Reconstructing Hegemony and Identity in Syria; Kurds, Alawites and Armenians (by Kevork Elmassian)

15 Sep

Reconstructing Hegemony and Identity in Syria ;Kurds, Alawites and Armenians

Table of Contents



• Part one: Theory: Different level of identity analysis and Gramsci’s hegemony concept                                                                                                                             

Part Two: The Kurdish separatist ambitions                                                                   

Part Three: Armenians and the fear from “others”                                                      

Part Four: Alawites and fear of losing hegemony?                                                        

Part Five: Conclusion                                                                                                    


Syria has little recent history of mass rebellion. The Baath regime of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president Bashar, effectively quelled Islamic oppositions – largely represented by the Muslim Brotherhood – through repression and dominance of state institutions. The regime has enjoyed unchallenged hegemony over the state apparatuses and social, political, economic and religious forces (Weiss, Stuart, 2011).

The current “Syrian uprising” raised several concerns among the political rivalries in Syria. Disintegration of the Syrian identity was one of the major concerns. For many decades, the Baath ruling party pursued Arabization policies which threatened some other national identities such as the Kurds. However, with the eruption of the “Syrian uprising”, regime’s Arabization efforts exposed to a strong shake with the rise of strong Islamist trends and their growing influence within the “angry” opposition street.

In such shaky vulnerable conditions, some communities like the Kurds of Syria (not all of them) are aiming to reproduce the Iraqi Kurdistan experience by pursuing separatist options, or self-management as a minimum demand. On the other hand, some “minorities” such as the Alawites and Syrian Armenians exposed to genuine threat from the so called “Islamic Tsunami” that swept the Syrian street.

The purpose of my research is to link the different level of identity analysis to the three ethnic and sectarian communities within the Syrian society (Kurds, Alawites and Armenians). I will also apply Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to the Syrian crisis, in order to find out how the hegemonic class (the regime) is trying to preserve its hegemonic character, and how the subordinate groups are able challenge the hegemony of the ruling class.


Social identity is defined as a person’s acknowledgment of belonging to a certain social category or group where its members possess similar social identification, interests and concern, etc. They observe the surroundings with an identical perspective (Hogg, Abrams, 1988). Members of a particular group share ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political parties, as well as inhabit symbolic characteristics such as cognitive, emotional and motivational concepts. The development of capitalist system raised the importance of human individuality and set identifications as being the ground rules for human organization, thus, people are more capable of understanding themselves and reflecting on who they are (Dalile, 2012).

Identities can be separated between four levels of analysis beginning from the micro, meso, macro and global levels. To further explain these identities, I will use one of the figures of “Macro Theories of Conflict Resolution” course which is lectured at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University (Macro-theories of Identity Formation, 2012).

For further elaboration please check the figure below:


One of the aspects of the Syrian crisis is a clash of identities, in addition to social and political rivalry, and an attempt to overthrow the hegemonic class (the regime) which comprised of many social forces not necessarily ethnic identities and replace it with another one.

Hegemony is the concept of coercion with non-violent means. Hegemonic ‘practices are an exemplary form of political articulation which involves linking together different identities into a common project’ (Mansell, Raboy, 2011). The Syrian regime succeeded during the last four decades in linking different identities into one project (at least on the international and regional level), regardless if that project was imposed on them or not.

However, if any subordinate class (opposition) wants to become hegemonic, it has to go beyond class and sectional interests. It has to take into consideration the interests of other classes and groups as well. During this period, the competing ideologies come into conflict until one of them or a combination of them dominates and establishes new social order and thus practices hegemony over the subordinate groups. On the other hand, to preserve the hegemonic character, the hegemonic class (regime) must continue to lead and fight for its domination. But in order to maintain and strengthen the social order, the hegemonic class must do persistent activities and make needed compromises to adapt with the new conditions and activities of the opposing forces. When the hegemony of a ruling class is endangered, it has to work on far-reaching changes and a process of restructuring which Gramsci called (Organic changes). This process requires a reshaping of a state institutions as well as formation of new ideologies. However, sometimes crisis of hegemony comes out when the old is going to die but the new one cannot be born (Simon, Hall, 1991). This can be easily applied on the Syrian crisis which will be addressed in the last part of the research paper.


 Kurds of Syria


Kurds of Syria are a subordinate group. Kurds identify themselves as ethno-national group and not as sectarian Sunni group. Consequently, they are considered according to the identity analysis figure as macro identity.

Kurds are found in a contiguous area called “Kurdistan” that arcs across four states: Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Many writers claimed that the Kurds are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. In addition to that, around a million Kurdish people live in Western countries, having migrated there in the past several decades. Only Iraqi Kurds living in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq live under Kurdish political control, but this area is not entirely sovereign and has only recently been recognized internationally after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 (King, 2006).

