Peter C. Bakke, US Army, and Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Tech
We present a dramatistic analysis of the discourse of Syrian President Assad and his opposition in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Comparing terministic screens and world views expressed in the discourses, we find that the Assad regime believes it is not responsible for the current conflict, and is justified in the use of violence against rebel groups. Rebel groups overtly reject Western values and seek to depict their current and planned violence as morally justified.
The views represented in this article are those of the authors and are not intended to officially or unofficially represent the position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Government.
We originally undertook this project in the fall of 2013 – a time when the Assad Regime seemed to be gaining ground in the Syrian Civil War and rebel groups appeared to be fractured. Tension between the Syrian regime and the West was particularly high due to rebel allegations that the Syrian military was employing chemical weapons. ISIL (then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) was still jockeying for dominance with the Nusrah Front (al-Qaeda in Syria) within the trans-national Al-Qaeda power structure, and the refugee crisis was not nearly as intense as in late 2015. Throughout 2013, the Assad regime appeared to make a coordinated effort to portray itself as an ally in "Global War on Terror." When Assad appeared on Fox News to make such a case, we wondered whether he was trying to sell the U.S. public a "bill of goods." As Kenneth Burke might say, we wondered what kind of "medicine" the "medicine man" was prescribing. To gain a better perspective of the regime's position, we began examining the discourse of the disparate rebel groups fighting against Assad's forces to see if it lent any validity to his message. Coincidentally, many of the rebel groups we examined began collapsing under the umbrella of the "Islamic Front." In November of 2013, the "Islamic Front" issued a statement calling for the continuation of Jihad against the regime and the establishment of a Salafist Sunni Islamic state in Syria. Given this development, we felt that a two-sided analysis of the conflict's discourse would help uncover the motives of each side. We later added some examples of ISIL activities to demonstrate how ignoring rhetorical justifications for inhumane behavior (on both sides) can have serious implications.
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The Islamic State, coined "ISIS" or "ISIL" by the U.S. news media, has recently garnered the attention of the U.S. and Western publics. Islamic State brutality against Yazidi Christians in the north of Iraq, seizure of crucial Iraqi infrastructure, and barbaric beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff have resulted in the Obama administration's call for an international coalition to defeat the organization in Iraq and Syria. Coalition efforts have already required U.S. military commitment to meet the President's stated goal of "degrading and destroying" the Islamic State, and thwarting their objective of establishing an international caliphate. However, in order to make a new war palatable, as well as defend previous policy decisions, the Islamic State seems to be portrayed as a new and emerging threat, one differentiated from former adversaries who "pulled" us into previous conflicts. Thus, dominant administration and media narratives seem to push the idea that "ISIS" materialized from the ether to become a threat "even more extreme than Al-Qaeda" ("David Gregory"). U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, for instance, described the organization as "beyond anything we've seen," and Attorney General Eric Holder stated that ISIS's plans were " 'more frightening than anything I think I've seen as attorney general. . . . It's something that gives us really extreme, extreme concern….'" (Ritger, "Chuck Hagel"; Holder qtd. in Francis, "Why the Long Arm"). Suddenly, it seems the U.S. is faced with an enemy whose brutality tames our perception of those who attacked the U.S. in 2001 and may force our collaboration with the "blood soaked" regime of Bashar al-Assad. In the words of an Al-Qaeda aligned Syrian opposition fighter, "Your news makes it seem like [ISIL] appeared out of nowhere… [slamming his hand on the dashboard]. You want to talk about [ISIL]? Ask a Syrian!" (Day, "Syrian Fighter").
Presidential candidates and pundits now debate whether we should have armed earlier "a more moderate Syrian opposition" and whether collaboration with Assad is acceptable (Goldberg, "Hillary Clinton"). Such characterizations and suggestions, however, require a closer look at the recent history and discourse of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Such analysis would suggest that we have seen "ISIS" on the battlefield before (in Iraq 2003-2010), that "ISIS" and Al-Qaeda are the same movement, and that "ISIS"-like jihadist discourse permeates the influential branches of the very Syrian opposition the U.S. sought to aid in its rebellion against the Assad Regime (MacFarQuhar and Sadd, "As Syrian War Drags On").
Examining the discourse of the Syrian conflict is vitally important because the parties in conflict represent larger warring factions throughout the Middle East. Such sectarian conflict defies U.S. conceptions of allies and adversaries, because some of each may fall on either side of the sectarian divide, and much of the animus traces its roots back to the beginnings of Islam. Thus, it becomes important to understand how the conflict discourse of individual groups is indicative of motivation and actions that can potentially impact the security of American citizens and regional stability. An understanding of how extremism and violence manifest on both sides of the regional conflict can only encourage a more effective foreign policy.
Flowing out of dramatism is the idea that people universally use symbols to explain their actions in similar ways. In "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle," for instance, Kenneth Burke demonstrated how application of a dramatistic perspective allowed him to discover "what kind of 'medicine' this medicine-man [Hitler] has concocted, that we may know… exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America" (Burke, "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" 191). Burke's implication is clear: we should examine the speech-acts of those outside of the "American" world view, as well as critically compare such content with that of our own domestic political discourse. Other scholars since Burke have used dramatism and the pentad as starting points for the examination of non-U.S. and non-Western discourse. For example, Adriana Angel and Benjamin Bates examined Columbian radio conversations, Xing Lu examined the rhetoric of Chinese nationalism, Pedro Patron-Galindo examined the political marketing strategies of Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, and Colleen E. Kelley wrote on the rhetoric of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Angel and Bates; Lu; Patron-Galindo; Kelley). In general, the operating assumption of such studies is that Burkean dramatism is cross-culturally applicable, but the essays stop short of explaining why this is so or how one might efficaciously apply dramatistic principles most fruitfully in a cross-cultural context. In this paper, we demonstrate how this process, combined with an in-depth knowledge of recurrent cultural narratives flowing within a foreign discourse, can establish a framework that allows the dramatistic pentad to function as an effective cross-cultural analytical tool. Further, this dramatistic analysis of foreign discourse allows for an effective critical comparison between both the motives of a speaker with a foreign world-view and his or her representation in U.S. political discourse.
