. You see that over the course of Palestinian history, violence was used against non- violent protests, and then those protestors picked up arms and that’s certainly the case in Syria as well.
The third takeaway I offer gets a little bit closer to my own research about themes of unity and disunity and fragmentation. Many people criticize the Palestinians. Why are the factions so divided? Why is there a lack of united leadership? And how can you even talk to them without one? Whom do you talk to?
One of the things I found in my research is that the more a movement is internally divided, the more likely it is to use violence. When faced with repression there’s no one there to enforce a cease-fire or to call it quits, and in order to use non-violence in a movement, actors really have to be united to at least some degree. Non-violence requires coordination, it requires constraint, it requires the ability to mobilize mass numbers, and it’s difficult for an internally divided movement to do that or sustain it for very long.
There’s a story of when Palestinians are more internally cohesive, they’re more able to pull off non-violence. When they’re all fragmented it’s more likely that their own strategies will become violent. As far as applying that to Syria, there are some themes about the role of fragmentation and violence but even more so, the argument about the relationship between internal cohesion and violence was the main argument in my dissertation, which was a very “political sciencey” way of writing it.
I try to think a little more generally about problems of unity and the obstacles to unity. So as far as Syria goes, as much as people criticize — and lots of people in the US criticize, especially vis a vis the Syrian opposition and its fragmentation — under the current circumstances it’s pretty remarkable that they’ve been as united as they are. They had to build a revolution from scratch. There weren’t pre-existing organizations or parties or independent civil unions to pull upon. They had to create a rebellion while in the process of rebelling and at the same time facing this enormous repression. The idea that they would be able to come up with a unifying set of slogans and symbols and an idea and bring people to overcome the distrust that was sowed in society for so long — the uncertainty, the sheer fear of the regime —and mount any sort of united revolution is a miracle. It is pretty inspiring.
FPI: When you’re looking at conditions now in Palestine, how do you see the current fragmentation impeding progress?
I did a political column in 2011, it was closer to the beginning of the early phase of the Arab uprising. I asked: “Will there be an uprising in Palestine too?” I listed some reasons why I thought it was unlikely. I saw Palestinian society as still being pretty exhausted from the toll of the Second Intifada; I didn’t think there was really a mood to break out again. We’re seeing so much in the other Arab revolts — the sense of a generation or two or three that had been squashed down and hadn’t had the chance to go out and express that desire for a better life. They didn’t have the drive to and go out and fight. Palestinians had just done that and they’d paid an enormous cost and were still paying for it, so they didn’t have that same urge to go out again. They were still recovering. They were still suffering.
FPI: Like in Egypt now. Many Egyptians are so tired from the past five years of revolt, they don’t want to take to the streets again even if they feel that the revolution has been thwarted.
Yes, there’s a generational component as well. It’s just a matter of time until there are thirteen and fourteen year olds in Palestine who don’t have that same memory now of going out in the first and second intifadas and being crushed. It’s just a matter of time until there’s a generation that only knows the oppression, and wants to go out and fight it.
FPI: Do you think that generation is this one?
Well, the first intifada was 2000. So when early teenagers now were little kids, they were maybe four, or five, or six during the heightened years of when Israel was bombing and so forth and we saw the redeployment of troops.
There may also be a difference in the West Bank and Gaza as well. Anyone who’s old enough in Gaza now is going to have the memory of three wars. And there’s not really the space to go out and protest in the same way. The political geography of the conflicts is interesting to keep in mind such that Syrians and Egyptians could go out and face the forces of the regime they were trying to challenge, they could come face to face with police. The West Bank and Gaza are now both so cut off from each other and so far from contact with Israel. Where are people going to have a protest, in downtown Gaza City? To protest the Israeli occupation? The Israelis aren’t going to see that and if you get close enough to the border, you’re going get shot.