There are around two and a half million Kurds in Syria. They speak Kurdish (the Kirimanji dialect), but most speak Arabic too, and many Kurds have at least partially assimilated into Arab society. Most are Sunni Muslims (Minority rights group international, 2005).

Syrian Kurds have toiled under constant state repression and denial of cultural and political rights. Some researchers argue that defining Syrian identity as Arab has excluded the Kurds from mainstream Syrian society (Barkey, 2009). Syria’s “stateless Kurds” are vulnerable population. Amnesty International has estimated in 2004 that “between 200,000 and 360,000 of Syria’s Kurds… are not entitled to Syrian nationality and therefore are denied accompanying rights of nationals” (Amnesty International, 2004).

However, when the Syrian uprising erupted in March 2011, all eyes turned to the Kurds. The western states used the Kurdish dilemma to add more pressures on the Syrian government. on President Bashar al-Assad anticipated that and issued a legislative decree (No 276) on April 2011, granting “Syrian Arab nationality” to people registered as “foreigners” in Hasaka, the northeastern region where Kurds reside. The decision which expected to grant citizenship to more than 100,000 Kurds was a concession to prevent, or at least minimize, the Kurdish participation in the anti-regime movements (Raufoglu, 2012). However, Assad concession didn’t completely absorb the Kurdish anger especially between the youth and the Kurdish issue remained a political tool in the hands of foreign forces against President Assad.

The “Syrian uprising” is a very important stage for Syria’s Kurds. Their presence extends to thousand years according to most of the few historical studies that monitor their presence in the Levant. Some Kurds merged in the Syrian mosaic, but others believe that they have different identity in parallel with the Syrian identity, and they are like other Syrians divided between pro-regime and opposition. Many of them have big ambitions; and believe that in order to improve the overall Kurdish situation in Syria they have to copy what their “brothers” did in Kurdistan region of Iraq (Elias, 2012).

The historian Bernard Lewis argues that the sense of Kurdish identity, and then nationalism, emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century; the development of this feeling have developed rapidly as a result of several factors, such as the consideration of the British Empire that the Kurdish  issue is an integrated case and must be defended by the West. However, other historians are skeptical about the validity of Lewis’s view about the Kurds; they questioned the possession of the Kurds for a coherent ethnic community in the terms of descent. These historians supported their argument by pointing to the lack of Kurdish civic culture and Kurdish nationalist literature until the early twentieth century, in addition to the disunity of the Kurdish language in the way they write and speak, and the different physical features among them, which indicates of mixing of Arab and Aryan – Indian races (Elias, 2012).

In 2011, when the anti-regime protests erupted in Syria, the Kurdish areas remained relatively calmer comparing to other regions until October 2011. Most Kurdish parties were reluctant to become actively involved in the Syrian uprising. Jordi Gorgas, author of the book “Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics and Society’s explained “The Kurdish parties were buying time to see whether they could obtain more concessions from the regime” he added “Some are linked to the present political context, while others are more firmly anchored” (Raufoglu, 2012).

However, in the last few months, it has proven that the Kurdish youth do not care much about the discussions held by Kurdish political groups, who are asking the same questions over and over again. Are the Kurds an ethnic minority like any other, or a second ethnic nationality within Syria? Do Kurds have the right to decide their own fate? Are they a key element of the Syrian nation? (Dayyoub, 2012).

Here, we should understand the importance of ethnicity in this context. When Kurds make an assertion such as “Kurds are a second ethnic nationality” it will give other ethnicities every reason to speak in a similar argument too (Dayyoub, 2012).

The “national issue” is central to the Kurdish political parties and large sectors of Kurdish society. Within the context of a yet incomplete “national” normalization, identity politics have remained prevalent in the Kurdish political field, whereas socioeconomic issues have largely been neglected by the Kurdish parties (Raufoglu, 2012).

There are seventeen Kurdish political parties in Syria they are not in agreement with each other. That’s why ten Kurdish political parties formed a coalition in October 2011 called the Kurdish National Council (KNC) which allegedly supported the removal of the regime and promoted forfederalism for Syrian Kurds. One of the main disagreements between the Kurdish parties is the foreign intervention. Some parties like the Kurdish Democratic Union Party PYD which is not part of the (KNC) opposed any foreign intervention, not because the intervention will violate the national sovereignty but rather the foreign intervention in Syria would open the door for Turkish interference, which would take the advantage of the situation to eradicate the PKK militants in Syria (Raufoglu, 2012).

