As the regime becomes more reliant on corrupt networks, it is the country’s citizens that suffer. Can the international community offer some hope?
The conflict in Syria has transformed the country’s power dynamics. Syria’s institutions have either weakened under state control or become inefficient quasi-formal extensions of de facto authorities. In either case, institutions meant to provide essential goods and services are affected by the proliferation of profiteers and dominated from within by inner power structures that serve the narrow interests of the regime and de facto authorities. This has further weakened their capacity to meet the needs of citizens. The regime continues to try to maintain the upper hand over profiteers, but it has also become dependent on them to deliver goods and services as well as to circumvent sanctions. Their mutual dependency sustains institutionalized corruption that reduces citizens’ agency and ability to make their voices heard in decision-making, leaving them with only informal avenues like social media and demonstrations to make their demands known. This underlines the importance of local civil society initiatives that try to operate without being co-opted. Inadequate citizen agency is also a concern in non-regime areas, where channels for demanding and ensuring accountability are limited, which puts the burden on local civil society to try to play that role.
These dynamics underline the need to encourage greater citizen engagement in local governance institutions and public services, including in policy deliberation, implementation and evaluation. This can be accomplished through building and strengthening independent community-led, local civil society entities, enabling participatory planning and budgeting, and opening effective monitoring and accountability avenues.
Where the international community supports institutions and organizations in Syria, their programmes need to insist on increased transparency in governance institutions and service providers, beginning with how resources and services are distributed, how public funds are spent, and how tenders are processed and regulated. International donors must insist on open and competitive procurement, maximum disclosure, independent due diligence, external monitoring and social audits for any initiatives they support.
Awareness of the various tools and mechanisms used by profiteers highlighted in this paper can help guard against the manipulation of governance institutions and public services. It can help ensure that projects and activities meant to support the economy do not end up directly or indirectly empowering profiteer economic networks. On a practical level, this can be achieved by directing economic support to a large number of micro and small projects that individually fall outside the scope of interest for these networks.
All the above must be supplemented with the establishment of an effective monitoring system for international initiatives to ensure that support achieves its objectives in empowering local communities and fulfilling their needs. This system would also guarantee that profiteers do not benefit from and abuse this support in cooperation with de facto authorities.