Who will rule in Syria? Fragmented sovereignty and the problems of transition

By Nicholas Barker:

Blog entry for Strife revised 20.03.2014
Zones of control in Syria

Who rules when the fighting stops? … When political groups resort to war, it is because they cannot agree on who gets to call the tune in peace.[i]

The Geneva II peace talks have foundered on the questions of a political transition and what will replace Assad and his regime. Determining who will control the instruments of state power – and thereby monopolise the use of force – is the greatest challenge in negotiating an end to a civil war: overwhelming existential fear and mistrust between the warring parties limits the chances of reaching an agreement and then committing to and implementing it.[ii] But these questions of who rules, where, and how cannot be answered only at the national level. The war in Syria is a war for control of the state but it is also intensely local, made up of multiple small wars. ‘Several struggles are rolled into one’, according to the International Crisis Group. What began as ‘an internal conflict pitting the regime against a broad popular uprising with multiple, separate flashpoints has broken into several battlefields and front lines, shaped by local characteristics’.

These dynamics are common in civil wars: political authority fragments, control of territory and people is divided between competing armed groups, and mutually exclusive claims of the right to rule create conditions of ‘multiple sovereignty’ and the formation of  ‘states-within-states’.[iii] Rebels must secure territorial and social control to further their military objectives. They face a ‘territorial imperative’ to establish a stronghold, but civilian support – or acquiescence – is essential to all sides, so the population under their control must be ruled effectively in order to prevent defection. Consequently, civil wars are not exclusively destructive phenomena but are violent processes of ‘competitive state building’,[iv] forming and transforming political, social and economic relations between armed groups and civilians. This not only shapes the course of the war, but will also shape the subsequent peace.

War, governance and the struggle for control

Reports from Syria portray a fractured polity with violent competition between the government, rebels, and civilians for control of territory and the right to rule. A diverse range of political actors now control different parts of Syria, with varying degrees of coercion, effectiveness, and legitimacy, and with ongoing battles to seize contested territory. The effort to control the population is as much a part of the war as military combat. In the town of Shadadi, for example, Jabhat al-Nusra provided extensive services to the population, including food, electricity, water, healthcare, and ‘the promise of swift justice, delivered according to sharia law’. In Raqqa – under rebel control since March 2013 – rebels have competed with the regime and with each other for control over civilians, and for their loyalty. Reports from activists tell of the government cutting supplies of electricity to ‘punish’ armed groups when they began taxing the populations’ electricity use, and jihadists compete with each other to provide local services, with local governance a ‘prime site for the battle for Syrian hearts and minds’.

There is a strategic logic driving these efforts. ISIS has consolidated control over Raqqa by closing down media outlets and the foreign exchange office, and taking control of food supplies in order to create a dependent population. Their aim is to change dependence ‘into loyalty and gain popularity among the community’ and thereby expand their control of territory in eastern Syria and Iraq. ISIS have also adopted a strategy of sectarian cleansing, with violence against Christians increasing as ISIS took control, leading to a majority of the city’s Christian population fleeing.

The Assad regime has adopted a similar approach. Sunni civilians in Alawite areas tell of threats and intimidation, and being driven from their homes in fear of sectarian cleansing, and claim that the Assad regime is trying to ‘to reshape the area’s fragile ethnic mix’ to an extent that exceeds the consolidation of a loyal stronghold. Furthermore, wartime population displacement has led to sectarian segregation in cities, and instances of sectarian cleansing in the countryside, shattering the historic tolerance that once existed between Syria’s sects.

These wartime transformations will have consequences that last beyond the fighting, and the actors on the ground know their political actions may have greater impact than any tactical victory. ‘I have been fighting for two years and a half’ one rebel leader is quoted as saying. ‘Tell me: what have I achieved? In all this time did I ever think of establishing governance? Did I consider working with the civilians in the areas under my control to get electricity or provide anything? The jihadis are better: they provide governance. In two and a half years, I have built nothing. Kill me, and my battalion collapses. Kill the jihadis, and the institutions they have founded will survive.’ It will be years before we know the full implications of these wars within wars over governance, but the transition to peace will have to take account of the enduring effects of institutions forged in war.