It is worth to mention that Kurdish political parties also have deep disagreements with the Syrian National Council (SNC). While the (KNC) promoted for the idea of self-determination, and thus to repeat the Iraqi scenario in Syria, Burhan Ghalioun in an interview with Kurdish newspaper (Rudaw) said “No, there is no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan. This is duplicating Iraq’s experience. In Syria, there is an area where the majority of the population is Kurdish. In some cities, Kurds constitute the majority but there is no region or area called “Kurdistan.” Syria is Syria.” (Berko, 2012)

In conclusion, the Kurdish nationalistic and identity aspirations have collided with two political oppositions. The first one is the historical antagonism with the Syrian regime and the second one is the recently created the Syrian National Council which considered the Kurdish self-determination demands as “illegitimate”. Cengiz Candar, a political analyst and journalist in Turkey, wrote in the Turkish newspaper Radikal “One can immediately sense that Turkey’s basic approach to the Kurdish problem has been exported to the national pact of the Syrian opposition”. In the same context, Heyam Aqil, the London representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria, which is prominent in the Kurdish National Council, said to the Kurdish Rudaw newspaper that “The Turkish government will never allow Kurds to be recognized in Syria’s new constitution.” (Wilgenburg, 2012).


 Syrian Armenians


Armenians of Syria also identify themselves as ethno-national group. They are micro identity just like the Kurds. Armenia is the land where the Armenian identity has been formed; the land which is known in ancient history by “Nayiry”. Armenians have been expelled en masse from a number of countries at various periods of history; the last deportation occurred during the First World War, many historians considered the mass deportation and the murdering of Armenians on the hands of the Ottomans “ethnic genocide”. The number of victims was estimated million and a half Armenian and more than 100.000 refugees escaped and lived in Syria and Lebanon. Although Armenians have had long history with Syria (Historical Syria) backs to the second century B.C, but most arrived there during the Armenian ethnic cleansing by the Ottomans. However, there is no accurate statistics agreed among the historians about the number of Armenians and their distribution in Syria after the First World War. Most Armenians of Syria lived in Aleppo, while a smaller community exists in the capital Damascus and different cities and villages as in Latakia, Kasab in the northwest that is called by some Arab Syrians the “Armenian village” they are also located in Al-Hasakeh, Al Qamishli, Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor in the east (Poladian, 2007).

The Armenians carried their culture to Syria accompanied with new skills, new organizational patterns, new work habits, different religion, and new attitudes toward education and towards life. All these elements influenced the Syrian society. Cultures may be shaped by the environments in which they have evolved, but they are also capable of reshaping other environments to which they are transferred (Poladian, 2007).

Before exploring the Armenians position during the current crisis in Syria, I will illustrate the Armenian strategies to prevent the dissolution of the Armenian identity in past decades, by strengthening the Armenian existence in the Syrian society by non-profit projects done by Armenian associations.

The Armenian associations played important role in providing essential economic and financial support to the Armenian families. While medical and social services by the state is often limited or insufficient, and while the private sectors are becoming more expensive, the only way to resist these conditions is the charity and non-profit projects. For example, the Armenian Chartable Association “Sourp Oknoutian Khatch” of Aleppo and the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation(HKCC) are supplying reliable support of medical centers and dispensaries and providing non-profit services to thousands of Armenian families (Migliorino, 2008).

Due to the historical tragic experiences, Armenians always felt that their ethno-cultural presence is threatened by “others”. That’s why the Armenian associations played an important role in preserving the Armenian identity. While the Armenian associations relieved pressure on family budgets, they also contributed in limiting the propensity for migration, which might endanger the cohesion of the Armenian community and the Armenian identity as well. The associations also played a direct role as centers for promoting the Armenian culture, for example, the Armenians organize every year what is called “The Armenian cultural week” in the University of Aleppo. They introduce the Armenian culture, music, dance, and poetry, etc (Migliorino, 2008).

The cultural associations like Hamazkayin, the graduate students of Gemaran and Lazar Najarian Schools found social, cultural, and sport commissions to maintain and improve the consistency of the Armenian community and to preserve the Armenian identity.

While some other ethnic minorities are not allowed to teach their languages at schools, teaching Armenian is one of the privileges that the Armenians enjoy. According to Mr. Jirair Reisian (2009), the former director of Al-Salam School, this right was given to the Armenians in Syria because the Armenian Church is a national Church and the prayers are in Armenian language. That is why they have to learn the language of the Church just like the Assyrian Church (Reyisian, 2009).

