The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The surprising ways fear has shaped Syria’s war

Syrian refugee Hatice Henidil hugs her grandson Usame while waiting for Usame’s parents, stuck on the Syrian side of the border, near the town of Kilis in south-central Turkey on Feb. 10 (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
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As negotiations continue in Geneva, international observers and analysts struggle to comprehend the violence of the Syrian conflict. But how do Syrians themselves make sense of the horrors that have befallen their country? Since 2012, I have carried out open-ended interviews with more than 250 Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The people I meet vary by age, class and region, but the large majority oppose the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite their differences, I find that their individual stories coalesce into a clear collective narrative. This narrative highlights many themes, from hope to resilience to crushing disappointment with a world that has abandoned them. One of the most central themes, I argue in a new article for Perspectives on Politics, is the overwhelming role of fear in shaping the lived experience of politics. I identify four different types of fear, each of which has different sources and functions.

Syrians’ stories about life before 2011 call attention to a silencing fear that served as a pillar of the authoritarian regimes of Hafez al-Assad and then Bashar al-Assad. People consistently describe a political system in which those who had authority could abuse it limitlessly and those without power found no law to protect them. As one man explained: “We don’t have a government. We have a mafia. And if you speak out against this, it’s off with you to bayt khaltu — ‘your aunt’s house.’ That’s an expression that means to take someone to prison. It means, forget about this person. He’ll be tortured, disappeared. You’ll never hear from him again.”

In this pre-revolutionary Syria, an omnipresent security apparatus brought threat of punishment to the street level. A lawyer described a world in which “a single security officer could control an area of 20,000 people holding only a notebook, because if he records your name in it, it’s all over for you.” Undercover spies and pervasive surveillance led parents to warn children not to speak because “the walls have ears.”

“Nobody trusted anyone else,” a rural dentist noted. “If anyone said anything out of the ordinary, others would suspect he was an informant trying to test people’s reactions.” A drama student joked, “My father and brothers and sisters and I might be sitting and talking . . . And then each of us would glance at the other, [as if to think] ‘Don’t turn out to be from the security forces!’”

Some people so internalized intimidation that they carried this propensity for self-censorship and silence beyond the homeland. A Syrian in exile since childhood noted: “When you meet somebody coming out of Syria for the first time, you start to hear the same sentences. That Syria is a great country, the economy is doing great. … It’ll take him like six months, up to a year, to become a normal human being. To say what he thinks, what he feels. … Then they might start whispering. They won’t speak loudly. That is too scary. After all that time, even outside Syria, you feel that someone is recording.”

The spread of peaceful protests across the Arab world in 2011 helped launch a dramatically distinct experience of fear as a personal barrier to be surmounted. Syrians who participated in demonstrations explained that, aware of state violence, they never ceased to be afraid. However, they mobilized a new capacity to act through or despite fear. A mother told me that “no amount of courage allows you to just stand there and watch someone who has a gun and is about to kill you. But still, this incredible oppression made us go out … When you chant, everything you imagined just comes out. Tears come down. Tears of joy, because I broke the barrier. I am not afraid; I am a free being.”

It is easy for rationalist-minded political scientists to underestimate the importance of this emancipatory, emotional moment. When I asked Syrians about their first demonstration, many insisted that the exhilaration of coming together with others to demand change was simply “indescribable.” A writer recounted her entry into protest as the transformative discovery of a sense of self that had been subjugated: “I felt the barrier of fear inside. The first time I broke through it, I was in a demonstration. Others were shouting and I joined them. I started to whisper, freedom. And after that I started to hear myself repeating, freedom, freedom, freedom. And then I started shouting freedom! My voice mingled with other voices. I thought: this is the first time I have ever heard my own voice … I wanted to feel this freedom forever. And I told myself that I would never let anyone steal my voice again.”

The Assad regime responded to peaceful protests with severe repression. As the opposition took up arms, the regime escalated to artillery, airpower and chemical weapons. United Nations investigators judged Assad’s assaults to constitute crimes against humanity. For civilians enduring war, inescapable violence ushered in a new experience of fear as a semi-normalized way of life. On the one hand, physical danger generated profound and visceral terror. On the other, danger was so relentless that it became the backdrop of the day-to-day. As one man shrugged, “We are all mashrua‘ shaeed, martyrs-in-the-making.”

Syrians told me about children who distinguish between missiles by their different explosions, militants who need the sounds of bullets to sleep at night and doctors who planned their schedules around spikes in casualties anticipated for certain days of the week. An activist commented that people either accept the potential of dying at anytime or flee the country, provided that they have the means to escape.

Finally, the protraction of violence has produced yet another kind of fear: the nebulous trepidation of an uncertain future. This fear and uncertainty has proven decisive across many of the Arab transitions. Syrians I meet follow each new crisis, from the Assad regime’s use of newly horrific weapons to the rise of the Islamic State, and lament the fate of a revolution that now fights tyranny on multiple fronts. Nearly all expressed despair with the foreign agendas distorting what began as a popular groundswell for dignity. “Many countries have interests in Syria and they are all woven together like threads in a carpet,” a Free Syrian Army commander shook his head. “We don’t know where this is leading. All we know is that we’re everyone else’s battlefield.” The 20-somethings who led demonstrations count lost comrades with a pain tinged with depression, even guilt. “I belong to the revolution generation, and I’m proud of that,” one young woman explained. “We tried our best to build something. We faced a lot, and we faced it alone. But we lost control. We don’t know what is useful anymore.”

Others identify a fear of losing themselves as individuals as they become extensions of a conflict with no end in sight. “Myself, as a person, I forget her features,” one woman explained. “We’re tired and can’t bear any more blood. We’re afraid. We’re afraid for Syria.” Many people’s most urgent fear is for their loved ones: children who have lost years of schooling, family scattered among Syria and several other countries, and relatives who have been arrested and never heard from again. A Syrian colleague articulated this fear in reaction to the January 2014 revelation of photographs evidencing systematic torture in regime prisons. “The most difficult part of the torture pictures,” he told me, “is not the decomposed flesh, the starved bodies … or even the knowledge that the torture is both widespread and systematic. These things have always been elements of our Syrian reality. What is so difficult that I do not think we have the strength to overcome is the fear that some of these pictures may show us the body of someone we know and we hope is still alive.”

Syrians’ testimonials of fear provide a humanistic lens on what revolution and war mean to many who have lived it and been transformed by it. Apart from offering insight into rebellion, these voices also offer a chance to bear witness to rebellion in action. In describing how they have experienced the Assad regime before and since 2011, citizens are transforming its power from something too menacing to be named into something whose naming renders it contestable. When a state uses fear to silence subjects, their talking about that fear — articulating its existence, identifying its sources, describing its workings — is itself a form of defiance and an assertion of the will to be free.

Wendy Pearlman is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. She is writing a book of Syrians’ oral histories about living under authoritarianism, protest and war and in exile.