Dissertation Title: Nation, Ethnicity and Umma: Identity After the State's Retreat in Syria
Committee: Ian Lustick (chair), Jessica Stanton, Rudra Sil
While much of the civil war literature considers the impact religious or ethnic identities have on the character or duration of conflict, scholars have failed to address why different identities become salient in territories outside the state’s control. Using subnational case studies from the Syrian conflict, I claim that we must consider the interests and character of those actors who strive to attain authority and build governing institutions in the absence of the state. I find that civilian actors are more likely to promote local identities, such as clan, tribal, or city-based identities. Armed groups, however, are more likely to choose more abstract or space-based identities, such as ethnic or national identities. The three cases vary in terms of the involvement of civilian and armed actors in institution building. The first case study analyzes an area where civilians played the primary role as institution builders, the second case study describes two areas in which armed groups served as the primary institution builders, and the third case covers an area in which civilian and armed actors controlled different aspects of public life. External actors can also play a supporting role in the development of institutions by local actors or a negative role by destroying groups’ capacity for institution building. The project leverages the availability of materials created by local authorities and disseminated over social media to evaluate identity promotion in dangerous areas. It also uses photos and videos of protests to evaluate the effectiveness of local identity promotion efforts in shifting the salience of civilians’ identities. This work joins an ongoing conversation on the character and effects of rebel governance as well as debates on the relationship between local dynamics and national/international cleavages in times of civil conflict. It also adds to a growing literature on Syria by illustrating the variation of local institution building and identity promotion and by problematizing the emergence of particular cleavages.