That’s what I think is interesting when people talk about the third intifada or the recent friction with Palestinians and Israelis. The flashpoints have been in Jerusalem, because that’s where people are able to have contact. People are now referring to the stabbing attacks on Israelis as the “knife intifada.” Such a thing can only take place in Jerusalem, because you can’t do that in the streets in Gaza, or in Ramallah. If you have a mass protest in Ramallah, Israelis aren’t going to see it and they aren’t going to care. Protest all you want in downtown Ramallah, but either at the checkpoints or these places where Israeli authority and Palestinian authority rub, or Jerusalem – those will be the space of clashes, or violence, or confrontations or whatever form it takes.
So Palestinian resistance now has spatial logic, in the terms of how territories have been cut up, the general mood, and the fact that Palestinians now feel oppressed by their own leadership well as with Israel. It’s a more confusing situation than being able to rally masses to face confront the source of your oppression. That was the old days.
FPI: Do you see this “Knife intifada” turning into a full-scale third one?
Some people would say it’s already an intifada but it looks quite different from the second or the first, which both look quite different from each other. Another factor to keep in mind: civil society infrastructure. In the first intifada especially, less so in the second, and even less so now, is the degree of civil society infrastructure, factions on the ground that have members. What we’re seeing in the last year or two in the Palestinian territories have been much more sporadic, individualized acts of somebody stabbing an Israeli or an act of violence or a demonstration, but they aren’t organized by the political movements the way the political movements organized things in the past because the political movements were stronger, they had more members, they had real grassroots, they had an ideology that resonated, they had some sort of credibility and legitimacy in society.
Now the problem of the occupation is still there. The problem hasn’t changed, but the means to organize it have been so weakened, that the will to rebel is going to take different forms, maybe more individualized, more sporadic, more spontaneous. What worries me from a political perspective is without political organizations, you won’t be able to strategically hardness popular street support. There is indeed something bubbling, there’s a mood, there’s a frustration, there’s a sense of “enough, we’re not going take it anymore.” But it’s taking different, less politically organized forms than in the past. So whether that will amount to a mass uprising, as in the past, as opposed to isolated acts…it’s hard to know.
FPI: It seems so stuck, so stagnant. Yes, things are bubbling, people are frustrated but are they at the tipping point?
In Gaza, who would you rebel against and how? Gaza is where I would be most surprised to see an uprising. That’s why I think it’s interesting to look at Jerusalem or the West Bank, because there has to be a sense that it can be somehow worthwhile to rebel. And there needs to be actual space to do it. So in Gaza, considering that Gazans are suffering so much…
FPI: You want to stay the status quo is not sustainable, but it is actually is – no?
Right, being horrible doesn’t make it unsustainable. People must have some sense of an alternative way of acting and being — that there’s a point in doing it. So I would least suspect the rumblings of rebellion to come from Gaza, considering that people are simply struggling to survive in the face of Hama’s strong political grip. There certainly will not be a rebellion against Israel because I don’t know how people in Gaza could rebel against Israel. Israel doesn’t pay attention anymore. People can shout all they want in Gaza, Israel doesn’t pay attention unless rockets go over. And we know the cycle: when they go over, Israel responds by aerial bombing and so the cycle begins again.
If Israel wanted to figure out a way to make popular rebellions of Palestinians no longer a threat, blocking the territory physically, territorially, geographically is the pretty smart way to do it. You set it behind walls or checkpoints or guards, and for Israel the popular rebellion of Palestinians becomes the exception, in those cases in which it spills over into Israel proper. Someone gets through a checkpoint or a rocket goes over the fence, or there’s a hole in the wall, but Israel’s been able to manage those to a certain manageable degree, and if it is then also able to make sure that there aren’t problems coming from east Jerusalem, then they’ve almost got a handle on the situation. So the situation looks grim for the Palestinians in terms of a grassroots popular effort through which people can do to try to change their situation.
FPI: Over the pass five years of revolt, we haven’t seen any “leaders” emerge. Is that a problem?
Well with Syria now, which I’m following more closely, hundreds of thousands have been killed or disappeared. What I hear when people tell me stories about who emerged as leaders on the very local level — people who were at the forefront with demonstrations and people who came up with the slogans and reached out to others and said “don’t be afraid, come with us,” and people who resolved problems at the community level—when families got into arguments—or thought about the details, so many people of those people were the first to be arrested and killed.
