Group Identity

Dimension 1 of 17


We wanted to learn about the group identity of the Syrian people. We listened to a wide range of local, regional, and international actors influential in the life of Syria. We received a wide range of responses, for example:

"The refugees [I talk to see] their families as most important." (233531)

"Family is considered in an extended sense, including perhaps 5th cousins." (233121)

"A lot of people are intermarried, for example,  Alawite-Kurd. Family matters more than the ethnic or religious group. Meritocracy was very difficult to introduce because it made more sense to hire a cousin. It isn't as rigid as Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Because family and tribe often coincide, sectarian violence is easy to justify, as in blood feuds. Violent outbreaks often have to do with revenge, sometimes ancient revenge, for family insults which have been squelched by a strong government until the war." (239312)
"In Syria we don't speak about ethnicity or group, only the country." (230784)
"Since the war started 5 years ago everyone is remembering their roots, whether it's ethnic or religious. That's why it has been sectarian. The Kurds want autonomy. In the south they want their emirate. This can't happen without international will. There are now at least 4 sections, Kurds, IS, opposition, and the regime. The majority want Syria to stay unified, besides IS. Each sector wants to expand for influence. The people have no say. There are at least 9 foreign military bases in the country. There are foreigners from at least 40 different countries fighting in Syria. Whoever has arms and money dictates the rules. This is a normal result from 5 years of war." (233881) 
"The doctors continue to work because they see it as their duty to the country and people. Everybody is thinking of their country as a whole." (232631) 

Is group identity in Syria primarily about the family? Or about the country as whole? Why does this matter in your choice of partners, the design of initiatives, and the implementation of those initiatives? Read more to find out. Scroll to the bottom of the page for more statements. 


ABOUT INCA DIMENSION #1: GROUP IDENTITY


As Syrians and others seek an end to the conflict, and later to rebuild the country, it is essential to understand where Syrian loyalties lie. The first INCA dimension offers insight into this question.

The group identity dimension represents how Syrians are perceived to identify themselves: whether as members of families, tribes or villages; citizens of a region or province; members of an ethnic or religious group; or as national citizens.

Based on the 8-level hierarchy described in the question below, prime actors from 27 influential organizations assessed the group identity of Syria at different levels at this time in history, ranging from 2 to 6. 

At the bottom of this page, you can read statements interview participants gave to support their assessments.


The Question

We posed the following question to Syrian Prime Actors:

(Note: The second and sixth levels are bolded because those were the lower and upper bounds of the third round of interviews and feedback, conducted between November, 2016, and July, 2017.)

We all have multiple group identities and loyalties—as family members, workers, members of ethnic and language groups, communities of faith, of shared history, and of different geopolitical units. If there were a conflict of loyalties and the people in this country had to choose between the pull of one level of their identity and another, which identity would win the tug-of-war?

1.     Individuals, who only think of themselves

2.     Their families, friends, gang, or profession

3.     Their village or tribe

4.     Their ethnic group, religious group, or political party

5.     Their state, region, or province

6.     Their country

7.     Their supranational geopolitical group (e.g., the EU)

8.     The world as a whole


READ CLOSELY, IMAGINE, LEARN

Read each statement below closely. Assume the person who wrote this is sincere; they believe every word. Imagine what life experience or background might lead a person to have this belief. Whether true or false, this person’s perception is a fact. To move forward on an initiative involving Syrian group identity, the reality of each perspective might best need to be accounted for.

This Prime Actor participant sees Syrian Group Identity as centered at Level 2, the family:

"A lot of people are intermarried, ex. Alawite-Kurd. Family matters more than the ethnic or religious group. Meritocracy was very difficult to introduce because it made more sense to hire a cousin. It isn't as rigid as Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Because family and tribe often coincide, sectarian violence is easy to justify, as in blood feuds. Violent outbreaks often have to do with revenge, sometimes ancient revenge, for family insults which have been squelched by a strong government until the war." (239312) (Level 2-Family)

This Prime Actor participant sees Syrian Group Identity as centered at Level 6, the country:

"In Syria we don't speak about ethnicity or group, only the country." (230784)

When you can imagine how other Prime Actors could hold each of these perceptions, you will be better positioned to partner, plan, and implement initiatives in Syria.



DEVELOPMENT IN SYRIA


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WORK WITHIN SYRIA’S GROUP IDENTITY

The thick brown line represents family

The thick brown line represents the most conservative assessment of Syrians’ primary group identification, with their families. This is the level you should work within. Any organization operating in Syria or with refugee Syrians would be best served by assuming that the strongest ties that bind Syrians together at this moment in their history are family. Most business, political, and social agreements will need the families of partners to be accounted for in the planning, implementation, and enforcement of agreements.


