While ideologies and political leanings differ between Syria’s competing de facto authorities, pragmatic cooperation with rivals is common among ruling actors in the pursuit of control and resources.
Cooperation between otherwise competing de facto authorities
In the pursuit of resources, security or power, de facto authorities and their affiliates can engage in pragmatic relationships even with their rivals, leading to cooperation that cuts across ideological and political lines. Cooperation for the pursuit of profit among otherwise competing actors is illustrated in the process of importing fuel into Idlib. The Self Administration in the northeast monopolizes the production of fuel in the area. Despite its political rivalry with Turkey, it also controls the flow of fuel to Idlib and administers crossings with Turkish-backed areas, whose borders and market in the northwest are under the control of HTS. This arrangement is mutually beneficial for all parties. It secures a market for the Self Administration’s oil, the money from which is used to finance its military and administrative operations, and it helps HTS finance its military and quasi-formal institutions.
Cooperation between divergent political actors can happen for the sake of acquiring resources necessary for the implementation of a political goal. This can be observed in cooperation over fuel and services between the Self Administration and the regime. Areas under the control of the Self Administration provide the government with about 14,000 barrels of crude oil per day. In return, the regime gives the Self Administration access to electricity and water as well as fuel from the Homs and Banias refineries.
Security is another motive behind cooperation among otherwise competing actors. The regime and Self Administration have maintained military and security cooperation throughout the conflict. This became obvious in 2012, when the regime apparently coordinated its relatively peaceful withdrawal from most Kurdish-majority areas. Afterwards, coordination was mostly limited to the regime’s two enclaves in Hasakah and Qamishli cities, where it maintained a significant military presence supported by Russia and Iran.
At that time the mutual interests of the regime and the Self Administration were in de-escalating tensions and coordinating movements in their respective areas. The cooperation mechanisms between the regime’s security zones in Hasakah governorate, which were surrounded by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, became crucial as street-level skirmishes between members of the two sides increased. Both sides reportedly assigned contact persons (such as the commander of the Asayish, the Kurdish-led security forces, and the regime governor of Hasakah) to deal with emergencies and major issues. In such cases, the initial contact is typically made over the phone to sort out the problem, if possible, or to arrange an urgent meeting. The coordination is done directly by key local officials from both sides as opposed to being formalized between the respective institutions of the regime and the Self Administration.
Cooperation between the two entities increased and became more institutionalized after the growing Turkish threat pushed the Syrian Democratic Forces to seek the support of Russia, which brokered a deal allowing the deployment of regime forces to rural Manbij in 2018 to create a buffer zone. A similar deal was reached in 2019 when Turkey intervened in northeast Syria, which allowed the regime and Russian forces to create a buffer zone in that region.
Cooperation among otherwise competing actors is also driven by the pursuit of local control. Although HTS and the Salvation Government are the prevailing de facto public authorities in the northwest, it is only the political opposition’s Syrian Interim Government that has the mandate to decide strategic appointments to certain state institutions such as the education directorate. Any direct intervention by the Salvation Government in the work of the education directorate might push donors to terminate their funding to the education sector. Decisions of this kind are therefore usually reached through consensus among different actors. For example, heads of departments within the education directorate are typically appointed by the directorate itself. However, these appointments can only happen if there is no objection from the Salvation Government or HTS. Obtaining that approval typically happens through the individuals delegated by the Salvation Government to oversee the work of the directorate.
Yet, such cross-political cooperation does not override the persistence of political rivalries among competing actors. For example, the former head of Idlib’s education directorate resigned in early 2020 under pressure from HTS and the Salvation Government. Subsequently, the Interim Government attempted to name Khalid al-Daghim to that position, but HTS vetoed the appointment. Due to the absence of a consensus on an appointee to that position, the directorate is currently managed by Hassan al-Shawa, the deputy director.
Power hierarchies within de facto authorities and state institutions
The enabling factors discussed above have facilitated the concentration of power within de facto authorities and state institutions. These inner power structures exert significant influence over the management of resources, often forming further parallel structures that replace – totally or partially – some state and de facto authority institutions in delivering basic goods and services or even dominating their operations from within.
The internal power structures of de facto authorities have contributed to the weakening of quasi-formal institutions that are beyond the regime’s control and transformed them into profiteers.
The internal power structures of de facto authorities have contributed to the weakening of quasi-formal institutions that are beyond the regime’s control and transformed them into profiteering organizations. The ability of profiteers to operate inside and outside formal entities prevents quasi-formal institutions from monitoring their work and from holding them accountable for abuses of power and corruption. The inner power structures in Idlib mainly consist of HTS figures who are delegated by the group to run a specific sector or at least veto anything that may undermine its authority. Despite not having official positions, these individuals hold the ultimate power in all strategic and policy decisions. For example, the individual known under the alias Abu Ahmed Hodod, a top HTS security figure, is the group’s main focal point for economic-related matters. The Salvation Government cannot take any decision in that regard without HTS approval, while Hodod can singlehandedly force the Salvation Government to issue policies or change regulations as he sees fit. According to local sources, Hodod is most likely the person behind the reduction of the import tax on fuel that allowed Watad to increase its profits.
The Self Administration controls quasi-formal institutions in the areas it controls through a network of cadros. Officially, cadros are appointed as technical advisers to help locals establish and run quasi-formal institutions in their respective areas. In practice, they hold the ultimate power and purse strings within Self Administration institutions, and nothing can be implemented without their approval. The existence and influence of cadros creates confusion about who is responsible for what in the Self Administration because they can overrule the mandates of its quasi-formal institutions. The cadros also undermine the authority of local officials and prevent them from establishing clear mechanisms to safeguard against abuses of power and corruption.
For example, the Self Administration has appointed over a dozen cadros to oversee all aspects of oil production in Deir ez-Zor (such as extraction, transportation, protection and investments). The Deir ez-Zor council, which is considered the highest authority in the region, has no authority over them. The inability of the Deir ez-Zor council to monitor the work of the cadros operating through it allows the latter to misuse their power without being held accountable. For practical reasons, individuals tend to go through cadros to secure their interests. Big smuggling networks usually seek the protection of a cadro to ensure smooth operations.
Inner circles also dominate state institutions in regime-controlled areas. For example, to ensure its ideological control over the educational process, the Ba’ath Party interferes in almost all appointments in the education sector, including those of teachers and administrative staff in schools. The party’s institutions, such as the National Union of Syrian Students at Damascus University, are the only active non-educational and political entities in schools and universities. The union played a vital role in suppressing campus demonstrations against the regime in 2011. In cooperation with different security agencies, it facilitated the detention and disappearance of hundreds of university students. Its members have become responsible for security at Damascus University. The union also has contributed to establishing Ba’ath brigades, the armed faction of the Ba’ath Party. These brigades have offices within the faculties of Damascus University to recruit students in exchange for giving them examination questions and answers in advance.
Unsurprisingly, the highest authority within the regime’s network is the Presidency. Even when the Presidency does not have de jure power over the operation of a state function, it can sometimes have de facto authority over it. For example, the Presidency is the de facto supervisor of the Office of Crude Oil Marketing, which, by law, works under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office to approve all oil imports into the private sector.