- Civil War in Syria: Mobilization and Competing Social Orders by Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay
“Love is like war,” Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy once wrote. “We only know how it starts, and nobody knows how it will end.”1 Historical sociologists would retort that we don’t even know that much: Prediction is impossible; and trying to work out the beginning is as good as it gets.
More than a straightforward description of its origins, Adam Backzo, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay’s book, Civil War in Syria, is an ambitious attempt to clarify the mechanisms that drove the start of the Syria conflict and to explain the specific military and civilian trajectories subsequently undertaken during the civil war. One of the first research monographs on Syria to be based on extensive original data collected in the field, Civil War in Syria contains useful insights for Middle East specialists, as well as a series of provocative challenges for academics who work on the comparative analysis of civil wars more generally. Ultimately, however, it falls short of its intended targets.
In the opening chapter, the authors turn to Pierre Bourdieu to develop an analytical framework that avoids the pitfalls they identify in existing studies. Bourdieu famously posited fields as structured domains of social action, each with its own distinct rules of practice, behavior, and position, in which individuals generate and deploy field-specific forms of capital in pursuit of their objectives. The authors highlight the transformations of field structure wrought by civil war: new capital is produced (by participating in protests or joining militias, for example), existing capital may depreciate or double in value, and new circuits appear for converting capital from one field to another (as in the case of established warlords who then launch political careers). The authors propose that mapping these transforming fields and emerging capitals can offer a better guide to Syria’s fractured political landscape than tracing the more traditional paths of specific individuals or institutions.
To flesh out their analysis, the authors draw on 162 semi-structured interviews with Syrians in rebel-held parts of the country in winter 2012/13 and August 2013, and subsequently with Syrian refugees outside the country. The authors describe their snowballing sampling strategy and detail the interview technique of their three-person team; the anonymized characteristics of their 162 interviewees are laboriously listed in an appendix. Excerpts from these [End Page 704] interviews are neatly woven into the text and allow the authors to develop intriguing pen portraits of particular individuals. However, the interviews are primarily used as sources of information in which the veracity of the authors’ narrative is anchored, rather than as rich veins of ethnographic insight in their own right. The book draws on a wide range of scholarship in English and French, the latter of which is overlooked by many scholars, despite the long Francophone research tradition of detailed and exacting empirical work in the Middle East. Yet oddly, Civil War in Syria does not refer to any material in Arabic, which invites questions about what language the interviews were conducted in in the first place. Given the authors’ commitment to understanding local context, moreover, it seems strange to neglect written evidence, especially with a population as literate and educated as that of Syria. Even more oddly, at no point do the authors or Cambridge University Press acknowledge that Civil War in Syria is a translation of a book the authors originally published as Syrie: Anatomie d’une guerre civile with Editions CNRS in 2016. These omissions seem unusual.
Despite its ambition to contribute to broader disciplinary debates, Civil War in Syria stands at its best when it provides a granular, grounded account of the conflict. Against the more stylized accounts adopted by some recent accounts, the authors catch messy, inconvenient points that complicate any neat periodization or abstract theorization. Protestors were socially mobilizing across the country before Dar‘a caught the world’s attention...