So those people are really no longer there. So then you just think of the sheer human loss of people who can’t be replaced, people who had vision, who had commitment, who took risks, who could rally others…in the Syrian situation, they were the biggest threats, and they were taken out. They were taken out because they made themselves public, and they were public because they were leaders. They were removed. I think that’s in the Syrian case especially, but if you look at other Arab countries as well, the leaders are in prison.
It became impossible for them to lead. They were either killed or removed, or fled the country because if they stayed any longer, they would be killed or arrested. I think that also in Syria, from the stories I’ve gathered, there were so many names that will not be remembered beyond their own community of people who could have done amazing things. It’s so heart wrenching, because now when the US authority will say, “There’s no leadership, where are the moderates, who can we talk to?” Or even worse, when they say “Well maybe we should stay with Assad, because who else is going to rule the country?” There are millions of Syrians more qualified than Assad to rule the country, but these are precisely the people who were seen as threats and destroyed. The sheer material damage – houses can be rebuilt, streets can be repaved, but the human loss? The vacuum is just unfathomable; I don’t think we can begin to fully wrap our minds around what has been lost, in human terms.
FPI: Especially because it’s happening right now.
Absolutely, it’s happening right now, and it’s happening day in and day out.
FPI: The last time you were here in Istanbul, you were doing field work on Syria in 2012, and 2013, and now it’s your first time back. What in Turkey has changed since then?
I’m writing so I’m not fully immersed myself in the situation, but it seems like every trip just gets more hopeless. There’s more despair. The first time I was researching Syrians in 2012, there was still a sense among refugees that “Maybe we’ll go back, maybe the Assad regime will fall.” Refugees feeling like they could go home at any moment, and they didn’t even think of putting down roots, because they didn’t want to live in Jordan, they wanted to go home.
By 2013 people were already thinking, “We might not go back.” But at least at that point it was difficult to think of making concrete plans for a future in the countries where they were. Now, this trip, Syrians in Turkey are trying to learn Turkish or travel to Europe, but the thought of going back to Syria, nobody even mentions that anymore. There isn’t a Syria to go back to. So I can see that evolution over the years, from “Oh, we’re going back,” to, “It looks unlikely that we’re going back,” to “The heck! Are you kidding me?” It’s not even a question people discuss. So there’s been that progression of less and less of a possibility of having something to go back to, and more and more of a focus on the future, At the time, it seemed like there was almost a taboo to think about moving on, because at least the people I was talking to felt such a commitment to the rebellion, and to overthrowing Assad, and a commitment to the relatives who died in the process, it was a sense of Haram, almost a taboo, to give up on the rebellion, to give up on the revolution. So if you compare it to now, there was still a focus on the revolution as something to continue to have hope in. Now, the word “revolution” isn’t something that people talk about anymore.
With time, there seems to be less and less of a cause that you can realistically sacrifice for, so there’s less of an impediment to just trying to get on with life. So that’s something of an arc. Now the story is about refugees and moving on.
FPI: A lot of time is spent on Daeesh – The Islamic State – and figuring out where they came from. What are you thoughts?
It’s just an outgrowth of al Qaeda. They’re a reflection of the overall greater despair and anger and sense of hopelessness. Al Qaeda was bad, but it was a reflection of those times, and our times are even worse. The notion that’s it was created “outside” is outside the conceivable realm of possibility.
FPI: Do you see this conflict dragging on?
That’s what wars of this kind do. I think it will stop either when one party is decisively defeated, or when the parties are exhausted enough to come to some sort of agreement, or if there’s some sort of concerted external effort to being it to a close. And, going back to what we were saying about the sustainability of the situation in Palestine: things don’t end because they’re horrible, they end because something makes them end. And I don’t see anything on the horizon in Syria. Parties seem exhausted but, some people will die, some will give up, some will fight. I don’t see a decisive military victory on one side or the other, I don’t see a decisive external intervention to bring this to a close, that’s why I think we’ll see-saw, sometimes there’s more violence and sometimes there’s less. One piece of territory falls outside the regime and then comes under it again, and new groups emerge, and people die everyday, and more is destroyed. And Daesh is just another wrinkle, they complicate an already complicated picture.