STRENGTHEN SYRIAN GROUP IDENTITY ONE STEP AT A TIME

Aim just right: build village and tribal identities

The green area of the chart, from levels 2 to 3, indicates where projects to strengthen Syrian group identity will be most likely to succeed, with their villages or tribes. One example is of the local council initiatives. Other efforts could work to strengthen tribal bonds. Both kinds of initiatives would help grow Syrian family identity (level 2) to a more inclusive village or tribal identity (level 3). This is a realistic goal.

If you aim low: reinforcing family identities

The gray space represents problems that have already been solved by Syrians, for which aid or development initiatives will be redundant, but not harmful. An example is an initiative to connect individual (level 1) refugees connect with their families through online bulletin board. Almost all Syrians are likely already connected with their families through the web.  

If you aim too high: destructive overreach

Projects and agreements in the red area of the chart are overly ambitious and, at best, will be a waste of time. More likely, they will drive confusion and corruption into the country. An example is of initiatives to link together Syrian tribal leaders to form provincial governments (level 4). If implemented in Syria, this attempted leap from family identity (level 2) to regional identity (level 4) would be too much to do at once! Without strong ties to village or tribal identity (level 3) already in place, efforts to build a provincial identity are doomed to failure. A

Group identity in post-invasion Iraqi society was at a similarly low level in the spring of 2003. The United States, however, failed to recognize the true nature of group identity in Iraq and instead enacted many programs based on the faulty assumption that Iraqis identified most strongly with their ethnic or religious sects (level 5). As a result, inappropriate practices and projects drove confusion and corruption into Iraqi society.

Notable among these projects was the establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council, or IGC, which was supposed to govern the country under the auspices of the US-backed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Assuming that Iraqi society was structured along strict religious lines, the CPA formed the IGC by appointing 25 Iraqis from 5 different ethnic or religious backgrounds and mandated that this government assume the role of a national government (a level 6 goal). As our INCA platform reveals, however, this assumption was misguided and led to program overreach. In actuality, the IGC was so far removed from the actual bases of group identity that council members were relatively obscure figures with little political capital, and who lacked actual authority over the Iraqi population. By June of 2004, after nearly a year of using reconstruction funds to advance narrow self-interests at the expense of substantive national policymaking, the council was written off as a failure and dissolved. Rather than laying the groundwork for an inclusive government linked to the most important groups of Iraqi society, which was the intent behind the program, the IGC in fact devolved into an incapable bureaucracy that devoured international funding without providing any substantial national governance.

Background Reading

For more information on INCA for Iraq, read our retroactive case study here: http://sovereigntyfirst.com/iraq/report


STATEMENTS


Round 3 Statements (Nov 2016 - Jul 2017)

Note: These statements were given by participants as rationales for their decision to gauge Syrian capacity at the level that they did for this dimension. 

The Range

Lowest Score: 2

Highest Score: 6

2. Their families, friends, gang, or profession

 "The refugees [I talk to see] their families as most important." (233531)
"Family is considered in an extended sense, including perhaps 5th cousins." (233121)
"Families matter the most, but some members may prioritize the ethnic-religious group as a bigger family." (235781)
"The family connections are strongest at this stage. Our identities are all layered. This is the natural progression of layers." (236592)
"A lot of people are intermarried, ex. Alawite-Kurd. Family matters more than the ethnic or religious group. Meritocracy was very difficult to introduce because it made more sense to hire a cousin. It isn't as rigid as Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Because family and tribe often coincide, sectarian violence is easy to justify, as in blood feuds. Violent outbreaks often have to do with revenge, sometimes ancient revenge, for family insults which have been squelched by a strong government until the war." (239312) 

3. Their village, tribe, town, or city

"Tribal Factions are more pronounced in the south, but exist all over the country." (233911)
Response to a Round 2 comment: "[The Riyadh Group] are not ignoring minority rights. [Minorities] are represented in the agency. In Aleppo, there is fully an urban-rural divide. It's classic Marxist theory. Poor rural people working in factories have attacked the urban owners of the factories. The armed opposition in Aleppo are from the Aleppo province, not the city."(233911) 
"There are about 1500 or so armed militias, geographically limited by village or tribe. Ethnic and religious affiliations play in too. As in Lebanon, these groups sometimes fight, even if they are from the same tribe but different regions, just to protect what is theirs. We will find that in Raqqa with the Kurds. They may not be able to hold an Arab city." (239311)

