It is becoming particularly important to understand the culture of the Syrian people, as dangers are currently displacing millions of citizens and forcing their migration to other countries. Before it became globally recognised as a war-torn country, Syria had a historical tradition of tolerance and pluralism. While recent conflict has stressed sectarian tensions, most Syrians remain very tolerant and respectful of both religious and ethnic diversity. Indeed, in light of recent fighting, many particularly oppose the aggravation of such divides. Syrians are often familiar with a diversity of cultural lifestyles; the internet, media and pop culture have exposed people (especially the university populations) to the liberal values and behaviours of the West. It is common to see both traditional Syrian attire and modern European fashions in city streets.
Nevertheless, broadly speaking, the culture is conservative and exhibits great respect for traditions. Islam is the majority faith and many of the current traditions and customs observed by society are grounded in Islamic values. People often resist changes or diversions from these social conventions (particularly the older generations) and so modest behaviour is the norm. The population is also generally more comfortable with the presence and stability of a defined authority. This has translated into a broad acceptance of power hierarchies within society. The attitude is changing significantly as the political situation has deteriorated and conflict has escalated into civil war. However, Syrians are ordinarily very peaceful people, preferring to cooperate with established authorities rather than point out inequality in society.
The rural-urban distinction has become quite prominent over the last 25 years as the government directed most of its resources to the cities. People from regional areas usually have lower levels of education and are more collectivistic in their community organisation. Due to economic hardship, hundreds of thousands were forced to migrate to urban areas in the last ten years before the uprising. These metropolitan areas further reflect the cultural and historical diversity of Syria. For example, Damascus (the capital city) is known as the oldest continually inhabited city in the word. Ancient architecture usually characterises the inner city before sprawling into modern suburbs and apartment buildings. Roughly 60% of the population lived in urban areas before fighting caused displacement.
While 90% of Syrians identify as Arab, the country also contains much ethnic diversity. Many Iraqis and Palestinians have immigrated and there are large ethnic minorities including Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Circassians, Mandeans and Turkomen. The largest are the Kurds of which there are roughly 2.5 million.
Syrian society is quite hierarchical and people tend to adhere to the stratifications between social statuses. A person’s wealth, education and profession are the biggest class indicators. Trade professions or jobs that require physical labour are viewed as low-status positions. More deference is shown to those people who have received university degrees and work in professions that require an advanced education. One’s age also determines the grading of respect in social interactions. It is expected that in social situations elders are highly regarded and given precedence over others who are present. For example, one would not disagree with the opinion of an elder unless able to express their point in a very respectful manner.
Syria is a collectivist society whereby strong loyalty is shown to familial, ethnic and social groups. People tend to structure their lives around the immediate social relationships important to them. Society is not tightly organised and schedules are not closely followed. Instead, daily activity is approached at a relaxed pace and more time is devoted to personal interactions. Syrians living outside the country often miss this chaotic freedom of their culture. In Syria, they often know their community intimately and visit their friends and family every day. The people-focused lifestyle gives individuals a sense of belonging and support. Syrians always endeavour to help their friends. In return for their efforts, they trust that the person will reciprocate the favour in the future when they request it.
While a wide nexus of relationships means Syrians are able to rely on many relatives and friends, it also affords very little privacy. A whole community can quickly find out about people’s private matters if they discuss them with someone outside their family. Therefore, much personal information is generally kept enclosed to family knowledge.
Norms about behaviour are substantially influenced by a cultural perception of honour. Conservative conduct is the norm and people generally act in accordance to social expectations as they don’t want to stand out and/or risk doing something that is considered to be shameful. People have a strong awareness of personal integrity, which engenders Syrians with an incredible generosity. Pride and status is found in being helpful, hospitable and charitable to others. In this sense, the warmth of Syrians is quickly noticeable.
However, if one commits an error or failure, perceptions of dishonour and the social ostracising that can follow is known to have very real effects on people’s future opportunities and circumstances. One’s origins (i.e. family, city or ethnicity) are often implicated as the cause and their shame is shared by their family name. In this way, there is a cultural pressure for individuals to protect their personal reputation and the image of those around them. To prevent such indignity in Syria, criticism is rarely given directly and praise is often generously offered.
With the protection of their family honour in mind, instead of conceding that they are in difficult circumstances, Syrians may try to convince themselves that they don’t have an issue. People often feel they have to conceal their personal life and struggles in public despite feeling sad, weak or vulnerable. Syrians are often especially reluctant to accept money as assistance, even in desperate situations. In regards to this, it is important to note that many Syrians who are currently dependent on aid from others (be it international aid, refugee resettlement, assistance from friends) find the situation to be very undignified and resent the loss of agency. This feeling of dishonour has been especially noticed among men who can no longer fulfil their social role as patriarch and family provider.
The Conflict Situation
It should be noted that though the concepts described are general characteristics of Syrian culture, lifestyles in Syria have been significantly disrupted since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Degrees of obstruction may differ; imminent danger varies significantly between regions and cities depending on the restrictions of the regime or controlling insurgent body. Most Syrians are now primarily focused on safety and survival as the people are confronted with the atrocities of the conflict.
While the conflict in Syria is complex, having a rudimentary understanding of the key actors and circumstances surrounding it helps build deeper empathy with the Syrian experience. Syrians often notice and appreciate it when people are somewhat informed. However, it is best not to ask them to further explain the situation to you as they may wish not to recall or think about the conflict.
The Civil War
Syria is ruled by a one-party government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad regime has been widely regarded as authoritarian, repressive and corrupt. During the Arab Spring in 2011, national uprising began as Syrian citizens protested against alleged human rights violations committed by the government. The protestors called for democratic reforms, the lifting of Emergency Law in place since 1963, the release of political prisoners and multiparty elections. Some Syrians began appealing for the end of the rule of President Assad. Initial protests were met with harsh government retaliation, resulting in over a 1,000 deaths and 10,000 arrests. That summer the Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed to fight for Syria’s liberation from the Assad regime in a more militant way. The government has fought against rebel opposition with force, often showing blatant disregard for civilian life. Islamist extremists have also taken advantage of the instability and joined in the conflict, fighting both the government and the FSA at different times. Many international actors have involved themselves by supporting or supplying Assad, rebel fighters and/or the extremists with resources to fight against the opposition they see as a threat to their own interests. This has significantly contributed to the complexity and escalation of the conflict.
The Syrian people are of different minds about the political situation. All will agree that the fighting has devastated Syria and come at an unacceptable cost to ordinary people. Beyond that, there are three general views – pro-Assad, anti-Assad, and ambivalent. Pro-Assad Syrians generally support Assad either out of conviction, shared identity (e.g. Alawite1), or the fear that voicing negative opinions of the government will endanger their family members remaining in Syria. The anti-Assad group includes those who believe in political freedoms, democratic rights and/or abhor the brutality of the regime. Meanwhile, the ‘ambivalent’ group are are generally Syrians who were anti-Assad in the past, but are now uncertain about the regime because of the rise of Islamist extremism and the destruction of Syria. As Assad’s forces pose one of the strongest threats to ISIS, many Syrians feel conflicted as they want ISIS defeated but also wish Assad was not in power. These Syrians often justify their view with the observation that while political freedom under Assad’s dictatorship was bad, things are now much worse.
The political views of Syrians may spark intense discussion and friction among some. Others may have been conditioned by the crisis to keep their political views private. Regardless, respect people’s views and do not probe or share them with others. Consider that people’s political views, even voiced in another country, can impact on any family they have remaining in Syria.
1See ‘The Alawites’ under Religion.