North Africa, West Asia

The persistence of elite control in Syria

If lasting political change is to occur in Syria, the experience of its neighbours must be heeded.

Doris Carrion
13 July 2016

Lebanese anti-Government protest in September 2015. Hassan Ammar/ Press Association. All rights reserved.The UN still aims to facilitate a Syrian agreement for a transitional government by August, envoy Staffan de Mistura affirmed at the end of June. Although there are many reasons why a political settlement is unlikely to be near, recent geopolitical shifts and the upcoming election of a new US president could mean that a window for effective diplomacy would open next year.

Many of Syria’s current realities would continue even after such a settlement, however. Even if power changes hands in Damascus, the provision of security and services will remain a matter of competition and power-sharing between elites.

Political and economic power in Syria have long been concentrated in the hands of a few, and some of these patterns have continued since the outbreak of conflict. The coterie of regime-linked elites that dominated the economy in the years before the war are still in place. In addition, new wartime elites have emerged by accumulating weapons and the profits of a burgeoning war economy. Some of these are profiteers who control the movement across internal and external borders of goods, money, commodities and even basic services like water and electricity.

Both ‘old’ and ‘new’ elites are often linked to armed groups fighting for and against the regime, which increasingly control their own fiefdoms across the country. Meanwhile, state institutions have been affected by the dire state of the economy, the regime’s focus on war aims, and the penetration of foreign actors. Some of the state’s most basic distributive mechanisms – civil servant salaries and subsidies on essential goods – are also increasingly being scaled back due to the regime’s dwindling resources and the devaluation of the Syrian pound.

There are some small exceptions to this pattern of service provision, but they are not the norm. There have been attempts at ‘bottom-up’ service delivery in areas no longer controlled by the regime, in which communities have taken the initiative to look after their areas or to hold armed groups accountable for delivering services. However, various obstacles have meant that real decision-making in those areas has tended to remain in the hands of armed groups.

Local councils have been largely unable to collect their own revenue, and they receive insufficient support from external sources. Local institutions also suffer from the persistence of top-down behaviour and lack of experience among leaders, as well as infighting and accusations of corruption. External supporters of bottom-up service delivery initiatives are uncoordinated and also set controversial restrictions on how funding can be spent.

In addition, institutions like schools and hospitals are regularly targeted in regime attacks on rebel-held areas. In Kurdish-held areas, resources, decisions and political expression are also primarily kept under the Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s strict control, despite the establishment of local civilian institutions. A number of state services remain under the control of the Asayish security forces, and the PYD is criticized for engaging in authoritarian behaviour against opposition in its areas, Kurdish or otherwise.

De facto rule by armed factions and elites is arguably both a curse and a necessity in countries at war. Once rule of law and normal economic life have broken down, these types of actors and networks typically become the only way to provide security and services. And even when war has formally ended, this type of political economy usually persists, acting as both a crutch and a burden.

In Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, the weakness and elite capture of the state, penetration of foreign interests, and lack of disarmament of militias have meant that many of the same people involved in the war continued to call the shots during ‘peacetime’. This is partly because the bargains, both internal and geopolitical, that were necessary to broker a settlement then perpetuate wartime power dynamics.

Warring factions have sometimes been offered control of the rent from certain ministries or have been allowed to keep their weapons. Militia leaders can retain control of their own sources of rent and patronage even if they have not been part of the negotiations. At times this has enabled armed factions to become a challenge to traditional elites. External actors’ attempts to promote reconstruction, investment and stabilization then become subject not only to foreign interests but also to domestic competition for influence and self-serving political behaviour.

It is very difficult to measure or generalize what it is that Syrians want from power brokers in their country, or indeed what they will want from them in the future. However, the elite arrangement described above inevitably excludes people who would not agree to this system forever. The most likely post-settlement political and economic order will therefore contain the seeds of its own destabilization.

If the aim is to avoid a return to conflict after a political settlement is reached, however, then the experiences of Syria’s neighbours provide warnings that should not be ignored.

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