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Understanding the characteristics of the new emerging state in Syria

  • Haid Haid

    Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك استشاري، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

Despite the regime’s ability to restore its control over the majority of Syria’s territories, it is still struggling to restore crucial state functions inside them. The large scale of physical and financial destruction has significantly impacted the role and reach of the state in regime areas, even after the end of the fighting.

In terms of access, regime forces are still banned by Russia from entering some former rebel areas. Likewise, the regime still lacks the capacity to enforce a monopoly on violence or provide basic services. Such vacuums are thus filled by or delegated to non-state groups or foreign actors.

Unlike the pre-2011 state in Syria, the emerging one, despite the regime’s relatively strong control over it, is no longer one central entity. Therefore, using a classical state lens to understand its dynamics through top-down analysis could be misleading and counterproductive.

Various territorial configurations

The clear meaning of the term ‘territorial control’, which indicates full and absolute access, no longer applies to all areas currently under the regime’s flag. Based on the existing dynamics on the ground, the regime’s authority in those territories could be divided into three main categories: Full, shared and non-existent. Consequently, new sub-categories are needed to capture the variation in the regime’s authority and unpack current post-capitulation settings.

First, certain areas have always been under regime control, such as central Damascus and the coastal areas. The lack of fighting in those territories has created different dynamics to the rest of the regions that were heavily contested or retaken. Despite the presence of local and foreign armed groups as well as foreign state forces there, the regime’s access and authority over those territories are considered the highest in the country.

Second, some areas have been recaptured by the regime such as Daraya, eastern Aleppo and Ghouta. The regime’s authority in those territories is largely determined by how those localities were recaptured and by whom. The regime’s access to areas that were captured through military action and/or negotiation is generally considered absolute. While the authority of the regime is also considered relatively high in those territories, the presence of other armed actors, largely backed by Iran, has created secondary power centres at the local level and led to evolving semi-power sharing arrangements.

Third, there are areas under Russia’s protection such as Busra al-Sham, al-Sahwa, Ma’araba, and al-Jizah in Daraa province. This category includes former rebel territories that were recaptured by the regime through direct surrender deals brokered with Russia. The deals have given the signatory localities a level of local autonomy under Moscow’s protection. Consequently, regime forces are unable to enter those locations but can still create checkpoints at their outskirts and entrances. In short, the regime’s access and authority in those zones are largely limited to what Russia allows it to do.

Limited monopoly over violence

The level of regime authority in its areas has a crucial impact on its ability to enforce a monopoly over violence, which refers to the state’s ability to establish an exclusive right to use, threaten or authorize force against inhabitants of its territories.

In the first category, where the regime has maintained control throughout the conflict, it has been largely able to impose a monopoly over violence through the co-option or demobilization of local loyalist armed groups that existed there. But this monopoly is contested in the second category, former rebel areas, due to the presence of allied armed actors. In those locations, the latter have continued to use unsanctioned violence against civilians, as well as against other allied or state forces. The reasons behind those skirmishes vary from one area to another.

On some occasions, fighting has erupted due to personal quarrels between members of different formations. Likewise, sporadic clashes took place between pro-regime armed groups due to competition over resources or territorial control. Besides, clashes have occurred due to the regime’s attempts to increase its influence over non-armed groups. For example, l-Hamdaniyeh district in western Aleppo witnessed internal fighting when the Liwa al-Quds armed group was stopped by a patrol from the regular Syrian Arab Army’s Fourth Division while they were passing through the neighbourhood.

The regime’s monopoly over violence does not seem to exist in the third category, under Russia’s protection. Instead, local former rebel groups are the ones trying to establish that. Similarly, Russia’s military police, which is in charge of preventing clashes between the regime and local armed groups, seems to be entitled to use force, or authorize it, inside those areas.

Insufficient service provision

The status and quality of state services (such as health, education, electricity and water) in regime areas vary based on the scale of destruction those localities faced and their history of resistance against the regime. The limited level of destruction in the first category makes service provision inside them, as a reward for their perceived loyalty, a priority for the regime. Although the non-interrupted existence of the state civilian institutions in those locations makes their situation better than other areas, the regime is still struggling to provide quality services. Some services, such as water and to lesser extent electricity, have been improved but their rations remain tight and unreliable.

The status of services in the second and third categories depends on the level of their infrastructure damage and their perceived hostility to the regime. Generally, the latter seems to be focusing on restoring the state’s civil institutions (such as courts and civil registries) and symbols (flags and Assad statues, largely) in those locations, which has been largely achieved. In terms of services, the regime is centring its efforts on quick fixes rather than strategic projects to repair infrastructure. For examples, state electricity is only connected, and provided for a few hours, to the localities that still have a functioning grid or can be fixed on the cheap.

The areas that suffered more damage, which are the majority, were told not to expect electricity any time soon due to lack of resources. But even those short-term solutions are limited in number and, therefore, are being used to punish the communities that are still perceived as hostile to the regime (such as the ones that were recaptured after lengthy battles) and award those who are considered more tolerable (such as the ones that signed surrender deals quickly).

Besides, all regime areas are suffering acute shortages of fuel and cooking gas, which is pushing local populations to publicly express their discontent with the government.

The limited capacity of the regime to restore most of the basic state roles has allowed other non-state actors, or foreign states, to perform state-like functions. In regime areas, local and international organizations have played a key role in providing humanitarian services (such medical care, food baskets and shelters) and stabilization projects (such as repairing health, water and education infrastructures).

For example, medical care provided by the regime in southern Syria is largely limited to Red Cross convoys and mobile clinics sent from Daraa Health Directorate, whose work is limited to injections and simple treatments. Likewise, private businesses are currently the principal providers of electricity and water, through generators and water tanks, in the majority of regime areas. Those dynamics even include sovereign sectors such as security. Evidently, Russia and Iran are directly responsible for funding and commanding many armed groups and regular armed factions in order to recapture and secure regime territories.

A deep understanding of the structure, functions and capacity of the state currently emerging in regime areas can only be achieved through a bottom-up approach that is centred around mapping the various networks of powers, as well as their interactions among themselves and with state institutions at a local and national level. Failing to do so runs the risk of misunderstanding how the dynamics of the composition and functions of the state in Syria are changing as a consequence of the conflict, which can have grave consequences on the prospects of stabilizing the country, even after the conflict is over.