Panel 5E

At the Edge of What? Borders, Territory, and Mobility in the Levant

11.30 – 13.30
Chair: John Chalcraft, London School of Economics & Political Science

“The Only Place We Knew in the World”: Trajectories of Displacement and Translocality in the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Ann-Christin Wagner, University of Edinburgh

In the Middle East, movement in times of crisis is not arbitrary, but often follows trajectories already familiar to those displaced by conflict. Consequently, in the context of the Syrian civil war, placing displacement in conversation with long-standing translocal mobility schemes in the Levant and beyond is key to tracing how circular, menial migration (what Chalcraft calls “prolonged unsettlement”) becomes a distinct form of “forced settlement”, turning labour migrants into refugees.  The proposed paper is based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork with rural Syrian refugees in Mafraq, a border town in northern Jordan. This case study allows to complicate rural-urban dichotomies, viewing rural areas as interconnected, while serving to illustrate that proximity to state borders is not a pre-condition for the emergence of “everyday translocality”. Despite considerable distance separating the Jordanian border from their regions of origin in the north of Syria, as well as sizeable cultural and linguistic differences, my informants were able to exploit popular migration trajectories and draw on family, professional and ethnic networks to find housing and work in the Jordanian city of Mafraq. Moreover, translocal ties continue to shape settlement patterns and refugee economies long after arrival, fostering remittance chains and re-circulating of humanitarian goods.  Importantly, incorporating translocal histories into the study of ongoing processes of displacement reveals the troubling interplay of dispossession with modern state-building efforts, including large-scale agricultural reform, and, more recently, neoliberal projects in the Levant.

Border, Territory and Statehood: The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon and Jordan

Filippo Dionigi, London School of Economics & Political Science

Since the onset of the conflict began in 2011, Syrian borders have shown unique porosity. While militants have poured into Syria to take part in the conflict, almost five million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries. The Syrian refugee emergency questions the nature of the borders of the state in the Levant. In order to shed light on this issue, this study analyses the forced migration of Syrians to Lebanon and Jordan with reference to their initial “open door” policy and its subsequent reversal. Relying on interviews with policymakers and humanitarian actors in these host states, the paper shows that the national territorial character of the borders between these states is elusive. Dynamics such as the struggle for influence in Syria, kinship, religion, and economic relations have a prominent transborder character, which has prevailed over the national territorial nature of Jordan’s and Lebanon’s frontiers with Syria. Yet, this does not mean that Syrian refugees have not been confronted with the presence of borders. In fact, the study illustrates that the unmaking of territorial borders has led to the demarcation of spatial borders defined by social, political, and economic status rather than national identity.

You never know who is in bed with whom”:  ‘Conspiracy Theory’ and Border-Making at the Margins of the Syrian Uprising

Philip Proudfoot, CBRL – British Institute in Amman

This paper examines how a small group of Syrian migrant labourers in Beirut came to circulate, from the edges of the uprising, a range of ‘conspiracy theories’ that purported to make sense of what might otherwise appear a chaotic and persistently tragic series of events. This analysis is informed by over three years’ ethnographic research amongst workers who, during the initial phases of the uprising, divided their time between migrant labour in Lebanon and revolutionary labour — military or otherwise — in Syria. I show how the arguments men made during after dinner conversations fundamentally retained and reinforced core political identities that were so strongly carved out during 2011’s populist rupture: ‘al-sha?b’ [the people] and ‘al-niz?a?m’ [the regime].  Elsewhere, analytic engagement with conspiracy theory has tended to fall into two camps. On the one hand, epistemological analysis of the argument form itself has drawn attention to conspiracy theory’s supposed traps of paranoia and its reliance on ‘confirmation bias.’ On the other hand, much anthropological and sociological analysis has framed conspiracies as really just another way of understanding the world. But by instead describing here the cultural, spatial and social context in which conspiracy-making occurs, I will show how these popular political theories worked to constitute and extend political borders, identities and territories from the Syrian conflict into workers’ daily lives in Lebanon.

Opposition Governance and the Place of Borders in the Syrian Conflict

Ali Nehme Hamdan, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Political violence in Syria has persisted now for six years. Critical to understanding why, but also how this conflict has endured for so long is the role of cross-border or transnational processes. Although the dangers of foreign fighters and the burdens of hosting refugees are considerable, these topics hardly exhaust the transnational processes shaping Syria’s conflict. Indeed, they reduce borders to a heuristic for locating threats to the region’s order of territorial states. Many Syrians displaced by the conflict have managed to support the opposition movement – openly, regularly and at a distance. How, then, do Syrians in exile reach across borders without threatening host-state sovereignty? In this paper, I examine the place of borders in the geography of Syria’s opposition movement, focusing on practices of mobility that stabilize governance in the “liberated territories.” I argue that Syria’s interior and exterior are in fact tightly interwoven in spite of (and partly thanks to) state borders. I do so by describing how a distinctive constellation of actors and circulations ties the liberated territories into opposition hubs in Turkey and Jordan, in the face of regime violence and despite the ambiguities of exile. This project is informed by twenty-six months of fieldwork and builds upon scholarship on political mobilization at a distance and border studies. It hopes to clarify not whether, but where and how borders matter to civil war and political violence in Syria.