The lecture explores the onset of the uprising in Syria, from mid-March 2011 until the summer of that year. It explores the opportunity created by the Arab uprisings to shed light on the patterns of unprecedented popular mobilization and collective action in Syria. Specifically, it presents an analysis that critically and loosely borrows from, communicates with, and hopes to make a modest contribution to social movement theory (SMT). While threat and opportunity are necessary elements for popular mobilization, they are not sufficient. Both ‘threat’ and ‘opportunity’ therefore need to be contextualized within the specific social and political environment, real or perceived, of the ‘early risers’ in Syria (especially Dar’a) in order to appreciate their local significance.
It is further argued that protestors, when under threat and faced with the opportunity, collectively rose up by capitalizing on their dense social networks. Strong clan-based or tribal social structures, circular labour migration,
cross-border linkages, and proliferating practices denoted as ‘criminal’ variably played a key role in cementing these social networks. It is further contended that these networks’ ability to easily dissolve into one another due to their high degree of interconnectedness was instrumental in ‘leaderless’ but effective collective mobilization and its ability to pose a strong and enduring challenge to the regime.
Additional attention will be given to protestors’ abilities to overcome obstacles related to their initially limited ‘repertoire of contention’ and resultant discursive strategies (‘framing’), which proved key to protest diffusion nationwide. Our main argument will be assessed for its use of social media sources and compared with alternative analyses emphasizing socio-economic deprivation in the onset of Syria’s uprising in its peripheries.
Reinoud Leenders is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, and was recently appointed Reader in Middle East Politics at King’s College, Department of War Studies, London. He formerly worked as Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group based in Beirut (2002-2005). His research interests include Middle East politics generally and Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in particular, and focus on authoritarian governance, corruption, armed conflict and refugee issues. His recent publications include Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon (Cornell University Press 2012) and Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran (Co-edited with Steven Heydemann, Stanford University Press 2012).