The Syrian uprising has become an issue of serious concerns for the 80,000 Armenian community of Syria. The Armenian community of Syria treated well and enjoyed safe life during the presidency of the Assads’ (father and son), and in case of power turnover, dangerous consequences cannot be ruled out. Although there is no ethnic issue directed against Armenians nonetheless, the overall instability in the country, naturally affects the Armenian community as well (Abrahamyan, 2012).

Zham daily interviewed Dr. Nora Arissian, member of the Arab Writers’ Union and lecturer at the University of Damascus. Dr. Arisian argued that since the Armenians live in the cities and in the central parts, they are still far from the disturbances. However, the situation has likewise [adversely] affected the economic conditions of the Armenians. Consequently, the unemployment and inflation also impacted the Syrian-Armenian communities (Armenians were never panic-stricken in Syria, 2012).

Many Armenians believe that a regime change may have unpredictable consequences. They point to the fact that the majority of opposition has radical sentiments, and some of them affiliated to al-Qaeda, and most importantly the Syrian National Council is formed in an “enemy” state Turkey (Abrahamyan, 2012). Sarkis Kassargian a Syrian-Armenian journalist from Aleppo explained to me in an online interview that the SNC consists of many opposition figures from all Christian and Muslim communities except Armenians, simply because it is a Council blessed by Ankara (Kassargian, 2012). Some Armenian-based politicians have called upon Armenians of Syria to take a neutral stance. That, however, is not easy for Armenians. “It is natural that the majority of Armenians would support Bashar al-Assad, since they led safe and prosperous lives under his leadership, ethnic rights were fully protected, they have schools, churches, and it is under that regime Armenians see the chance for ethnic survival,” says Arax Pashamyan, senior specialist of Arab studies at National Academy of Sciences (NAA) (Abrahamyan, 2012). However, Kassargian argued that not all Armenians are loyal to the regime. Many Armenians are sympathetic with the uprising and are not afraid from the claims that Islamists will slaughter the Christians when the regime falls (Kassargian, 2012).

On the other hand, there are legitimate concerns that obliged many Armenians to side with the regime. Most Armenians in Syria belong to the middle class and they enjoy relatively comfortable financial conditions comparing to other segments of the Syrian society. At the same time, they are afraid of the dangerous bloody developments which claimed the lives of several Armenians too. But the most important factor is the unknown future: who will succeed the regime? What’s the nature of the coming regime? And many other similar questions (Kassargian, 2012).

 Alawites of Syria


Many opposition forces argue that Alawites are hegemonic class due to their integration in the political, military and economic forces; Alawites represent 13 percent of Syria’s population.

Many political analysts believe that since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, the country’s Alawites have been instrumental in maintaining President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power (Al Goldsmith, 2012). Alawites claim to represent the furthest extension of Twelver Shi’ism. Thus, Alawites are micro identity (sectarianism). Alawites are mostly concentrated in the northwestern region in Latakia and Tartus. Minorities, especially Alawites, saw the ruling Baath party and its pan-Arab ideology as a way to transcend narrow sectarian identities, while state employment and the military offered opportunities for social advancement and an escape from poverty (Rosen, 2011).

This religious minority has provided a ruling leader for four decades. The Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad, in power from 1970 to 2000 and his son Bashar Assad succeeded the presidency until today. Although the Syrian army consists of all sects and religions, and mathematically it is dominated by Sunnis, however, some dissidents argue that Syria’s leading military and security chiefs are allegedly from Alawi origins (Kramer, 1987).

The Alawites have distinctive religious tradition, some of its features were indisputably Shi’ite, and included the veneration of Ali and the twelve Imams. An important visible sign of Alawite esoterism was that prayer was not regarded as a general religious obligation since religious truth was the preserve of the religious sheikhs and those few Alawites initiated by them into the mysteries of the doctrine (Kramer, 1987). Alawites perceive themselves to be more “liberal” and secular than mainstream Muslims. They point to their consumption of alcohol, the freer interaction between men and women and the more western way their women dress and behave (Rosen, 2011). For, as might be expected, some Sunnis excoriated Alawi beliefs and viewed the Alawites as disbelievers (kuffar) and idolaters (mushrikun) (Kramer, 1987).

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, some Alawites moved away from the regime because country’s current regime provides little tangible benefit to most Alawite citizens. For example, Rural Alawites have been suffering as a result of cuts in fuel subsidies and new laws restricting the sale of tobacco which is considered their primary crop for centuries. However, most continue to fight for Assad largely out of fear that the Sunni community will seek revenge not only against the president but also against Alawites as a group. This sense of vulnerability feeding Alawites loyalty is rooted in the sect’s history (Goldsmith, 2012).