4. Their ethnic group, religious group, or political party 

"In the 5 years since the war began, everyone has gone back to their roots. It is divided. The Kurds are loyal to the Kurds first, regardless of where they are. The Arabs are divided by religious lines." (231641)
"[People do not want] to be separated into groups, but there is no larger entity, so they have no choice. International concerns have changed everything. If it had been left to Syrians they would have reached an agreement early on. Outside support fed it." (238631)
 "There is a growing ethnic divide. To some extent the Syrian government targeted all the groups outside government control. Those targeted groups became very wary of the government. The division among opposition groups and armed groups is also growing." (232272)
"The Kurds' ethnic affiliation has become even more important over the last years." (231642);
"The Kurds have started initiatives for independence. When the Kurds separate, sectarian divisions will follow." (234281)
"People stick to their religion, and there are a number of them. Some, like Kurds, identify with their ethnic group." (238341)

5. The state, region, or province 

No Statements 

6. Their country

"In Syria we don't speak about ethnicity or group, only the country." (230784)
"There are a few radical religious, but most don't want a religious leadership. Syria itself was never radical. Bashar divided the country between Sunni and Alawi. In general, the Syrian people love the Kurds, and all minority groups." (230713) 
"Since the war started 5 years ago everyone is remembering their roots, whether it's ethnic or religious. That's why it has been sectarian. The Kurds want autonomy. In the south they want their emirate. This can't happen without international will. There are now at least 4 sections, Kurds, IS, opposition, and the regime. The majority want Syria to stay unified, besides IS. Each sector wants to expand for influence. The people have no say. There are at least 9 foreign military bases in the country. There are foreigners from at least 40 different countries fighting in Syria. Whoever has arms and money dictates the rules. This is a normal result from 5 years of war." (233881) 
"The doctors continue to work because they see it as their duty to the country and people. Everybody is thinking of their country as a whole." (232631) 
"We need to think at a universal level, otherwise we will fall into an ethnic war." (230792)
"The Riyadh group is not pushing out minorities. There are no minorities anymore. The Alawi, Druze, Kurds, Christians have improved lives since the war. Only the Yazidis are hurt because of ISIL. The war affects the majority." (231211) 
"The revolution started within the people. They started demanding simple rights, voting and improved laws. The regime refused and responded with violence. After 6 - 8 months the regime released 11,000 prisoners (Sednaya Prison), who were terrorists, so they could attack the citizens. The thought was to change the vision of the protesters, to convince them an Islamist government is better than a secular one by use of force. It was done to make the people think that without the regime they can't control the terrorists. They seem to have been successful. The revolution is no longer peaceful, which gives Al Assad justification to use chemical weapons and other extreme violence." (233081)
"We all believe this is our country. We need to find a way to end the war." (235931)


Round 2 Statements (Aug 2016 - Oct 2016)

Note: These statements were given by participants as rationale for their decision to gauge Syrian capacity at the level they did for this dimension. 

The Range

Lowest Score: 1

Highest Score: 8

1. No agreements are made between any two people

No Statements

2. Their families, friends, gang, or profession

No Statements

3. Their village, tribe, town, or city

No Statements

4. Their ethnic group, religious group, or political party 

No Statements

5. Their state, region, or province

"After 5 years of war in Syria the conflict is becoming more sectarian, so they are each recruiting more of their own sects to join them. Since the government is no longer there, people draw closer to the people around them. Now everything is sectarianism and nationalism. Syria is divided among Shia, Kurds, and Arabs. The Riyadh group is ignoring minority rights. There is not an urban-rural divide. The committee is trying to push out the Yazidis, Kurds, etc." (221641)
"When the war started most Syrians went to their pre-country identity. In the north it is ethnic. In others it can be village or religious." (223911)
"Displaced people don't necessarily join their ethnic-religious groups. Some go to Damascus." (228631)

6. Their country

"Loyalty should be to the country, not the whole world." (223881)
"This is the most important thing for the country. It's for everybody. It's what we hope for." (222172)
"They always identify first as Syrian, but lately ethnic and religious divides are growing. This did not exist before the war." (229051)

7. Their supranational geopolitical group (e.g., the EU)

No Statements

8. The world as a whole

"Over the past 5 years everyone thinks now only of themselves. They don't think of tribes, countries . . . There are no loyalties. They even have people on opposite sides within families." (220291)


Round 1 Statements (Jan 2016 - May 2016)

Note: These statements were given by participants as rationale for their decision to gauge Syrian capacity at the level they did for this dimension. 

The Range

Lowest Score: 3

Highest Score: 6

3. Their village, tribe, town, or city

No Statements

4. Their ethnic group, religious group, or political party

No Statements

5. Their state, region, or province

"Sometimes [a national identity] depending on region" and "Depends on region and degree of urbanization. More urban areas may choose [national identity]. More rural will choose [regional or provincial identity]. The same with the Kurds and Alawi." (218752)

6. Their country

No statement