Peace and Conflict Series: Conflict and Syria, Think-tanks, and the Academy, Interview with Thomas Pierret

Universities find impact beyond academia increasingly important. In situations of violent conflict, however, it can be difficult for experts who are working on evolving conflicts such as Syria to remain relevant outside of the academy.  The increasing influence of think-tanks, and use of social media, together with pressures of wider academic life, pose serious questions as to what the academy has to offer.  In an interview with GJA Peace & Conflict blog series editor Andreas Hackl, Thomas Pierret looks back at 13 years of research in Syria and reflects on the changing role of his expertise within and outside of the academy.  Thomas suggests that academics may uniquely contribute the ability to locate specific events and moments in a conflict within wider conflict patterns and dynamics.

Thomas Pierret is a Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He has worked on the Syrian insurgency with a focus on the leadership of insurgent movements and the role of various brands of Salafism. As an expert on the Syrian crisis, Thomas Pierret’s commentary was featured on hundreds of occasions in dozens of media outlets, among them the BBC, The Financial Times, The Guardian, the New York Times, and Le Monde.

How has your research field changed since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis?

I have done research in Syria for almost 13 years now, and at the beginning I was almost alone on my topics of expertise. In a matter of years, the field has become extremely crowded, including non-academics such as think tank analysts. The problem is: they are good. It is no longer true that academics know more than they do. Once we could look at think tanks and say that their research is superficial, with some exceptions. But this has changed.

It seems academic expertise on Syria is becoming less relevant. How did this happen?

The strategic importance of Syria changed tremendously after 2011. There has been an increase in resources for think tanks and risk analysis companies who also hire first-rank experts with attractive working conditions and competitive salaries. I know at least one person who was admitted to do a PhD at one of the most prestigious US universities—a dream scenario for any would-be academic, yet eventually left the university to work on the Syrian conflict with a risk analysis company. Besides financial incentives, such non-academic careers probably appeal to young experts because they compare favourably with the academia in terms of research time and, in some cases, resources.

So they are more relevant?

Let’s say that it is certainly easier to cope with incredibly rapid pace of developments on the ground when doing so is your core task, than when you have to juggle with many other obligations such as teaching, supervision, and admin work. Think tank experts are essentially paid to focus on a topic, write a report, and then move to the next similar project, although there might be other parts of the job I ignore. As academics, we are actually paid to do many other things on top of research.

Does that have something to do with the inaccessibility of conflict-affected countries, especially Syria?

To a large extent. Fieldwork used to be the main comparative advantage of academics: they would stay longer in the field, meet more people, become more familiar with local realities. It was not only a matter of time spent in the field, but the approach was also more ethnographic than that of journalists and think tank experts. In the past, when Syria was easily accessible, the interviews I did were often not the most interesting part of the research: observation – in mosques for instance – usually provided better insights into social interactions.

Adiliyya mosque, Aleppo, 2006. Thomas Pierret

This methodological difference has vanished now: I cannot do more than think tank experts, that is, meeting Syrians in neighbouring countries, doing distance interviews, and collecting information on the social media. Even when you meet people face-to-face, the context is lost: officials from rebel groups, in particular, have legitimate security concerns as a result of which they would generally meet you in some public place; you know neither where they are coming from, nor where they are going.

The boom of social media in Syria since 2011 also induced major transformations. Before 2011, given state censorship over the media, you would hardly understand anything about Syria if you did not spend a considerable amount of time there; today, although social media pose their own methodological problem, they make information available among a much larger number of observers. I am not only speaking of professional analysts, but also of a growing number of self-taught experts who sometimes display an impressive level of knowledge. As Syria changed so did the method of research, and with it the position of academics in the economy of knowledge on the country.

One last important change that plays against academics is that the relationship between Syrian actors and external observers has become more transactional than it used to be. When I did research in Syria a decade ago, the people who accepted to meet me were not expecting much from my research: some of them might have wished to be portrayed favourably in my thesis, but most others just liked to speak to a foreigner, or they were simply polite. Now, for completely understandable reasons, Syrians who play an active role in the conflict tend to expect some direct benefits from their interactions with foreign observers.

Think tanks offer that kind of benefit because they work fast: when Syrians talk to them, they have the possibility to express their point of view, and make it known to global audiences within a matter of days or weeks. Now compare that with academic publications: I am still waiting for the release of articles I submitted in, respectively, 2013, 2014, and 2015. You can imagine what this means in an extremely volatile contexts with quickly changing developments: much of what I wrote back then is completely outdated, and some of the people I interviewed legitimately wonder what I made of what they told me.

Some think tanks have also run programmes directly involving Syrians, such as track-two initiatives and prospective study groups on the future of the country.

So on the one hand, academics have less relevant expertise for public commentary because think tank researchers have better access and more time. One the other hand, academic publishing is too slow to produce the high-quality research on conflicts that would set them apart from the masses of analysts. This sounds like a dilemma. What is the alternative?

My conclusion is that we have to engage more with disciplinary debates.

Before the war in Syria, my position felt like someone who has the key to a secret cave no one else can go to. What I researched, thanks to months of intensive fieldwork, provided access to developments no one else had spotted. Alongside a few colleagues, I had a quasi-monopoly on expertise on Islam inside Syria. When you are almost alone to work on a particular topic, a good case study might be enough. With the expansion of the field of expertise on Syria, things have to be different. Adopting a comparative approach and using the Syrian case to challenge existing theories, on insurgent networks, rebel governance, rebel fratricide for instance, is definitely the way forward. This might sound obvious to some colleagues, particularly in the US.

However, it is not as easy as it seems in the British context. Here we face a number of conflicting requirements. What supposedly matters for our employers are high-quality – and this often means theoretical – publications that score high in the REF, the Research Excellence Framework. At the same time, they want us to have impact, that is, to produce research that is immediately relevant to the public debate. Yet you will have more impact if you resemble the work of think tanks.

To return to the question of what academics can do differently, some colleagues have suggested to me that one of our comparative advantages is the greater historical depth of our research. I am not sure I agree with that. First, think tank experts read history books as well. Second, much of the relevant historical background to current developments, such as local dynamics, was never properly studied by anyone before 2011. It is only now, because of these developments, that we discover its relevance. Third, Syrian society has been radically transformed by a conflict that has elevated social actors that used to be marginal, and debased others that once were very influential.

Where academics have a role to play, however, is in providing broader analytical accounts that help the lay reader making sense of developments over the long term. Think tank expertise is good, but it is very fragmented, since reports generally focus on a very specific issue or a relatively short period of time. For instance, for my students who have no prior expertise on the conflict, it is often difficult to get the bigger picture by using such reports.

You can read more about Thomas Pierret’s past and ongoing work on his university profile or by following him on Twitter (@ThomasPierret). Some of his work in French and English is also accessible via Or check Edinburgh Research Explorer for a full list.