In fact, Alawites support the Assad family itself more than they support the regime, readily criticizing state corruption. They are also denied the right to mobilize as Alawites, that’s why they look to the ruling family for leadership. But the regime policies does not support the Alawites interests, it acts primarily to further promote its own interests (Rosen, 2011).

Consequently, a counter argument to the mainstream media an allegation comes out, which is the Syrian ruling class or the regime is not a sectarian Alawite regime, but rather a broad alliance of several forces will be further discussed in the last part (conclusion).



According to Laclau and Mouffe (1985) “hegemony should emerge in a field of crisscrossed by antagonisms and therefore suppose phenomena of equivalence and frontier effects. But, conversely, not every antagonism supposes hegemonic practices”

The Baath regime by practicing monopoly over the coercion apparatuses of the state succeeded in the last four decades in building a strong ruling class, which consists of social, economic, political and even religious forces (Islamic & Christian). The regime quelled any attempt to challenge the hegemony of the ruling class and especially by the Islamic forces. It is therefore not true that the Syrian ruling class is a sectarian Alawite group. Though Alawites make up an important part of the ruling class, but they are not alone. The ruling class has continually strengthened its hegemony by allying itself with the emerging bourgeoisie, especially the Sunni merchants of Aleppo and Damascus and allowed them to do business under the regime’s umbrella. Moreover, there is a marriage between the ruling class and the army officials. The regime established a kind of relations with the army, so that the faith of both sides is strongly related to each other. However, this is only one of the reasons behind the loyalty of the Syrian Arab Army to the government during the current unrest.

The Kurdish participation in the Syrian uprising has many limitations. Several Kurdish leaders said that the federal system would only guarantee citizenship, property rights, Kurdish language education and an equitable budget distribution (Oweis, 2012). These demands of self-determination are in conflict with the main opposition blocks. Theoretically speaking, the Syrian oppositions need to unite themselves in one united block to counter balance the hegemony of the Syrian regime (which is unlikely to happen). Therefore, the Kurdish demands undermining the process of articulatory practice which should organize the opposition forces (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). Such disagreement between the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and other opposition blocks had positive impacts in preserving the hegemony of the regime.

The Kurdish parties are not united too, they don’t have one stated goal, and they are divided even in the sense of how to oppose the regime. Some of them call for neutrality and the formation of a third trend promotes for reform and dialogue, which they see as the only way to resolve the Syrian crisis. That’s why the regime tried to gain the trust of some segments of the Kurdish street by granting them full citizenship. These factors serves the regime attempts to prevail its hegemony.

The Armenians on the other hand, have no ability whatsoever to seek for hegemony. They don’t have official political parties. The Armenians used to have a quota in the People Assembly thanks to the tacit agreement with the National Progressive Front but the new electoral law denied the Armenians that right. The Armenian candidate Sounboul Sounboulian participated as independent and lost the elections with few hundred votes. The Syrian Armenians are about 80 thousand, most of them living in Aleppo. Therefore, some argue that the Armenian community in Syria faces the most critical situation it has ever experienced since the 1915 Genocide (Gevorgyan, 2012), because you can’t rule out the historic experience of the Armenians and the distrust towards “other” antagonisms and especially when the “other” is radical Islamists who have perpetrated one day during the World War One for a mass killing against the Armenians.

In these vulnerable conditions, the Armenian Diaspora Ministry spokesman Tevos Nersisyan told an Armenian newspaper that about a hundred Armenian families migrated to Armenia from Syria in the past several weeks (Gevorgyan, 2012), which explains the growing fear between the Armenian families of Syria, and their desire to seek for safety if further dramatic changes occurred in Syria.

In the same context, the Syrian Armenians case have been brought in the Armenian Parliament few months ago and the Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan assured that the Armenian authorities are ready to take certain measures if the situation in Syria further deteriorates (“The Syrian Armenians,” 2012).

In the end, if the oppositions (subordinate groups) want to overthrow the Syrian regime (hegemonic class) they have to go beyond the sectarian and sectional interests by taking into consideration the interests and concerns of all social and political forces without exceptions and to build up a national popular collective will which represents the majority of the Syrian street. Any unilateral attempts like the Kurdish National Council alone or the Syrian National Council which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood will end up with fragmented political blocks not able to counter-balance the hegemony of the ruling class. On the other hand, for the ruling class (regime) to remain hegemonic, it has to lead a revolution from above which Gramsci called “Passive Revolution”. In passive revolution the state mobilize the people for revolutionary struggle through supporting the demands of the subordinate groups and building an alliance with them, which means to enlarge the capacity of the ruling class. This process needs organic changes by reorganizing the pillars of the hegemonic class (Simon, Hall, 1991).

Reference List


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