If Syrians are ever to regain trust in their public institutions, the functions of the state can no longer be used to drive the regime’s political agenda.
Dating back to the military coup of 1970, public institutions in Syria have increasingly been manipulated to advance the regime’s political agenda. However, in the face of the 2011 uprising and the subsequent conflict in 2012, the regime monopoly over state institutions played an integral part in its war effort against the opposition.
With the conflict seemingly drawing to a close and the negotiations over the settlement continuing, the international community should prioritize disentangling the Syrian regime from state bodies and institutions, if Syrians are ever to regain trust in their public institutions.
state institutions are designed to protect citizens and preserve their rights. They ensure that the population has access to basic services like education, healthcare, clean water, a retirement pension and disability support, among others. They issue official documentation on marriage, property, child birth and travel. Such institutions are expected to be independent, apolitical and inclusive.
But Syria’s institutions under the Syrian regime never possessed any of the qualities that would allow people to gain trust and ownership over them.
In the decades after the Baathist regime seized power, it gradually manipulated and infiltrated state agencies, including security apparatuses and service providers. It was a
systemic policy aimed at blurring the lines between the regime, ‘a collection of informal family, community, religious and other networks that operate within and outside the
institutional framework of the state’, and state agencies and institutions. As such, public perception of these institutions began to decline in 2005, and according to Gallup surveys,
public trust in state institutions like the local police force and the judicial system was low.
Nonetheless, citizens had no option but to depend on these institutions to receive basic services. In 2010, state institutions employed about
1.4 million Syrians, becoming the primary employer in the country. With the average household size of 6.2, about 8.7 million Syrians were reliant on income generated from working in the public sector. Universities, schools and hospitals are almost all state-owned. Issuance of marriage, birth and death certificates, property deeds and other official documents and registrations are exclusively the responsibility of the state’s administrative offices.
As the conflict erupted in mid-2012, the government ensured that the conflict would not disrupt the state institutions’ functionality, guaranteeing that the people remained reliant on the government, and therefore limiting the incentives to oppose it. The Syrian government opted to instrumentalize the whole state in its war strategy to ensure that all citizens were completely
dependent on its rule, even more so as its grip was challenged. As the
provider of subsidized bread, water, fuel, electricity, schooling, and medication, the government remained well-positioned to maintain its control in the areas that were under its hold.
In many other cases of intra-state conflicts, institutions are either rendered obsolete or collapse all together, but the Syrian regime understood how integral they were to its survival. In territories it lost to its opponents, the Syrian regime systematically prevented the opposition from building alternative institutions that could weaken the government’s monopoly over basic service provision.
For example, while it did not withhold salary payments to civil servants, employees were forced to cross frontlines to regime-controlled areas to collect them. In some areas still, state institutions were purposely moved to areas known to be more loyal to the government, depriving citizens stuck in opposition-held areas from accessing basic services, and forcing many to relocate to government-held areas. In others, the regime destroyed infrastructure essential to the opposition’s effort to provide services.
Even outside the country, the regime used its foreign corps and missions to force Syrian expats and refugees to remain reliant on it. While many Syrian government missions were shuttered or reduced around the world, expats continued to seek out its embassies and consulates to renew passports. Some even relied on relatives residing in regime-controlled areas to renew their travel documents. For Syrians that fled because of their vocal opposition of the government, obtaining a passport would put their families in danger, making it an impossible task. This has caused many to become stateless, requiring additional international protection.
Opposition governance had some success in filling the void that was left behind. They produced documentation, like birth certificates and school diplomas, and provided basic services and economic support. But as control of territories has shifted back to the regime, such documents could pose additional risks for civilians, serving as markers of loyalty to the opposition.
With the conflict seemingly drawing to a close, post-conflict policies should be developed to untie state institutions from the regime. Diplomatic efforts, including in
Geneva, sought to pull state institutions out the Syrian regime’s grip, but efforts at compromise faulted.
As international attention has shifted to reconstruction, global leaders and policymakers need to be mindful of the centrality of public institutions in implementing reconstruction efforts in a manner inclusive to all people. All reconstruction plans will likely have to be implemented through line ministries and state agencies. However, if these agencies are not delinked from the regime, there is great risk that reconstruction efforts will be hijacked to prop up loyalist areas and further deprive civilians in areas previously under opposition control.
Meanwhile, the refugee return agenda pushed by regional governments will remain laden with risk. Even if Syria becomes safe for returning refugees, many would opt out from returning because they may be deprived from receiving basic services offered. As such, without meaningful institutional reform that restores independence and neutrality, stability remains a far-sighted dream in Syria.