The nascent means for such a comparison (situational contextualization, explanation of cultural metaphor, application of the pentad, comparison with domestic discourse) are found in Burke's analysis of Mein Kampf, which includes all of these elements without specifically including them in the framework of dramatism. Burke contextualizes Hitler's anti-Semitic writing, for instance, by providing rich descriptions of the political conditions of Pre-World War I Vienna and Post-World War I Munich. Further, he describes the Christian and German mythology that functioned as a common language between Hitler and his potential base of supporters. This added knowledge allows his explanation of Hitler's foreign world-view to function cross-culturally. How else might one of Burke's readers of the 1930s (English speakers) be able to understand the particularly German flavor of Hitler's strongly anti-Semitic persuasive campaign? We believe that the application of dramatistic principles to the discourse of those with non-U.S. world-views is as relevant today as it was when Burke wrote of Hitler. As a contemporary extension to Burke's ideas, we examine the rhetoric of the still evolving sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq, and then discuss how the reflection of such discourse in domestic politics holds serious implications for U.S. foreign policy. We accomplish this in five stages: first, we contextualize the nature of the conflict in Syria; second, we explore the different cultural narratives of President Assad and the Islamic Front; third, using a dramatistic analysis we analyze the internationally aimed discourse of Assad and the Islamic Front; fourth, we specifically look at the metaphor underpinning Assad's outreach to the United States; finally, we conclude with an exploration of Syrian clashing world views and implication for dramatism and U.S. policy in the region.
Contextualization: The Nature of the Syrian Conflict
The Syrian conflict, much as the Syrian population at large, comprises numerous groups and alliances. A 74% majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims of Arab descent. A large portion of the Sunni-Arab population lives in rural areas throughout the country. The minority Syrian population consists of 12% Alawite-sect Shia Muslims (to which the Assad family and ruling class belong), with the remaining 14% of the population consisting of Christians, Jews, Kurds, and Druze ("Syria—People and Society"). For the purpose of discussion, we characterize the conflict within Syrian borders as one between the Sunni majority and ruling Alawite-Shia minority. However, sectarian and ethnic alliances within Syria spill well outside its borders. For example, Alawites maintain strong ties with their Shia neighbors in Iran and Lebanon, as well as certain militant/terrorist groups such as Hezbollah; the Sunni majority finds kinship among other Sunni-Arab dominated nations such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as support from transnational jihadist groups (Al Qaeda, for example) throughout the Middle East (Fassihi, Solomon, and Dagher, "Iranians Dial up Presence in Syria"). Therefore, the Alawite-Shia versus Sunni conflict within Syria can be viewed as part of a larger pan-Islamic sectarian struggle with implications for all nations involved. Further, undertones of secularism versus Islamism color the brutality inflicted by both parties.
Aron Lund provides insight into the ethno-religious sectarian nature of the conflict, writing, "revolutionary demands originally focused on democracy and economic reform but the new opposition movement did not arise in a social vacuum." In socio-economic terms, he describes the uprising as an "ideologically motivated uprising of the Sunni working class against the Alawite military ruling elite" (Lund, 8). As the conflict entered its second year in 2012, increasing numbers of foreign fighters (Salafi-Sunnis) joined the fray ("Syria Profile"). Although Sunni Syrians comprised the bulk of the opposition, further backing arrived from in the form of foreign ideologues and Islamic extremists—namely al-Qaeda (AQ). In May of 2013, analysts from the Rand Office for External Affairs provided testimony for the House Homeland Security Committee designating Jabhat-al-Nusrah as the Syrian arm of AQ. Analyst Seth Jones testified that "Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN) grew out of AQ in Iraq (AQI)." After a 2013 split with AQI, JN pledged allegiance directly to AQ senior leadership in Pakistan. The remainder of AQI maintained allegiance to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria) or "ISIL / ISIS." The point here is not to trace the linage and development of groups making headlines in the U.S.; rather, we wish to demonstrate a common sectarian interest between groups labeled "moderate" and those implementing the most perverse interpretation of Sunni Islam imaginable. When interacting with each other, JN and ISIS might be enemies. However, in the context of the sectarian war, they should be considered estranged brothers.
Burke demonstrated how one ideologue (Hitler) used language to set the German people on a path to destruction. Because conflict had yet to unfold, he needed to analyze only one voice, Hitler's. The Syrian situation differs in that it has evolved into a conflict with many parties. As such, we proceed by choosing an Alawite-Shia voice and a Sunni voice we feel most representative, the "embodiment," of each side. The ruling Alawites have been led and represented by the Assad family since the 1970's. Hafez al-Assad (now deceased), and his son Bashar have represented the Alawite-Shia grip on Syrian power for nearly 40 years. Likewise, they serve as a lightning rod for the animosity of a frustrated Arab-Sunni population. Thus, Bashar al-Assad is our chosen voice for the Alawite-Shia faction.
In November 2013, The Syrian Islamic Front, elements of the Free Syrian Army, and Islamist elements formerly operating under Supreme Military Command united under the banner of one group – the Islamic Front. ISIS and JN have formerly allied with the Islamic Front. Despite current estrangement between the groups, the Islamic Front provides the voice for the Sunni-Arab faction of the conflict. We selected the Islamic Front for two reasons: (1) it is directly opposed to Assad and (2) U.S. politicians indirectly cite them as "moderate" due to their estrangement from "ISIS."
Clashing Cultural Narratives
Having established some situational context, we now turn to the undercurrents of Syrian dialogue. In 2012, the Director of National Intelligence's Open Source Center (OSC) published Master Narratives Country Report: Syria. The report is intended to facilitate an understanding of the language used by various groups within Syria. The report details eight master narratives and subordinate themes, which interact or stand-alone, to shape each groups understanding of events. We use this document as our initial touchstone for understanding Syrian cultural narratives. Similar to how Burke expounded on Hitler's perversion of religion, we seek to use Syrian cultural narratives as an example of the "baseline" from which each side deviates. These "master narratives" are the threads with which Syrians tell stories and sometimes act as a lens through which they interpret events. Much as the German of the 1930's found familiarity in the liturgical rhythm of Nazi repetition, the Sunni-Arab Syrian might find familiarity in reference to the "Greater Levant." Much as the German blamed his economic problems on the tangible Jew, the Sunni-Arab narrative might provide a pre-ordained scapegoat in the Alawite.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attempts to convey his popularity. Courtesy of NPR.org.
