Group conflict

Group conflict and the Syrian civil war

Group conflict is a feature shared by all forms of human social structure, including nations and ethnic groups. While it is a complex phenomenon studied by social scientists, the history of human existence reveals a series of group conflicts that have become well-known over time. For example, a six-year-old peaceful movement against the Syrian government has now devolved into a full-fledged civil war. It has killed several people, engulfed the country, and attracted world powers. The conflict has evolved over time from a disagreement between the government and the people to a conflict between various religions, organizations, states, and ethnic groups. For a better understanding of this conflict, it is important to analyze realistic conflict and social identity theory which provide the psychological mechanisms that underlie the outbreak and maintenance of the war.

Realistic conflict theory and the outbreak of conflict

According to realistic conflict theory, intergroup conflict can be triggered by inconsistent goals and a battle for limited resources (Tajfel & Turner, 2004). Bhardwaj (2012) states that long before the conflict broke out in Syria, several Syrians were complaining about bad governance. There was pervasive corruption, joblessness, state tyranny, and an absence of political liberty under President Assad who had taken over his father in 2000. Landis (2012) states that the government's failure to address several issues, such as the drought crisis which started in 2006 and lasted until 2010, triggered feelings of dissatisfaction among the rural population. Worse off, it increased the gap between the rich and poor, as well as poor infrastructure angered people. At this point, people were tired of the unequal allocation of limited resources prompting individuals to protest against the government.

The evolution of conflict in Syria

In 2011, pro-egalitarian protests motivated by the Arab Spring blew up in Deraa. The regime's usage of lethal force to crush the dissent rapidly elicited countrywide demonstrations calling for the president to resign. As the turmoil extended, crackdowns increased. Supporters of the opposition started to take up arms, first for their own defense (Landis, 2012). The violence escalated fast and the nation went into war as several insurgent groups were created to fight administration armies for control of the nation. As the realistic conflict theory states, conflict is likely to erupt in situations where different groups compete for real political power, social status, and military protection, and this was the case in Syria. The theory further points out that feelings of bitterness erupt in circumstances where the groups perceive competition over resources as unproductive, particularly because one group is most likely to become the winner and the other one a loser. Tajfel and Turner (2004) state that the extent and brutality of the conflict can last for a very long time depending on the shortage and value of the resource in question. In essence, the conflict has escalated and assumed different forms. A fundamental aspect has been the involvement of world powers, such as the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran. Their financial, political, and military support for the opposition and the government has openly paved way for the increase and extension of the fighting, as well as made Syria a theater of war.

Social identity theory and its role in the conflict

However, these external powers have been faulted for advancing sectarianism in what was generally a nonspiritual nation, plunging the mainstream Sunni against the Shia Alawite group which is aligned with the president. Such fragments have reinvigorated both factions to commit violence that has led to the loss of lives, escalated enmity among individuals, and toughened positions. At this point, Ellemers and Haslam (2011) indicate that social identity theory is best suited to explain different mechanisms that underlie new dimensions of the Syrian conflict. For instance, social identity theory asserts that a person does not have one personality, but instead numerous ones which relate to broadening spheres of group membership. These varied social contexts might prompt a person to feel, think, and act based on their national, family, and personal level self. Therefore, based on different personalities Syrians have aligned themselves with different groups that are at war.

Social identity theory further suggests that belonging to a group establishes self-categorization and enrichment in methods that favor members of the collection at the expense of non-members. The sheer action of different people categorizing themselves as supporters of a certain group is adequate to make them exhibit in-group favoritism (Ellemers & Haslam, 2011). After being branded into a certain group, individuals strive for attainment of self-esteem by positively distinguishing their group from rivals based on some valued breadth. In Syria, some of the groups fighting against President Assad include jihadist groups which are now interested in securing and maintaining territorial control. These Islamic groups in Syria can, however, be distinguished from each other based on their agenda, composition of manpower, and source of funding. Most of them share different political and ideologies, differences which have also led to increased fighting (Bhardwaj, 2012).

Ethos of Conflict in Syria

According to Lavi et al. (2014), the principles which make up the ethos of a society evolve from the circumstances under which the society exists over a long period, as well as certain collective experiences which outline the society in the course of the period. In lengthy situations of intractable conflicts, such as Syria where violent experiences are shared and mutual, the conflict consumes most members in the society. As a result, they cultivate an ethos of conflict which provides a vivid depiction of the conflict, its objectives, settings, and images of a particular group and its rival. The themes shared include justness of one's goals which are crucial and absolutely significant in enduring the costs, losses, sacrifices, and stresses of the intractable conflict. In Syria, there is particularly a struggle between two religious groups: the Shia and Sunni which continue to fuel the civil war, as well as ignite transnational Jihadi networks (Bhardwaj, 2012).

Despite the assumption that the immediate 2011 demonstrations in Syria would threaten the government to step down, the Syrian regime, unlike those of Egypt and Tunisia, was well structured to resist insurgency. Unlike Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Landis (2012) states that Syria’s president has not lost the loyalty of his forces, as well as his key foreign allies (Russia and Iran). Furthermore, he has been receiving support from different sectors of the population which have made him survive for long. A keen look at the situation indicates that the support being offered to the Syrian regime is primarily founded on the ethos of conflict which states that violence towards rivals is justified if it helps to provide safety and security. The Shia Alawite forces believe that they have to keep fighting the out-group rebels, who are mostly Sunni, to maintain peace in the nation. For that reason, Bhardwaj (2012) states that personal safety and survival of the nation is the utmost goal of the Shia Alawite’s forces who are aligned with the president. The government has further delegitimized the opposition forces, such as the Islamic State (IS) and other Jihadists groups, as terrorists and has continued to justify their hostility towards such groups. The regime further portrays itself positively through characters of fairness, heroism, and endurance while other groups are portrayed as backward and barbaric based on their atrocities (raping and slaughtering innocent people).

Therefore, based on the ethos of conflict, the regime is portrayed as a victim of evil doings and atrocities committed by the opposing forces. But because of the regime’s cohesiveness, their love, loyalty, and sacrifice for the Shia are considered significant and, as a result, made them remain dedicated to their goal of defeating extremists and restoring peace. The regime seeks peace and this has allowed it to continue playing a vital role in assisting to cope with the costs of conflict and providing meaning to the stressful reality.


Since the conflict in Syria has escalated to an intractable war, the best approach for intervention is persuasion using "value-based" framing. In this case, different groups in conflict are required to identify their contentious issues and provide the way in which the issues should be discussed. Worthy to note is that the Syrian conflict is value-based (Sunni and Shia values) and, therefore, less agreeable to cooperation and assimilation. As a result, mediators are required to help the parties in conflict frame their problems in ways that will enhance problem-solving. This is an approach that can succeed in Syria because all the groups have different goals and when they are brought together, an amicable solution can be attained.


Bhardwaj, M. (2012). Development of Conflict in Arab Spring Libya and Syria: From Revolution to Civil War. Washington University International Review, 1(1), 76-97.

Ellemers, N., & Haslam, S. A. (2011). Social identity theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology, 2, 379-398.

Lavi, I., Canetti, D., Sharvit, K., Bar-Tal, D., & Hobfoll, S. E. (2014). Protected by ethos in a protracted conflict? A comparative study among Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58(1), 68-92.

Landis, J. (2012). The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime Is Likely to Survive to 2013. Middle East Policy, 19(1), 72-84.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004). The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior.

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