Ethnicity and Strategic Repression of Protest during the 2011 Syrian Uprising

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Konstantin Ash (Assistant Professor, University of Central Florida):

Kevin Mazur (Fellow, Crisis Group):

Why do incumbent governments carry out harsher repression in some regions than others? Drawing on research on the coalitional nature of revolutions, we contend that governments geographically vary repression toward protesters to sow division among them and, thereby, break up alliances of disparate groups engaging in contention. We illustrate our argument through an analysis of repression and protest during the 2011 Syrian uprising, using detailed data on the geography, social structure, and state linkages at the town level (n = 5204). In a quantitative analysis, we find protests in majority-Kurdish towns in Syria’s Northeast were significantly less likely to face lethal repression, while nearby Sunni Arab towns faced more lethal repression despite protesting at the same rate. We identify this effect by instrumenting for endogenous selection into protest through exposure to the 2006–2010 Syrian drought. The finding is striking because Sunni Arab tribes from the Northeast had been long time regime clients. Drawing on interviews and the Arabic-language secondary literature, we find evidence that the regime took conciliatory measures toward Kurdish protesters and fostered Kurdish organizational structures friendly to its aims in order to challenge the unity of the anti-government protest movement--effectively overcoming other features of localities that initially structured protest.