Assad's explanation of current events, contained in his September 2013 news media interview with Dennis Kucinich and Greg Palkot, displays three prominent narratives common among the groups that he represents (Al-Assad). The included narratives are (1) Alawite Survival, (2) Conspiracies All Around, and (3) Greater Syria (United States, "Open Source Center" Executive Summary). According to the OSC, the "Alawite Survival" narrative centers around the Alawite rise from Sunni oppression by virtue of their "superior achievements." This narrative maintains that the Alawites hold a rightful place in the halls of leadership but always remain threatened by "fanatical Sunni's who wish to destroy them" (United States, "Open Source Center" 33). The core themes of "Alawite Survival" are the concepts of encirclement, existential fear, and survival. Assad addresses the themes of existential fear and encirclement through his characterization of the conflict. His description of foreign backed terrorists working in conjunction with fanatical jihadists toward an ideologically closed society invokes the possibility of Alawite destruction. A "new kind of war" also elicits the fear of the unknown, in which alliances among individuals and nations threaten a small core of Syrians dedicated to preservation of the state.
The "Conspiracy" narrative, as expressed by Assad, is particularly salient when used in conjunction with "Alawite Survival." The narrative is based upon Syria's turbulent history and espouses a worldview where "secretive cabals inside the country, scheming Westerners and envious Arab neighbors conspire against the people" (United States, "Open Source Center" 13). For his part, Assad alleges not only a terrorist threat but also raises the specter of faceless enemies who agitate the rebellion from afar. He names al-Qaeda among the conspirators but also accuses other Western and Arab nations of fomenting unrest.
Here we can establish a relationship between Assad's heavy use of scenic descriptions or grounded terminology (explained in the next section) and the wide array of Alawite cultural narratives that support them. Hostile Sunni's, terrorists, and foreign-led cabals create an environment where the secularist Alawites' struggle to survive. Such survival depends on Alawite ability to combat forces beyond their control. Thus, the Alawites are not responsible for the conflict. This demonstrates consistency between contemporary scene driven explanations and environmentally dominated Alawite cultural narratives. It also suggests that Assad's characterization of conflict is an attempt to sway listeners toward his real worldview.
Assad's self-described end-state for the conflict embraces the "Greater Syria" narrative. This narrative stems from the belief that Syria is the cradle of civilization. After having been fractured by the West, Syrians must seek to "restore their pride by reinstating Syria as a homeland for all creeds and the vanguard of the Arab World" (United States, "Open Source Center" 20). The core themes of this narrative are exceptionalism, restoration, and tolerance. Therefore, when Assad speaks of Syria in the interview as a "melting pot" and accuses his opposition of trying to create a closed and radicalized society, he is calling upon Syrian exceptionalism and accusing his enemies of violating the very essence of being Syrian.
The "Greater Syria" narrative is tied to Assad's explanation of specific brutal acts in which he highlights purpose. That is, when he is willing to assume responsibility for an act within the conflict, he invokes the only narrative able to vindicate such behavior. It is impossible to know for sure if a purpose-driven explanation for brutality is linked with a genuine worldview regarding Syrian greatness, or whether the weaving of this narrative into an explanation is a rationalization. However, it does provide perspective regarding the logic he uses to excuse his actions.
As with the Assad Regime, the rhetoric of the Sunni opposition has deep roots within sectarian narrative ("The Islamic Front's Founding Declaration"). The central narratives of the Sunni majority within Syria are that of the "Alawite infidel" and "Greater Syria". The "Alawite infidel" is unique to the rural Sunni population and reflects the group's resentment toward minority rule. The narrative explains that Alawites, often referred to using derogatory slurs, connived their way to power during the period of French occupation of Syria. Following the French exit in the 1920's, the Alawites maintained their power through brutal oppression of the innocent. The narrative calls for vengeance against the ruling regime and by "pushing the Alawites and their supporters into their graves." Core themes include (1) intolerance, (2) revenge, and (3) righteous cause (United States, "Open Source Center" 5).
Note the group's objectives and goals as stated in their foundational charter: "To topple the existing regime in its entirety, with all its obscure remnants, to wipe them out of Syrian existence completely, and to defend the underdogs, their honor and wealth. Toppling the regime means detaching and terminating all its judicial, legislative, and executive authorities along with its army and its security institutions, in addition to prosecuting those who are involved in bloodshed along with their supporters.…" ("Islamic Front- Founding Declaration," 7th Clause, 1). This goal contains many of the"Alawite infidel" components, and one can see the narrative origin of such language seeking the destruction of the regime. As included in the narrative, the Islamic Front's goal promises that vengeance will be extended toward Alawite supporters. Additional language within the document includes historically based slurs against ethnic Alawites, as well as the promise of protecting the rights of groups unjustly persecuted by the regime.
The language of the document support use of a purpose-driven explanation of future acts – in this case, the creation of an Islamic state and massacre of enemies. Embracing "Greater Syria" in terms of an Islamic State encompassing the whole Levant (including Iraq and Jordan) justifies brutality en route. The Islamic Front wishes to characterize the conflict as the ultimate struggle to achieve their conception of a utopian state. This ideology as identical to that of the Islamic State (ISIS). Because the Levant exists within cultural narratives, certain aspects do not require further explanation for regional audiences. Further, achievement of an Islamic State controlling the Levant excuses the killing of enemies. There is no need to deflect responsibility. In fact, regional Sunni narratives already support a negative view of the Alawite. Thus, killing them requires less justification that that already provided in the "Greater Syria" purpose-driven explanation of intent. Again, we can see worldviews in cultural narratives and consistency in how worldviews manifest in persuasive attempts through a dramatistic lens.
Important to our purpose here, both Assad and the opposition seem to understand the importance of influencing multiple audiences. Both sides struggle for popular support among the Syrian people, their sectarian allies, and the international community. Leadership of both sides routinely engage in dialogue and interviews, and also maintains websites stating their objectives. To better understand the rich rhetorical nuances of the various discourses operating in this civil war, we further examine the content of the September 2013 news media interview between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Dennis Kucinich and Greg Palkot, as well as the foundational video-statement produced and published by the Islamic Front, the most powerful opposition group as of this writing. Thus, we hope to gain an appreciation of the worldview and motivations of each by analyzing specifically the dramatistic elements presented in their dialogue as well as draw comparisons between their content and ethnic narratives.
