The manipulation of state institutions has boosted Assad’s position across the country, leaving de facto authorities with little choice but to cooperate in some form with the regime.
Increased regime control over state institutions
Throughout the conflict, the regime has used its control over state institutions in Syria to legitimize itself domestically, punish its opponents and reward or control loyalists. These institutions enable the regime to provide minimum public services and to facilitate very limited reconstruction activities in areas under its control. It has also allowed loyalist profiteers, in cooperation with key regime figures and foreign backers, Iran and Russia, to abuse state entities for their own financial benefit. However, the limitations imposed on Rami Makhlouf – Assad’s cousin, who was once the most powerful associate of the president in Syria – show how the regime can also use state institutions, laws and regulations, to replace and punish any profiteer who may begin to pose a risk to its authority over the country or who hesitates to financially support the regime in an unconditional manner.
The conflict has made the regime’s approach to state institutions more rigid and more interventionist in their daily activities. Law No. 107, issued in August 2011, was meant to facilitate decentralization of power and form the basis for local administration in regime-controlled areas, but little has changed, not least because it has largely not been implemented. The regime exercises control over state institutions through three main actors: the office of the Presidency, the Ba’ath Party and the security agencies. As its grip on state institutions in areas not under its direct authority began to wane, it sought further control of the de jure state institutions in regime-controlled areas through these three actors.
One method of achieving regime control over state institutions is to replace the rule of law – i.e. the public, the state and the ruling elite being equally subject to regulations and restrictions – with ‘rule by law’. The Presidency issues laws and regulations, and it instructs parliament to approve them. Relevant ministries, other government entities and experts can provide their input, but the sole determining factor in the implementation of these laws and regulations is the regime’s interests in retaining power and controlling Syria’s resources, rather than parliamentary approval.
This process has continued during the conflict, and government entities have rarely been allowed to suggest even minor adjustments to laws proposed by the Presidency. The majority of these laws are directly geared to achieving the interests of the regime and its allies. For instance, Law No. 5 passed in 2016, which organizes public–private partnerships, was formulated upon direct instructions from the Presidency. It allows foreign investors to become stakeholders in public entities. This provides a legal framework for the foreign economic exploitation of Syria’s wealth and assets, such as the Russian investment in the port of Tartous. This incentivizes Iran and Russia to continue their military and political support for the regime.
The Presidency’s human and financial capacity to intervene in the technical decisions of many key state entities has been limited, but it maintains its dominance over strategic decisions.
Another method of control over state institutions is to insert figures close to the regime into institutional decision-making processes. The Presidency used to dominate the technical decisions of many key state entities, but during the conflict its human and financial capacity to intervene in such decisions has been limited, though it maintains its dominance over strategic decisions. For example, the Presidency previously shaped and managed the curriculum used in all schools even though the Ministry of Education was responsible for this. Before 2011, the office of First Lady Asma al-Assad supervised the formation of a committee of Syrian and foreign (mainly British) experts to change and ‘modernize’ the curriculum. During the conflict, the administration has limited its interventions and the Ministry of Education became more involved in this process but with regular support from some of the Syrian experts who worked with the first lady.
Security agencies are a major tool in the regime’s control over state institutions. The regime has always depended on them to monitor institutions such as ministries and state-owned enterprises. The Presidency has purposefully not created a mechanism for the security agencies to coordinate with one another; to ensure their loyalty, it lets them instead monitor each other and report any suspicious incidents to the president. Since the beginning of the conflict, the security agencies have become more powerful and controlling, benefitting from Russia’s support. They have intervened in the day-to-day activities of state entities, including in minor decisions and operational processes, such as staff deployment. This gives them more power to abuse state activities in collusion with profiteers. One example is the General Establishment for Grain Trade, Storing and Processing (Hoboob), a state-owned enterprise that contracts private mills to grind wheat. It makes its decisions based on nominations from security personnel and regardless of the competitiveness of technical and financial offers. The owners of mills – few of whom have good relationships with influential persons in the regime – usually bribe security personnel to get contracts.
Security agencies have direct, informal connections with high-ranking officials in the government. Their approval has been vital for all appointments of ministers, deputy ministers, directors of public establishments, and other key public employees. The Political Security Directorate in Damascus and its branches usually instruct, monitor, nominate, and approve the recruitment of government officials. Throughout the conflict, these officials have served more as security agents rather than civil servants. They have sacked thousands of public-sector employees that were considered regime opponents.
The Ba’ath Party is another instrument for the regime to dominate state institutions. Its organizations are the de facto authorities for many vital sectors in Syria. One of these organizations is the General Union of Peasants in Syria, which has more influence on farmers than the Ministry of Agriculture. It has direct contacts with farmers to provide them with fertilizers, seeds and subsidized fuel. However, only loyalists receive the support of the union. In areas, such as Daraa, that were previously controlled by opposition groups, the union is deliberately neglecting farmers’ needs.
