The Milgram Experiment in Syria

Howleh. picture by Kaveh Kazemi/ Getty Images

It has thrown students out of top-floor windows. It has shelled cities from the land and from the air. It has raped women and men and tortured children to death. Now with the massacres at Howleh and Qubair – in which Alawis from nearby villages, accompanied by the army, shelled, shot and stabbed entire families to death – the Syrian regime has escalated its strategy of sectarian provocation. Here Tony Badran explains very well the sick rationale behind these acts.

To a certain extent the regime’s plan has already worked. Now it seems inevitable that sectarian revenge attacks will intensify. In general, sectarian identification is being fortified in the atmosphere of violence created by the regime and added to by the necessary armed response to the regime. Sectarian hatred will deepen so long as the regime survives to play this card.

The regime wants us to understand the conflict in purely sectarian terms. Many Syrians recognise this and are resisting it. At this impossibly difficult time it’s good to remember the Alawi revolutionaries, who are heroes, and crucial to the revolution, heroic in the way Jewish anti-Zionists are heroic.

What do I mean by heroic? A disproportionate number of Alawis owe their livelihood to the regime. To fight for a post-regime future means to fight for a future in which their community will be, at best, less favoured than at present. This takes moral and political courage. Many Alawis have grown up surrounded not, as most Syrians have, by anti-regime mutterings, but by the happy version. To break with this version requires a psychological transformation, something as big as growing up. More concretely, there are family pressures – and family is so important in Syria. Very many Alawis are employed in the security forces. If your uncle is an officer in the mukhabarat, therefore, you don’t find it easy to publicly oppose the regime. It takes courage to do so, and the kind of confidence in your own judgment which will allow you to discount the arguments of your elders and authorities. Only a few people have such strength. (Of course it takes much more strength to live in a Sunni neighbourhood being beseiged and bombed, but this is a different kind of strength.)

We should be humble when we consider the historical mistakes of others. Most of us, whatever our background, would commit any barbarism if an authority we trusted assured us of the act’s legitimacy. This was the conclusion of the famous Milgram Experiment, whch Stanley Milgram sums up here: “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

The human propensity to follow even obscene orders, or to conform to the obscene perspectives of elders, does not excuse the actual torturers. Every man’s responsibility for his own actions is a rule we must live by even if ultimately it isn’t true. Those who torture and kill must be considered guilty. I hope evidence is being stored so the killers may one day be tried under a fair justice system. In the meantime, many are being killed, and not only Alawis.

I know of a young Damascene Sunni who worked for the mukhabarat. The version I heard says he was only a driver, not a torturer. He was followed and shot thrice in the back of the head. I’ve heard about an informer, a Christian, who was killed in the western suburbs of Damascus. The version I heard was that he wrote lists for the mukhabarat, and that the demonstrators he listed were arrested and tortured or killed. Men waited for him outside his house, kneecapped him, took him away in their van and later dumped his stabbed corpse. His mother called the local Christian families together and demanded an act of revenge. The men told her it wasn’t their business. And I’ve heard from a friend from the Qurdaha region that even there in the regime’s heartland army officers are being picked off by snipers while they drive the mountain roads.

4 thoughts on “The Milgram Experiment in Syria”

  1. Robin Yassin-Kassab ought to be commended for this thoughtful and insightful article. It demonstrates, among other things, the murderous nature of the despotic Asad regime together with its inherent social and national divisiveness. This is precisely why the longer it says in power the more destructive it becomes, and the sooner it is uprooted from the sacred land of Syria the better for all Syrians (irrespective of their ethnic or religiosus/sectarian background) in particular and for the entire Arab world in general, indeed for the world as a whole. Despotic and/or dictatorial regimes are not only demeaning to the very essence of our humanity, but also detrimintal to national cohesion and sustainable economic and social development. Hopefully, the heroic struggle of the people of Syria for freedom, and with it human dignity and social justice will come to a glorious end soon. Personally, I never thought that the noble Syrian mothers were even capable of producing the kind of murderous beasts like those who perpetrated the recent massacres of the innocents (especially children) in the Syrian provinces of Hama, Homs, Idlib, or Dar’a. For the sake of restoring the lost humanity of these Syrian mothers, the murderous Asad regime should disappear from the face of the world.


  2. the comparison of what is going on in syria to the milgram study infantalizes the issue…soldiers and other military personnel do what they are told and commit acts of brutality, and that is the regular operation of warfare…the milgram “study” was a silly collegiate experience which is much admired by people who may have difficulty understanding the difference between a class in a school and actual material reality outside the academy…while the brutal acts depicted by critics of the syrian regime may be, in some cases, the truth, there must also be brutal acts which these regime critics smile on with favor…this is the illogic of the beastliness called warfare, sanctioned by one side *and* the other as absolutely necessary because of the hideous,horrible, murderous monsters on the “other” side who kill babies and laugh hysterically while doing so…and very often, such monsters may and do exist – on both sides – but this kind of blame game and academic theorizing will do nothing to end the violence and save lives…in fact, it promises to do exactly what america and its lap dog nato assistants wish: destroy the syrian regime, then iran’s, and then restore complete western control of the area…and will that be just fine with these critics?

    1. your comments about the general barbarity of warfare are valid, of course, but there’s a problem when they translate into a liberal inability to take sides. In the Spanish civil war, in World War Two, in Vietnam, in Palestine, in Iraq, barbarities were perpetrated by all sides. The ‘all sides are as bad as each other’ line, however, has no political or moral use whatsoever when we are confronted by real situations. This war was started by the regime. This phrase – “while the brutal acts depicted by critics of the syrian regime may be, in some cases, the truth” – suggests that you have no idea what is happening in Syria. Your assumption that the west is in any position to restore complete control in the region is based on a false reading of the current global situation. The imperialist baddie in this case is Russia, in any case.

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