Assad and the Opposition: A Contrast in Drama
Burke provides insight into analyzing texts to find the implied worldview of their authors. One way involves looking for what he called terministic screens: "even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology, it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality" (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 45). Taking this into consideration, we can look for how the Islamic Front and Assad's choice of words and phrases act to orient listeners' attention toward a particular view of reality. For Burke, "there are two kinds of terms: terms that put things together, and terms that take things apart" (Language as Symbolic Action 49). This process acts to create either or both continuity and discontinuity; we can see how discourse creates moments for composition as well as division. Viewed dramatistically, we can see that "whatever terms we use … constitute a … kind of screen…." This screen "directs" our "attention to one field rather than another. Within that field there can be different screens, each" acting to focus our attention on various elements within a given situation: "All terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices between the principle of continuity and the principle of discontinuity" (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 50).
In our present case, we can look specifically at the discourses of the opposition and of Assad to see how their choice of terms opens up possibilities for unity or division with each other and with the international community. Are there true moments for consubstantial co-existence? Or instead, do the discourses operate to shut out such consubstantial moments by stressing division? On this point Lawrence Prelli and Terri S. Winters write, the "notion of terministic screens enables us to scrutinize how efforts to come to terms with problematic situations often involve similarities and differences about what meanings to reveal and conceal, disclose and foreclose. At stake in efforts to 'screen' meanings terminologically is the adequacy of underlying perspectives in depicting a situation's reality" (Lawrence and Winters, 226).
Screens point us toward certain elements of what Burke described as a dramatistic pentad—agent, act, scene, agency, purpose—and these different elements have differing degrees of influence upon ourselves and others. How we describe these elements provides insight into how we view the workings of the world. Andrew King describes the utility of Burke's work in this area as a "method of discovering why people do what they do." He writes further, "the dramatic frame features a battle over meanings, perspectives and values" (King, 168-9). In order to uncover the speaker's motivation and perspective, Burke suggested that each of the pentadic elements represents a way of explaining or rationalizing a specific event. Thus, when examining a speaker's explanation of an action, one examines the degree to which he or she juxtaposes other pentadic element against the action – the elemental ratio. The ratio itself represents the interpretation a speaker offers to his or her audience. For example, if a speaker explains an act in terms of the environment in which it occurs (scene-act ratio), he or she might seek to frame the event as inevitable – or to deflect responsibility (Burke, A Grammar of Motives; King). Thus, the elemental ratios used by Assad and his opposition should provide some clue as to how they view their role in the conflict, or at least how they wish us to perceive it.
By discovering the elements of the terministic screens operating, we shed insight into the motives, or underlying worldviews, operating in the discourses of both the Assad regime and the opposition. Specifically, we look for how the various terminologies used acts to reflect the inner worldviews of the parties. Armed with this knowledge, we are then in a position to offer insights into how these worldviews operate to increase or decrease opportunities for consubstantial moments with each other as well as the international community.
Bashar Al-Assad's Interview with Kucinich and Palkot
By August of 2013, the conflict in Syria had raged for over two years. Islamic Front momentum seemed to have shifted to a stagnant but deadly equilibrium, if not somewhat to the Assad Regime. On August 21st, hundreds of Syrian civilians perished in an opposition-held suburb of Damascus. A United Nations investigation attributed the deaths to the employment of a chemical nerve-agent (a violation of international law), known as Sarin (United Nations Mission). Furthermore, the concentration and delivery system for the nerve-agent seemed to implicate Alawite regime forces. The United States immediately threatened retaliatory military action against the Assad Regime while Syrian allies such as Russia and China scurried to broker a diplomatic agreement to prevent such action. On September 12th, the same day U.N. made the investigation public, the Syrian regime agreed to disarm its chemical arsenal. It was in light of these events that Bashar al-Assad addressed the international community via his September 13, 2013 interview with Fox News contributor and former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Assad ostensibly conducted the interview to deny his part in the chemical attack and to state his commitment to the U.N. chemical disarmament mandate. However, his status as the Syrian President and member of the Alawite minority placed him in a position to serve as a spokesman for the regime and his sect. His verbal engagement with Kucinich provides an ample number of examples from which we can better understand Alawite characterization of the entire conflict, their perceived role in it, and motivation behind their actions.
Early questions focus on the chemical attacks, and Assad wryly admits that the presence of his chemical weapons stockpile "is not a secret anymore" (Al-Assad). He denies that his forces were responsible for the attacks and suggests that his enemies engineered the attack. As the interview progresses, Assad engages in a broader discussion of the conflict and the character of the opposition. For example, when Kucinich asks about the future of a secular Syria and whether the country is engaged in a civil war, Assad describes his country as a tolerant "melting pot" of many ethnicities and religions. He describes the threat to the status quo as "extremism, terrorism and violence," the result of which would be an "ideologically closed… more fanatic" society (Al-Assad). Assad emphatically denies the conflict is a civil war. The ideological shift threatening Syrian society, he says, can be directly attributed to foreign-backed "terrorists." He states, "A civil war should start from within. A civil war doesn't need to have 80 or 83 nationalities coming to fight within your country supported by foreign countries. What we have is not a civil war. What we have is a new kind of war" (Al-Assad). When elaborating on the composition of the opposition fighters, he estimates that they are 80% "terrorists or Al Qaeda," who cross the border into Syria with funding and weapons provided by ideologically motivated individuals (Al-Assad). Thus, Assad provides us with the Alawite and regime characterization of the conflict. That is, they are engaged in a fight for the survival of a secular, multi-cultural Syria, against foreign backed terrorists who have ignited jihadist motivations among certain elements of the Syrian population.