Prospects for peace?

Some analysts argue that governance of rebel-controlled areas is key to the resolution of the war. Baczko et al claim that the ‘solution’ to the crisis is to build a state in territory held by the rebels that can eventually replace the Assad regime. They propose strengthening national institutions rather than more parochial actors and armed groups through establishing ‘coordination committees’ and argue that the main priority should not be assisting the military progress of the opposition, but effective institution building in ‘liberated’ areas. Others also emphasise the importance of legitimate governance in rebel-held, or ‘liberated’ territory. Moustafa et al argue that building a democratic post-war Syria depends on establishing civilian police to provide protection and law and order in such areas, which should be controlled by civilian councils that have been democratically-elected.

Such proposals are not without their risks, though, and creating legitimate governance in rebel-controlled territory presents enormous challenges. Civil wars elevate ‘specialists in violence’ to positions of political authority, militarising local governance, and many studies have explored how these violence entrepreneurs are generally unwilling to relinquish wartime gains in power and status once the fighting has stopped. Rebels who become politicians and bureaucrats do not just relinquish wartime practices or institutions, which can be sustained even when the armed conflict has come to end. The same is true of the government, and the Syrian regime has adapted in ways that will affect how post-war Syria is governed. The demands of waging war have forced the Assad regime to ‘reconfigure its social base, tighten its dependency on global authoritarian networks, adapt its modes of economic governance, and restructure its military and security apparatus’.[v] If these adaptations are entrenched the chances of a post-war transition to democracy are slim.

The problem is that, ‘[a]s with most civil wars, those who will emerge empowered from the turmoil [in Syria] will likely be those who, having accumulated power through force but also ideological and sectarian mobilisation, will be most reluctant to cede it’.[vi] The longer the conflict continues, the more deeply entrenched these wartime power structures will become and the more profoundly they will shape the political order that emerges from the war. This will make the relationship between the main, national conflict and the multiple local conflicts crucial to how the transition to peace unfolds. There can be both sharp divergences and close connections between the national ‘cleavage’ and the local conflicts of a civil war. Even with a national settlement, these local conflicts may run on,[vii] with local warlords ruling over fragments of Syria, clinging on to power and privilege accrued through violence and the control of people and territory, making the peace as fragmented as the war.

Nicholas is currently a London-based independent researcher with postgraduate degrees from Birkbeck, University of London and Central European University.  His research focuses on the termination and aftermath of civil wars, and British foreign policy. He has worked at an international affairs think tank, and as a commissioning editor for an international relations website.

[i] Richard K. Betts, ‘The Delusion of Impartial Intervention’, Foreign Affairs 73, no. 6 (November 1, 1994): 21, doi:10.2307/20046926.
[ii] Barbara F. Walter, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2002); Caroline A Hartzell and Matthew Hoddie, Crafting Peace: Power-Sharing Institutions and the Negotiated Settlement of Civil Wars (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).
[iii] Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1978), 192; Stathis N Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 12; Paul W. T. Kingston and Ian Spears, eds., States-within-States: Incipient Political Entities in the Post-Cold War Era, 1st ed (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
[iv] Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, 218; See also Paul Staniland, ‘States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders’, Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 02 (2012): 243–64, doi:10.1017/S1537592712000655.
[v] Heydemann, ‘Syria and the Future of Authoritarianism’, 60.
[vi] Emile Hokayem, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant, Adelphi Series (Abingdon: Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2013), 11.
[vii] This is what Autesserre has called ‘local violence, national peace’ in the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Séverine Autesserre, ‘Local Violence, National Peace? Postwar “Settlement” in the Eastern D.R. Congo (2003-2006)’, African Studies Review 49, no. 3 (2006): 1–29, doi:10.1353/arw.2007.0007.

1 thought on “Who will rule in Syria? Fragmented sovereignty and the problems of transition”

  1. Mr.Assad must step down first, then all shall follow. People will come to a point that they must ruled themselves now and only then a new government will emerged

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