Power dynamics within and between de facto authorities and the Syrian regime have allowed corrupt networks and profiteers to emerge. Consequently, these actors continue to benefit while local communities lose out.
Almost a decade of conflict has transformed power dynamics in Syria. The country is politically and economically fragmented, and it is controlled by rival regimes and de facto authorities. The Russian intervention in September 2015 tipped the military balance in favour of the Syrian regime, which currently controls the majority of the country (around 65–70 per cent). The Kurdish-led Self Administration controls around 20–25 per cent of the country, in the northeast. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the group formerly known as Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Turkish-backed factions control the remaining areas outside the authority of the regime in the northwest (around 5–10 per cent).
These governing entities apply coercive measures to sustain their respective control over local communities. They also try to provide a minimum level of basic goods and services to build support and acceptance among their communities. To do this, they use different types of institutions that define the ‘rules’ of society, including formal rules (such as laws) and informal constraints like social norms and traditions. This paper analyses the role of formal and informal rule-makers in Syria, and the power dynamics within and between such groups or institutions. This includes formal rule-makers such as government entities, the judiciary, state-owned enterprises, and the different local governance structures that have emerged in non-regime areas. The informal rule-makers examined are profiteers, both individuals and groups, that often dominate local communities across Syria.
This paper aims to understand how the de facto authorities in Syria have captured state institutions and enabled profiteers to redistribute the country’s wealth and resources in their own interests. It also investigates the impact of these power dynamics on local communities. The analysis is based primarily on semi-structured interviews with an average of seven key informants from each of the three main areas in Syria that are governed by de facto authorities: regime-controlled areas, Kurdish-controlled regions in the east and north, and opposition armed groups in parts of Idlib. The interviews covered the institutional power dynamics of providing basic goods and services including healthcare, education, fuel and food, particularly bread.
The analysis distinguishes between the state and the regime in Syria. The regime encompasses a network of influential persons including security and military personnel, associates and businesspeople, Ba’ath Party leaders and high-ranking public officials. The head of the regime, President Bashar al-Assad, controls and coordinates the balance of power between different actors within this network. This paper shows the methods used by the regime to capture state institutions and how these have changed during the conflict. The regime has used state institutions to present itself as a legitimate authority that provides basic goods and services to its people, although, in reality, it abuses these institutions to serve its own interests and those of its network of profiteers.
In areas the regime does not control, entities like the Self Administration in the northeast and the Salvation Government in the northwest have risen as de facto authorities to replace or capture state institutions. Their inner circles of power have also struck deals with networks of local actors and profiteers to serve their own interests. The regime has tried to maintain links between the central state institutions and areas outside its control as a way of retaining a degree of political and economic leverage over other de facto authorities, but those attempts have been largely unsuccessful.
This paper also investigates the key factors that have enabled the rise of profiteers as main actors in Syria. It focuses on those who since 2011 have been involved in conflict-related activities such as smuggling, kidnapping, drugs and weapons trading, confiscating properties and monopolizing local markets. These profiteers include businesspeople, pre-conflict associates of the regime, corrupt officials and intermediaries from all areas. Rival de facto authorities cooperate with profiteers in the pursuit of power, resources or stability, and clear power hierarchies exist even within clusters of actors with similar political leanings. These power dynamics have a negative impact on local communities, which suffer from the poor performance of institutions, lack means of participation in decision-making and accountability, and thus can only make their voices heard through informal avenues like social media, demonstrations and civil society entities that try to evade co-optation. If the conditions in Syria are to improve attention must be paid to these power dynamics and their negative implications. This paper concludes with a call for international donors supporting initiatives in Syria to increase their awareness of these dynamics and to avoid the pitfalls that would have adverse effects on Syrian communities.