Dramatistic Elements of Assad's Interview
If one looks at the entirety of Assad's interview through the lens of Burke's dramatic pentad, we can see deeper into the Alawite characterization of the conflict and their justification for violence. Assad certainly places the element of "scene" at the forefront; he would have his audience believe that he has no choice but to involve himself in a struggle with foreign backed terrorists who seek to undermine the secular nature of his country. In doing so, he not only denies responsibility for the conflict but also extends this denial to Syrian opposition groups who have been "duped" into rebellion by foreign conspirators. Such denial of responsibility can serve a threefold purpose; first, it saves face for the regime in the sense that it allows foreign influence – rather than the regime's own policies - to have caused the rebellion; second, it allows both parties to negotiate a settlement without either "being at fault"; third, it recognizes that the majority Sunni population cannot be vilified if the Alawites wish to remain in power.
However, when discussing particular actions, rather than characterizing the conflict, Assad places "purpose" at the forefront. Thus, when questioned about the thousands of casualties incurred since the beginning of the conflict, Assad cannot deny involvement; rather, he asserts that his actions are justified given the nature of his opponents and the extremist agenda they will visit upon the Syrian people. As a former medical doctor, Assad relates that his actions are humanitarian in nature in the sense that he is "extracting a limb to save the patient." By privileging purpose, his discourse assumes a logic where the ends justify the means. This represents a break with his overall denial of responsibility for the conflict. He is assuming responsibility for brutal actions, which he wants us to view as necessary, for the restoration of Syrian governance. Taken as a whole, we can infer that Assad wished audiences to view his role as reactionary yet strong and appropriate. He did not start the fight but will take the necessary means to resolve it properly.
For Burke, a dominance of scene suggests a sense of materialism operating in the discourse. He believes materialism to be "that metaphysical theory which regards all the facts of the universe as sufficiently explained by the assumption of body or matter, conceived as extended, impenetrable, eternally existent, and susceptible of movement or change of relative position" (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 131). It is "the theory which regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion. . . ." (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 131). Important here is that Assad's discourse scenic reliance threatens to "downplay free choice and emphasize situational determinism," and that it is from scenic domination that Assad's purpose flows: "The dramatistic concept of purpose answers the question why an action should or should not take place and is, as such, moralistic in tone. Since purposive thinkers concentrate on the goal of an act, they understand small acts and decisions in light of a larger program" (King, 174; Fay and Kuypers, 207). In this sense, Assad is justifying deadly force as necessitated—compelled even—due to the scenic pressures. However, the focus on purpose also allows for the move toward a transcendent aspect of Assad's active use of deadly force: a greater, multicultural, and secular Syria (King, 170-171). Thus, Assad is willing to sacrifice lives and fortunes to save not himself, but a greater Syria. From Burke's point of view, the "sacrificial principle is intrinsic to the nature of order" because sacrifice leads to ultimate fulfillment and rewards ("Dramatism" 450).
The Islamic Front's Foundational Statement
The Islamic Front ratified their founding principles and goalson November 22, 2013. These principles were announced in an online video, in which the leadership of all subordinate factions surround the speaker, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh ("Islamic Front- Founding Declaration"). Issa al-Sheikh is the former military commander of a powerful Jihadist fighting force and served as the Islamic Front's leader. Particularly relevant due to its timing, the statement is rife with sectarian undertones, ethno-religious narratives, and is clearly meant to address a diverse audience. The statement comes in the wake of recent pro-regime victories against several key Jihadist fighting groups and the killing of a key Islamist opposition leader. Subordinate groups of like ideology recognized the need to unify their forces and clearly articulate a vision for a future Syria. Their exigency became even more salient in the wake of the internationally brokered deal preventing U.S. intervention against the Assad regime.
Issa begins the statement by defining the Islamic Front as "a comprehensive Islamic, social, political, and military formation. Aiming to a complete toppling of Assad regime in Syria, and building an Islamic state in which the lordship will be for the almighty God Sharia (law)…." ("Islamic Front- Founding Declaration," Introduction). With this statement, Issa breaks the silence, intentionally maintained by many Jihadist groups, regarding their end-game for a post-Assad Syria. The remainder of the statement takes on the nature of a governing document. Fifteen clauses distinctly outline the group's ideology, goals, rules for membership, characterization of other groups, and codes of behavior. In broad terms, the statement attempts to strike a balance between vehement advocacy for the implementation of Sharia law and understanding the concerns of Syrian citizens who would exist under it. Further, the speaker defines the Islamic Front's central role within the conflict, while directly and indirectly naming its enemies.
Issa is very clear regarding the group's intentions for governance. His desire is "to establish an independent state in which God's faithful Sharia will reign sovereign.…" ("Islamic Front- Founding Declaration," 1st Clause). He further rejects any form of secularization, stating "Religion without policy is a kind of monasticism that is forbidden in our religion and policy without religion is rejected secularization." His moderating tone shows up in his address of how such a system might be implemented. To the Syrian people (and perhaps the international community) he relays the group's commitment to work "for political progress, to create unified visions and positions compatible with societal issues; along with the civilian side, it revives and activates society's various capacities in preparation for rebuilding the desired new Syria, the state of Islam, justice, and advancement." The speaker further highlights elements of class and sect by stating that in the "new Syria" the group will "defend the underdogs" and their honor ("Islamic Front- Founding Declaration," 7th Clause, 1).
When discussing its enemies, the group directly addresses the Alawite-Shia Assad Regime as well as indirectly addressing supporters of an Arab style secular state. With respect to the regime, the groups stated goal is "to topple the existing regime in its entirety, with all its obscure remnants, to wipe them out of Syrian existence completely" ("Islamic Front- Founding Declaration," 7th Clause, 1). The statement addresses regime supporters by stating that following the dismantling of all governmental institutions, they should receive an "equitable trial" ("Islamic Front- Founding Declaration," 7th Clause, 1), although one might assume that such trials would occur based upon the Islamic Front's interpretation of Sharia Law. The other take-away from the statement, is the frequency with which the speaker denounces secularism. Without naming anyone, the group is sending a clear message to elements of the opposition who have not yet aligned with them, as well as rejecting the influence of foreign powers. Finally, the group stakes its claim to legitimacy by citing its member-groups successful participation since the beginning of the "revolution" and paying homage to its own military prowess.