In the education sector, three Ba’ath Party organizations – the Ba’ath Vanguards Organization, the Revolution Youth Union and the National Union of Syrian Students – organize and monitor students’ activities and disseminate public messaging that glorifies Assad and demonizes the opposition to him among students. These organizations became a tool for many profiteers to make financial gains, especially during the conflict. The National Union of Syrian Students, for instance, ran checkpoints near public universities that generated a lot of money. Students were threatened with being reported to security agencies for opposing the regime if they did not pay up.
The Ba’ath Party dominates important legislative and executive positions in state institutions. Key government figures such as the prime minister, the minister of defence and the minister of foreign affairs are all Ba’athists. Party members always have the majority in parliament. While party membership on its own does not bestow power on an individual, the regime bestows it on many Ba’athists by placing them in key positions. Their presence in state institutions facilitates the issuing of laws, regulations and decisions to legalize the punishment of civilians considered opponents of the regime. This includes property confiscation, wrongful dismissal and discrimination with regard to service provision.
Throughout the conflict the regime has issued several discriminatory and authoritarian laws. One example is Law No. 10 of 2018, which allows the creation of redevelopment zones for reconstruction and whose real purpose is to redistribute land and properties to pro-regime profiteers. These laws can result in the confiscation of the homes of displaced families. Laws concerning the distribution of goods and services by state entities also make it possible to discriminate against areas previously controlled by opposition groups. For example, the Syrian Company for Bakeries and internal trade directorates, which are state institutions, need to obtain security approvals to determine the quantities of wheat flour and bread that should be distributed in each region.
State institutions outside regime areas and the control of de facto authorities
The conflict has limited the regime’s control over a considerable portion of Syria’s territory. Different de facto authorities have largely replaced the central governance structure and institutions in their respective areas with quasi-formal ones that reflect and advance their ideological and political agendas. This was done by capturing the physical assets of the de jure state institutions and repurposing them to provide similar functions, but under rival governing structures. Communities in the northwest initially established local administrative councils to run their areas, which they did in coordination with armed groups and opposition political entities.
Despite various attempts to unify these localized governance structures, they have remained largely fragmented. There are two main models of governance in the northwest. The first includes local administrative structures that operate semi-independently under the supervision of Turkish authorities (e.g. the city of Azaz and the areas covered by Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch military operations). The second model is implemented in Greater Idlib (Idlib governorate and rural Aleppo), which is controlled by the Salvation Government. This was established with the blessing and support of HTS, which uses it to impose its administrative authority over the area. The Syrian Interim Government, which is linked to the opposition-led coalition, has been theoretically in charge of administrating Idlib for years. However, its authority has been largely nominal, while the Salvation Government is the main entity governing Idlib and its surroundings. Despite the importance of the first model, this paper mainly focuses on the quasi-formal institutions of the Salvation Government, because they are more centrally administrated.
The situation is less complicated in the northeast. The Kurdish-led Self Administration was initially established in 2012 in Kurdish-majority areas in Hasakah governorate, and then expanded to other areas in the region (Manbij, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor) following the military defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Despite the major ideological and political differences between the Self Administration and the Salvation Government (and HTS), both operate a centralized model that allows them to use governance and quasi-formal service-provision institutions to achieve their state-building projects.
Despite the existence of these rival governance models, the regime has, where possible, maintained the presence of state institutions and provided public services to areas outside its control. While its motives may vary from one region to another, the regime generally maintains a link with state institutions in areas outside its control to retain leverage over local communities there.
While its motives may vary from one region to another, the regime generally maintains a link with state institutions in areas outside its control to retain leverage over local communities there.
These dynamics are particularly apparent in the northeast, where mutual interests have been the primary driver of the relationship between the regime and the Self Administration. The latter was cautious not to cut all ties with the regime to avoid being seen as a separatist movement, which could have led to violent retaliation. Co-existence arrangements with the Self Administration have allowed the regime to maintain security zones inside the cities of Hasakah and Qamishli, with Russian and Iranian assistance. By permitting it to do so, the Self Administration managed to prevent wider conflict with the regime and avoid military retaliation. The regime’s sizable presence in Hasakah and Qamishli spans the governorship, the courthouse, the municipality, the provincial council, the civil and land registries, the transportation directorate, the police, public banks, the education directorate and the main branch of the Ba’ath Party. It also includes the three primary intelligence branches (military, national security and political). In addition, the regime has maintained a significant presence of regular state armed forces in those enclaves, among several vital assets (such as the Qamishli airport and critical military bases) in the Hasakah governorate.
Through the institutions of these enclaves, the regime has been able to maintain control over some essential functions, such as the issuing of official documents in the Hasakah governorate. While the Self Administration issues civil documents (such as birth, divorce and marriage certificates), the regime and the international community do not recognize them. As a result, the Self Administration has allowed the regime to provide such documents to the people living in its areas who are willing or obliged to obtain them, which has led to the duplication of civil documents. Similar dynamics exist in the education sector, where each of the two actors has insisted on teaching its own ideologically influenced curriculum in schools. Consequently, the regime has taught its curriculum inside the enclaves it controls, while the Self Administration has enforced its version in the rest of the governorate. However, the regime’s level of influence in Hasakah remains limited due to the Self Administration’s high level of authority in the governorate.
