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Syria’s Transactional State: How the Conflict Changed the Syrian State’s Exercise of Power

  • Lina Khatib

    Director, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    مديرة برنامج الشرق الأوسط و شمال افريقيا


  • The Syrian conflict has changed the functions, capacity and agency of the principal institutions through which the state exercises control, namely the security agencies and the army. This has transformed Syria from a ‘shadow state’ dominated by the security apparatus into a ‘transactional state’ dominated by regime-aligned profiteers.
  • President Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power weakened the system of control that had been installed by his late father, Hafez al-Assad. The system had been reliant on a network of power brokers – both inside and outside state institutions – who would compete with one another to show regime loyalty. The Syrian conflict has further weakened this system, as the regime has become increasingly reliant on profiteers and external actors – specifically, Russia and Iran – pursuing their own interests.
  • The conflict has caused the Syrian army to become fragmented and even more corrupt than before, and the security apparatus to lose its centralized command. It has also led to the rise of pro-regime militias, both Syrian and foreign, all of which are pursuing their own agendas. These armed groups are unlikely to cease operating once the conflict ends, and indeed will continue to exercise influence for as long as the current regime is in power. The conflict has given rise to profiteers from the army, the security services and militias, as well as to civilian profiteers. These interest groups have a stake in the conflict continuing. At the same time, the Syrian state lacks the capacity to rein them in.
  • Russia and Iran have turned the Syrian regime into a client. Russia is shaping Syrian state institutions according to its own interests, while Iran is implanting influence both through Syrian state institutions and from outside them. Both Russia and Iran have also made Syria into an arena for their own military and economic competition. Russia is asserting itself as the main power broker in Syria, but is unable to completely restrain Iran.
  • All these factors mean that the regime of Bashar al-Assad cannot be a partner for the international community in terms of providing peace and stability in Syria. Any plan by the international community to support reconstruction, stabilization and resilience in Syria must start with the Geneva process, in order to safeguard against undue accommodation of Russia, the Assad regime and its profiteers.

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