Dramatistic Elements of Opposition Discourse
The speaker's words within the video indicate that the group advocates the destruction of the Assad Regime and the establishment of an Islamic State governed by Sharia Law. However, the meaning of the speaker's words extend beneath the surface regarding the Islamic Front's role in the formation of the Islamic State, and the likelihood it will carry out its agenda against Assad regime supporters. Here the act of the Islamic Front is the establishment of an Islamic State and the conduct of retribution. Throughout the text there is a mingling of purpose and agent with this act. This varies by clause within the document, with some assuming an act-purpose ratio and others assuming an act-agent ratio. These ratios interanimate to form a general sense of act to purpose/agent emphasis. The speaker's interchanging emphasis on purpose and agent with respect to the act of establishing an Islamic state demonstrate their ambition to rule such a state as well as a willingness to justify violence in order to establish it.
The strong domination of act in the discourse of the Islamic Front implies an undercurrent of philosophical realism operating in the discourse. Burke describes realism as a belief "in the real existence of matter as the object of perception (natural realism); also, the view that the physical world has independent reality, and is not ultimately reducible to universal mind or spirit." Importantly for understanding the discourse of the Islamic Front, this realist underpinning also suggests "the existence of objects in the external world independently of the way they are subjectively experienced" ("Realism"). The act of the Islamic Front fuels their very conception of self: "things are more or less real according as they are more or less energeia [activity] (actu, from which our 'actuality' is derived). [F]orm is the actus, the attainment, which realizes the matter" (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 227).
Agent and purpose work together to legitimize the Islamic Front's central role in the conflict, qualify them for leadership, and promoting ideology. As agents, the leaders of the Islamic Front view themselves as fighting for a larger cause, and their discourse suggests that they take on a larger than life persona. Certainly the dramatistic agent can be viewed as a heroic person, one willing and able to take on the most difficult of circumstances. This aspect of the Islamic Front's discourse could be particularly appealing to Western cultures where, as Andrew King points out, "the charismatic leader who triumphs in spite of obstacles, setbacks, and enemies" has long been celebrated (170). The reliance on purpose in the discourse serves to highlight the larger context in which the Islamic Front views their actions. Since purpose answers the question why an action should or should not take place, we have a greater sense of how the Islamic Front sees its individual acts of violence are seen in relation to a much larger program of the imposition of Sharia Law within a Middle East Caliphate. This emphasis on purpose within the text reflects concerns of mysticism. On this point King writes that "in the extreme example of this kind of rhetoric means are subordinated to ends… for the sake of higher or divine law" (172). The speaker's consistent emphasis upon the use of violence for the sake of Islam and Sharia Law certainly fits here. For example, with regard to necessarily justified action the speaker states that, "the Islamic Front believes that the way to achieve its targets cannot be realized unless the armed military movement actively undertakes the Assad regime's toppling." The document additionally explains that this entails wiping the Assad regime from existence. The justification for intended brutality remains the establishment of the Islamic state. The speaker views such actions as acceptable in light of "an independent state in which God's faithful Sharia will reign sovereign."
As noted by King, persons who expect charismatic leaders to solve their problems tend to emphasize the agent in their discourse (171). The speaker in the Islamic Front video places the Islamic Frontas the agent for taking action and solving the problems of its advocates. The statement's sixth paragraph provides the following example; "Islamic Front sons were the first to revolt against the Assad regime's tyranny and protected the people from its injustice. The most prominent military victories over the Assad regime are theirs, so they are part of the Syrian people and interpret Syrians' aims and hopes." In this telling example, the speaker clearly designates the central nature of Islamic Front within the conflict and offers their suitability to "protect the underdog [and] his honor," and to represent the Syrian people.
Metaphor and "Selling" of the Alawite Case to the U.S.
An examination of Bashar al-Assad's interview can inform us about the perception and motivations of the group he represents. A juxtaposition of history, events, narrative, and dramatistic pentad show an Alawite ruling class which believes it is locked in conflict with a sectarian enemies bent on its destruction; events of the conflict are beyond their control as evidenced by a conspiratorial relationship between their neighbors, ideologically motivated individuals, and Western nations. Because they argue that the conflict is not of their making, Alawite rulers feel justified in using violence on those they perceive as not being truly Syrian. They also believe that in destroying their opposition and reincorporating certain factions of the rebellion, they will be resurrecting "Greater Syria." Given the difference between Syrian and Western narratives, understanding regarding the nature of the conflict, and preconceived Western notions of a "tyrannical regime," how does Assad try to influence U.S. opinion?
Throughout the interview, Assad chooses to explain his case using carefully selected language understood by Westerners, particularly Americans. The language used—metaphors—translates central ideas using words that produce wide meaning and invoke sympathy among his audience. Thomas R. Burkholder and David Henry describe a metaphor as a speaker's means to "ask listeners to comprehend one thing, represented by the tenor, in terms of another, represented by the vehicle" (98). Metaphor, however, is more than just a description or comparison of one thing in terms of another. Michael Osborn describes how "the 'thought' of the subject (tenor) and the 'thought' of the item for association (vehicle)… in their meaningful action together, determine psychologically the appearance and sense of the metaphor" ("The Metaphor" 228). Thus, the metaphor is a process of thought and understanding on the part of the sender and receiver. In some cases, we might consider it a contextualization in the pursuit of persuasion. Osborn's later work describes such a process whereby "cues in the context include consciousness of recent events… susceptibility of listeners, and deeper cultural configurations that come into play" ("The Trajector," 80). In our present case, Assad is asking us to understand the opposition and their actions in terms of terrorists and terrorism.
A September 11, 2001, terrorists no longer only attacked small groups who chose to venture into dangerous lands, nor was their destruction limited to those unfortunates within the blast radius of a bomb. Terrorists could now pilot airplanes, destroy cultural landmarks, kill thousands in well-coordinated attacks, and do it where ordinary people live and work. Terrorism invokes visceral images of buildings collapsing with thousands trapped inside. It also elicits fear of a faceless enemy who violates the American sense of security, challenges ideals of tolerance, and seethes with incomprehensible hate. Further, with the exception of certain high-profile domestic cases, terrorists are foreign. The collective nature of emotion, fear, and suspicion described above comprise the Alawite understanding of the Syrian rebellion and the conceptualization he asks U.S. audiences to assume. Although he doesn't directly state the following, Assad seems to extend the metaphor toward The Syrian Governments actions are a war on terror. Such a metaphor permeates a barrier between the Syrian-Alawite and U.S. world-views that might have been impenetrable on September 10, 2001.
