By Chad Rickaby, Blog Writer

Subaltern Realism, as proposed by Mohammad Ayoob, is an interesting re-conceptualization of international relations which pushes the margins of society to centre stage. When applied to the situation in Syria, the theory encourages us to consider the experience of the subaltern (un-empowered people on the margins of post-colonial societies) in the context of state-building. As we will see, Subaltern Realism provides an explanation for Syria’s recent trend of political divisiveness, which progressed quickly into anarchy. Syria’s longstanding inability to develop a unified national identity (which included its subaltern groups) created opportunities for groups like ISIS to garner support and control of the volatile area.

The process of state-building is difficult to begin with and is certainly not made any easier by interference from outside actors. This has been the case with Syria, which spent several formative decades in the early twentieth century under French control. As Syria’s colonizers, the French arbitrarily divided and re-divided the territory, preventing the emergence of a unified governing elite. Even as Syria’s eventual independence was negotiated in the 1940s, France did little to support Syrian officials in unifying the country. According to Fildis, “a fundamental social and political reconstruction that might, in the longer term, have generated a democratic and stable society was not part of the French plan.”

These arbitrary societal divisions persisted in Syria’s independence. Unsurprisingly, a unified independent state did not emerge in a region lacking qualified governors, and without a unitary tradition. The implications of Syria’s former political structure continue to be significant for its leadership today.

In postcolonial theory, the term “subaltern” refers to the lower-class populations on the margins of a society, and denotes a lack of agency. Bashar al-Assad, who continues to lead to Syrian government, ostensibly represents the majority and subaltern minorities. However, Assad’s rise to power was far from legitimate, and his rule was certainly not representative. Inheriting power from his deceased father in 2000, he failed to uphold his promises to amass legitimacy and support. Within a couple of years Assad had resorted to extreme oppression of minority and fringe groups in order to maintain control of the country. Assad also continues to suppress the three-quarter Sunni Muslim population, which explains why so many discontented Sunnis have resorted to extremism, and now constitute the core of ISIS.

Given the incredibly unstable ethno-political makeup of the Syrian state and the blatantly unequal treatment of the different ethnicities, it comes as no surprise using Ayoob’s theory of Subaltern Realism that the region has been so unstable and devolved into the anarchy we are seeing today.