The regime does not have the same authority or presence in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. Unlike the Hasakah governorate, these regions have been outside the control of the regime for a long time. The Self Administration used the areas that were captured from ISIS between 2016 and 2019 to establish local civil councils that operate under its umbrella and in line with its policies and regulations (which are supported by the US). The regime has frequently attempted to exploit the weak capacity of these recently established Self Administration institutions to re-establish a foothold in those areas and increase the share of international humanitarian support channelled through Damascus. Doing so allows the regime to determine where and how aid is distributed. For example, after the partial rehabilitation of Tabqa National Hospital in 2018, the Health Ministry pledged to provide medication and equipment to the hospital. In return for offering to provide this assistance and pay the salaries of some hospital staff, the regime attempted to mobilize the health workers associated with its health directorate to open an office on the premises of the hospital. However, the Raqqa civil council did not permit this due to the concern among locals, as well as US officials, that such support from the ministry could allow the return of the regime.
Similarly, during the same timeframe, the civil council in Raqqa entered into negotiations with the regime to connect its civil and land registries to government records. The latter agreed to help but insisted on conducting the task through government employees sent to Raqqa for that purpose. This was seen as an attempt to take advantage of state institutions in order to undermine the authority of the civil council and give the impression that the regime was returning to the province. The council’s rejection of this demand left the governorate disconnected from the government’s civil and land records.
Due to its inability to access the majority of areas outside its control (in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib), the regime relocated some of the state institutions and their functions to neighbouring regions that it held. This has typically included the governorship, the provincial council and crucial public-service directorates (transportation, education, health, and civil and land registries). These state institutions have been moved from Raqqa and Idlib to Hama. The situation is slightly different in Deir ez-Zor governorate, where the regime controls Deir ez-Zor city and other urban centres. In the governorate, many state institutions and functions were moved from areas under the control of the Self Administration to areas controlled by the regime. While many of those relocated state institutions remain mostly inactive, others provide services to residents from their respective areas – either to those individuals who have been displaced to other regime-held areas or to those travelling there for paperwork.
The objective of preserving the structures and functions of those institutions outside their traditional regions is to show that the current de facto divisions and structures are temporary, and that it is just a matter of time before the regime recaptures them. That may help explain why local and parliamentary elections have continued to be held in Hama for Raqqa and Idlib: those structures are ready to be re-installed as soon as the situation allows. Besides, the regime uses those relocated institutions and the people in them as intermediaries to facilitate its return to their respective areas through locally brokered ‘reconciliation deals’. This is evident in Deir ez-Zor, where the governorate council and its representatives in parliament are made up of figures from both sides of the Euphrates as well as from the main tribal confederations in the governorate. As tribal connections traverse the Euphrates to Self Administration areas, the regime uses locals who occupy official positions to reach out to the communities under the control of the Self Administration to convince them to restore ties with the regime.
The presence of state institutions in rebel-held Idlib is even more limited than in the northeast. Unlike the Hasakah governorate, Idlib and rural Aleppo were captured by force from the regime. Since the armed groups that led the military campaign were driven by their desire to topple Assad, state institutions were not allowed to operate in those areas. Yet the regime and the rebel authorities were still able to cooperate on providing some mutually beneficial services. In general, the regime has continued to provide salaries to public servants in various sectors in the northwest, among other non-regime areas. This allows the regime to maintain a link to thousands of residents across Syria, which it can use to exploit its rivals’ capacity gaps and reassert its influence. For example, around 6,000 teachers in Idlib remained on the payroll of the regime until early 2020. In exchange for its financial support, the regime’s education directorate played a role in managing the schools where those teachers were employed. Thus, various schools in rural Idlib (such as Balani in Maarat al Nouman and Naser Aboud and Mahmoud Kashto in Tal Millis) had two principals: one appointed by the regime that reported directly to it, and one named by the opposition-affiliated Idlib education directorate.
The arrangement is equally beneficial for the Salvation Government in Idlib, as it provides funding for a sizeable number of teachers without allowing the regime any real power over the education sector. Nonetheless, the regime’s systematic military attacks on Idlib’s schools, which were accelerated during its offensive on the region in 2019–20, have recently pushed the education directorate to issue a new regulation to shut down all schools affiliated with the regime. As a result, teachers on the regime’s payroll can still attempt to receive their salaries from the regime in Hama, but they are no longer allowed to teach in Idlib’s schools. Similar arrangements previously existed between various rebel forces (such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra) and the regime to allow the provision of electricity to their areas in Aleppo and Idlib. These allowed the regime to access and maintain power stations held by rebel groups in exchange for providing a percentage of the electricity generated to areas under their control. Such an arrangement lasted in some areas in Idlib until early 2017. However, those arrangements no longer exist as the regime has since been able to seize the critical electricity infrastructure involved in those agreements.