We believe that Assad understands the power characterizing opposition as terrorists based upon his frequency of use. It is important, however, to understand why he uses it. When engaging with U.S. audiences, the Alawite use of metaphor assumes certain ideographic characteristics as both a call for inaction and a justification for action. If the abstract of terrorism represents a collective commitment to a normative goal, that goal is combating terrorism. Following 9/11, the U.S. engaged in the War on Terror. Although the concept of War on Terror eventually led to military action, it was initially an ill-defined call to action against an unknown enemy (Kuypers). By characterizing 80% of the Syrian opposition as terrorists, Assad and his Regime seek to align themselves with this call to action – and justify their use of force. Similarly, if Regime forces are combating terrorism, the U.S. shouldn't intervene in their execution of a war on terrorism. The specter of terrorism warrants and excuses Regime actions while attempting to avoid U.S. involvement by invoking collective commitment to a common goal. It is powerful because it calls upon U.S. commitments and imparts an immediate and visceral understanding of the Alawite worldview - existential fear, encirclement, vigilance, and survival.
Additionally, Assad's metaphor of rebels as terrorists aligns his objectives with those of the U.S. By defining a common enemy he not only seeks to stem U.S. opposition, but to invite active support. At the time of his interview, the specter of terrorism in Syria proved insufficient for U.S. policy-makers to overcome the short-term political benefit of taking a hard line on the regime's brutality. However, the recent horrific actions of the Islamic State as well of the AQ affiliations of the Islamic Front have made it clear that Assad does indeed fight self-proclaimed enemies of the United States. Perhaps we can judge his previous appeals in a new light as we consider the way ahead in the larger regional conflict. In recent months, Secretary of State Kerry alluded to a possible tacit cooperation with Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State (Islamic Front is not specifically addressed) despite the U.S.'s official policy of arming and equipping the opposition. He noted, "we are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we can reignite a diplomatic outcome… we have to negotiate in the end" (Kerry qtd. in Gordon, "Kerry Suggests"). This shift does not necessarily represent support for the Syrian dictator or his Iranian allies. However, it seems to indicate a willingness to revaluate the application of economic and military pressure as policy makers refine their understanding of the conflict.
Clashing World Views: Dramatism and International Audience
Our analysis suggests that U.S. audiences use care when evaluating the discourse of potential allies in the Syrian conflict, as well as when applying the pentad to non-Western discourse. Three pitfalls can lead to oversimplification and misplaced sympathy toward either of the two sides. These pitfalls include: one, listening to what is being said about the groups involved rather than what they themselves are saying; two, listening to speakers who do not represent the warring parties; and three, imposing a U.S. understanding of the "underdog versus the tyrannical regime" upon the conflict itself. These pitfalls can, however, be avoided through the proper contextualization and use of primary sources, the analysis of cultural narratives, and the application of the pentad used to better understand worldviews. In particular, one must evaluate the discourse of the persuasive agent rather than discourse about a persuasive agent. For example, if one intends to evaluate Bashar al-Assad's motives, a Western media outlet's interpretation of his words would be an ill-advised source. Although such documents might contain quotes, those chosen might actually support a pre-existing U.S. culturally based interpretation (such as the "the underdog vs. the tyrannical regime").
U.S. failure to hold a conversation regarding the actual discourse of Syrian (by extension Iraqi) partisans in context of the conflict is already leading it toward poorly advised "side-taking." Never has U.S. publicdiscourse regarding Syria included a scenario where the U.S. intervenes on behalf of the Regime to prevent an internationally recognized terror syndicate from gaining control of the infrastructure of a developed country. This is not to imply that such strategies would be correct, but rather to highlight that a robust understanding of the parties involved ought to lead to questions regarding potential U.S. support for the opposition. Such questions, when they have been addressed in the public discourse, are answered by rhetoric that supports the "moderate" opposition. Such lines of logic conclude with the idea that the "extremists" are a minority, and support for the "moderates" will prevent others from filling a power void. However, a closer look shows that much of the "moderate" voice is either disregarded as irrelevant by representative opposition groups, if not used as a tool for bargaining by influential individuals with ties to those groups. Furthermore, the group now overseeing the "moderate" opposition (The Islamic Front) originates from the same cloth, holds the same ideology, desires the same goal, and uses similar narratives as the Islamic State (ISIS). The ethno-religious/sectarian nature of the conflict, as well as the role of terrorist groups within it, are not only ignored in public discourse, but also at times denied completely. For instance, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated in September 2013, "I just don't agree that the majority of them are al-Qaeda and the bad guys" (Michaels, "Kerry"). However, the value of public knowledge informed by those who choose to agree/disagree with certain characterizations pales in comparison with realistic assessments based upon what the groups themselves tell us. On the contrary, when commentators and officials choose to ignore primary sources and make statements of opinion, they perpetuate mischaracterization by a public who relies on their judgment to inform foreign policy. We feel that in conflicts involving ideologies and worldviews completely foreign to most Americans, the public would do well to listen to words spoken by the combatants themselves.
Analysis of foreign discourse with respect to commonly used cultural narratives is a necessary first step for cross-cultural applications of the dramatistic pentad. For example, rural Sunni narratives tell us that those who are fighting against the Assad regime historically sought regional dominance and routinely discuss the destruction of the "illegitimate" Alawite regime. These are not motives in the Burkean sense. However, they do contextualize the "who" and "why" when applying the pentad. For example, if a fanatical Sunni seeks to cast "enemies of Islam" into their graves, we have some idea of who is first in line (Alawites) and what sets of ambitions exist outside of the immediate discourse. Thus, if "freedom and democracy" are not part of the cultural repertoire of a rural Sunni rebel, we might not consider such an end-state among the menu of his or her possible motives.
