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The Assad family. Hafez al-Assad and his wife, Mrs Anisa Makhlouf. On the back row, from left to right: Maher, Bashar, Basil, Majid, and Bushra al-Assad. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mass Violence in Syria and Iraq

Understanding half a century of political violence
The Middle East is often portrayed as synonymous with violence. Media representation and popular imagination tend to converge on the a-historical notion that Middle Eastern states and societies are inherently violent. This project approaches mass violence as a historical and sociological problem relating to processes of state building and nation building in the postcolonial era that have caused strong changes in countries such as Syria and Iraq. It does so through a combination of archival research, oral history, and ethnographic fieldwork.

How and why did Syria and Iraq become such violent societies? This project takes a panoramic and in-depth look into the rise of the Baathist regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, and the limitless violence they visited upon their societies in the past half century. It uses secondary literature, primary sources, oral histories, and social media content to examine the causes, courses, and consequences of mass political violence in the region. The project examines integration and cooperation, as well as segmentation and confrontation, resulting from the Cold War in the region, the rise of authoritarian regimes, wars with neighboring countries, and internal conflicts that were often exceptionally violent.

This research project documents and researches Syrians’ and Iraqis’ experiences of mass violence and the dynamic of the violence in the two societies. It looks in particular at the prison system in both societies, the emergence and crimes of pro-government militias, and the aftermath of the violence. Due to prior restrictions and lack of access, never before has it been possible to study Syrian and Iraqi history in such a comprehensive manner. The collective memory of these societies cannot be narrowly conceived as only Middle Eastern history, but can help clarify a range of issues in violence research, from perpetration to victimization, polarization and reconciliation, religiosity and secularism, mobilization and demobilization, organized crime and human trafficking, and many other topics. Therefore, Iraqi and Syrian history is vitally important for the global history of war and genocide studies.




  • NWO
  • Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten
  • Stichting Democratie en Media

Team composition


  • Ali Aljasem
  • Jaber Baker
  • Annsar S.
  • Amir Taha


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