Following our methodology, once we understand the speaker's cultural repertoire, we can apply the pentad. As we have shown, the Islamic Front assumes a realist worldview by placing the act of creating a Syrian Islamic state governed by Sharia Law as the central component of their discourse. The act is achieved by the killing and expulsion of the Alawite Regime as well as imposing judgment on its supporters. The Islamic Front intertwines the use of purpose and agent with act, creating an act-agent/purpose ratio. This ratio provides us further insight regarding their worldview and motivation. Thus, we know that the Islamic Front's leadership feels justified in killing for the purpose of establishing a religious state. Further, they are the self-styled rulers of the future regime by virtue of their military prowess and righteousness. This is not the language of tolerance expected of governments in the West; future studies may show that it is quite similar to the language of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).
The danger of imposing our perceptions upon the warring groups (rather than listening to the discourse) is that they might well pursue their ideological path to its logical conclusion, despite our fervent wishes to the contrary. As we have seen here, for some this includes the bloody disposal of all perceived enemies and the establishment of an ideologically narrow autocracy. To sympathize with the Islamic Front or Al-Nusrah because we do not perceive them to be as extreme as "ISIS," or with jihadists because they are fighting a bloody war against the Syrian state apparatus, is a failure to recognize the credibility of their motivations as portrayed in their own words (Sly, "Al-Qaeda"). Such groups tell us that they will kill their enemies according to (their interpretation of) Sharia Law and establish a caliphate. Perhaps the important question is not whether we can cooperate with (or even identify) a moderate opposition, but why the jihadist discourse of the Islamic Front and ISIS resonates so heavily with the regional Sunni population and potential allies. Understanding this might allow real dialogue with those who must eventually be part of the solution.
Application of the pentad provides the starting point for a truly contextualized policy discussion. As the final portion of our method discusses, we can now move beyond the immediate discourse of the partisans themselves. A starting point lies in the Islamic Front's purpose. What does a strict interpretation of Sharia Law look like to a Sunni extremist, and what does it tell us about the potential for partnership against "undesirable" elements in Syria? Reliance of the Traveler and Tools for the Worshiper (A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law by Ahmad Ibn Naqib al-Misri) written in the 14th Century provides some insight. It is an authoritative manual on Sunni Islamic jurisprudence that dictates rules for interactions with non-Muslims, lists requirements of Jihad, details when killing is permissible, itemizes corporal punishment for various offenses, and so forth. Interpretations of this kind have serious implications for a potential alliance with any opposition aligned with the Islamic Front. The document makes clear that Jihad is obligatory, as is the killing of apostates in Muslim lands, or of Christians who criticize Islam. Additionally, any alliance with non-Muslims is prohibited, unless Muslims are outnumbered (Al-Misri, 246). The document does not leave any room for interpretation for strict followers. Thus alliances with the Islamic Front or subordinate groups might prove ultimately unreliable, as their law mandates a return to a strict Sharia interpretation once they have numerical superiority. Reference to such interpretations of Sharia (also used by ISIS/ISIL) might also be an underlying reason Arab nations are hesitant to cooperate in a ground coalition. Even if Jordanian and Saudi politicians do not use such documents to govern their actions, blatant violations might jeopardize their legitimacy with Sunni constituents. Unfortunately for the West and the U.S., there doesn't seem to be much choice between "ISIS" and other fighters who share their ideology in the larger sectarian conflict. Further, the "rules of the game" used by ISIS and the "moderate" rebels in Syria are the same as those used by the Charlie Hebdo attackers. A nuanced conversation might highlight the inanity of creating artificial pecking orders of evil (e.g. the Paris attackers and ISIS are really evil, Al-Qaeda is in the middle, and the Syrian rebels are "good").
The regime of Bashar al-Assad has been successfully fighting against such militants. His discourse has traditionally been that of defining a common enemy through the metaphor of terrorism. He justifies his brutal actions using a scene-act/purpose ratio to describe the inevitability of conflict, and to justify his methods. Uncovering the motivation behind his discourse, it seems that we have a willing and capable ally in the struggle against extremism. Be that as it may, his discourse indicates that the reverse may also be true. That is, he might attack and destroy U.S. trained "moderates" because he perceives them to be terrorists. What is to stop him from doing so when his demise is their primary stated objective? Unfortunately, this possibility has not frequently surfaced in U.S. domestic discourse – which seems to assume a one-on-one fight between "moderates" and "ISIS." The ultimate question is whether we are willing to recast groups in a new light after listening to their discourse, or whether we will cling to old labels, impose U.S. narratives on the conflict, and develop untenable courses of action.
Moving beyond the finding of worldviews and sharing policy implications, this essay also demonstrates how the dramatistic pentad provides a fruitful analytic path into cross-cultural rhetorical criticism, and an effective rhetorical lens for understanding diverse worldviews. In order to navigate this path one must examine the speaker's actual discourse and draw context from the speaker's own culture. This requires the identification of primary sources to serve as artifacts for analysis and the examination of native historical-cultural discourse surrounding the artifacts. Close readings of such culturally related discourse can discover thematic cultural narratives that enhance understanding of the intended audience of a speaker, as well as more accurately account for the worldview of that speaker.
This is an important step since the supplantation of native (non-U.S.) narratives with U.S. narratives leads to miscues regarding a speaker's motive. For example, in our present case, both Assad and the Islamic Front tell us which of their cultural narratives are relevant by explaining them in terms of our own, U.S. narratives. When Assad describes the current conflict as a "fight against terror," we understand that he is describing a perceived existential threat. Thus, we can glimpse the worldview from which he is operating, and would have his audience enter into, by examining the narratives of existential threat. Native narratives provide such nuanced context for applying the pentad. As an additional example, rural Sunni narratives (those of the opposition) do not simply discuss humiliation and justice. Such narratives describe humiliation at the hands of Alawites, and justice against Alawites. It is with this insight that we can actually apply the pentad. Native narrative and use of metaphor allow us to properly identify the pentad's elements. Thus, the act, or "medicine" the Islamic Front (for example) asks us to take is the extermination of Alawites and the establishment of a caliphate in Syria. We would not, however, arrive at this conclusion by applying the pentad through the lens of our own sacred narratives (e.g. equality, tolerance, and justice for the oppressed). As Burke demonstrated in his early unveiling of Hitler's sinister intent, uncovering motive through application of the pentad requires understanding of the other's history, culture, and the surrounding discourse. Only when this is accomplished can we begin the intuitive work of understanding how each element fits together to provide meaning.
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