The blurring of state and non-state actors in Syria

Date:

The blurring of state and nonstate actors in Syria

  • News by AUN News correspondent
  • Monday, January 30, 2023
  • AUN News – ISSN: 2949-8090

Summary:

  • Despite significant overlaps in their economic practises, armed groups’ differing visions for the structure and operation of the states they are creating are reflected in the region’s formal frameworks of economic governance.

  • The AANES’s most significant source of income comes from the oil and gas industry, which is controlled by executive entities under the Autonomous Administration’s jurisdiction.

  • Similar to other zones of control, the YPG’s dominant political figures, their security allies, and significant business figures exercise ultimate control over the economy.

  • As a result, the KRG supports the illegal trade of private sector traders who operate extensive smuggling networks across zones of control, regime-held areas, and into Iraq.

  • Any political agreement in Syria will be shaky, and a return to armed conflict is more likely without a commitment to lessen the harm to civilians by predatory economic orders.

The distinction between states and non-state actors has gotten fuzzier in Syria’s civil conflict, which is now entering its 12th year. Nowhere is this more clear than in the methods used by the ruling class to guarantee access to resources in areas controlled by the regime and the opposition. The lines between formal and informal, licit and unlawful, regulation and coercion have virtually disappeared in political economies created over time by state actors and non-state armed groups. Syria’s border regions today form a single economic ecosystem connected by extensive networks of dealers, smugglers, government officials, brokers, and armed organisations. Economic cooperation across conflict lines has been relatively unaffected by competing for political control zones. In matters of trade, practicality rules.

Regime-held regions, Turkey, and to a lesser extent, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq serve as the economic backbones that support the economy governed by armed actors throughout northern Syria. Oil from northeast Syria is traded across international boundaries and lines of the battle to reach regime refineries on the coast. A wide variety of household items are supplied to opposition-held areas by Syrian-owned enterprises in southern Turkey, many of which have relocated from northern Syria. Medicines and other necessities are transported from regime-controlled areas into the control zones of the opposition. Conflict patterns have been influenced by trade as well. Cross-line and cross-border checkpoints have grown to be particularly volatile locations where violent outbursts may be caused more by economic disagreements than by attempts to gain a military advantage.

These developments increase the vulnerability of civilian populations to exploitation, extortion, and abuse. When evaluating humanitarian assistance and involvement with the Syrian regime and rebel organisations, minimising harm to civilians and enhancing human security must be the primary considerations.

The formation of a connected economic environment will significantly impact any post-conflict transition. Nonstate actors frequently worry about their long-term viability. However, as the economic governance model of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and that of nonstate armed groups converge, it becomes more likely that nonstate actors will endure a settlement that restores regime control over contentious regions of the nation. Payment won’t significantly change the civilian population’s social, economic, or security circumstances if it doesn’t address systematic and structural criminality.

PREDATORY ECONOMIES, STATE-MAKING, AND STATE DECAY

In order to legitimise their rule, ruling coalitions have either taken control of or created formal institutions in both state and nonstate regions. By regulating local markets, cross-border trade, and providing basic social services, they take the role of a state. They oversee the distribution of necessities and humanitarian help and enact complex formal and unofficial taxing structures. Predatory, illegal, and coercive activities that ensure the economic survival of combating factions and the enrichment of their leaders serve as the foundation for and enable these initiatives. Both state and nonstate entities use forcible detention, torture, and extrajudicial death to quell opposition, uphold their authority, and safeguard their financial privileges.

These circumstances in regime-controlled areas of Syria resulted from long-term processes of state devolution since Assad assumed power, which was accelerated and amplified as his regime responded to the demands of the conflict, harsh sanctions, and, more recently, the economic collapse of Lebanon. There are two basic ways that devolution has developed. One is the appropriation of governmental institutions and operations and their conversion into tools of regime exploitation. The other is the tremendous increase in illegal economic activity under the regime’s control, which is a significant source of funding for the government. These include the mass production of illegal substances like captagon, smuggling, racketeering, informal cross-line trade taxes, extortion, and other unlawful profit-making activities. Senior military leaders like Maher al-Assad, Assad’s brother, and the Syrian Armed Forces’ 4th Battalion, which he commands, are deeply involved in every aspect of this “parallel economy.”

A political economy more reliant on extractive-predatory activity has developed in regions controlled by armed opposition organisations. Conditions in rebel-held areas can be viewed as a sort of “state-making as organised crime,” if organised crime in regime-held areas leverages and pervades existing state mechanisms. Nonstate actors in northern Syria have methodically tried to provide themselves with characteristics of states, in accord with sociologist Charles Tilly’s description of war-making and state-making as “quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legality.” They have changed from being armed rebel organisations to ruling governments that display many of the institutional structures and juridical characteristics of full-fledged states, including investments in initiatives to foster local legitimacy.

A PREDATORY ECOSYSTEM’S CONFLICT AND COOPERATION

Despite significant overlaps in their economic practises, armed groups’ differing visions for the structure and operation of the states they are creating are reflected in the region’s formal frameworks of economic governance. This creates a thin veneer of legalism that does little to hide the informal, predatory, illicit, if not criminal financial practices that drive economic activity across all three zones of control. These differences are evident in the formal institutions that oversee how local economies are regulated and taxed, how social provision is organised, and how revenues accrue to legal governments are allocated.

Armed groups and their affiliated political wings have seized the institutional frameworks of full-fledged states, with elaborate governance structures that include presidents, cabinets, ministries, regulatory bodies, executive agencies, and so forth, in the areas controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Sunni Islamist political and military organisation, and those ostensibly under the control of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG). HTS has increased its ability to control, tax, and offer restricted services to civilians while posing as the Syrian Salvation Government. However, as recent research has demonstrated, these organisations enrich and empower top members within ruling coalitions.

The SIG is the official governing body in the northwest and north-central parts of Syria that Turkey occupies and controls. Formally, it has jurisdiction over areas under HTS authority neglected by HTS and the Salvation Government. The Syrian National Army (SNA), which should not be confused with Assad’s Syrian Armed Forces, is more powerful than the SIG within Turkey’s zone of authority, often disobeying or overriding it. Both in turn, function under Turkey’s de facto rule. The presence of Turkey contributes to some degree of stability. Still, due to its reliance on sloppy local proxies, inability to resolve factionalism among the numerous armed groups affiliated with the SNA, and tolerance for their exploitation and abuse of civilians, its area of control is the least secure and brutally run in northern Syria.

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which is governed by the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a militia with a mixed ethnic composition supported by the United States, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Hasaka. In the roughly 19,000 square mile area under the authority of the PYD, Syrian Democratic Councils are responsible for civil administration. The AANES’s most significant source of income comes from the oil and gas industry, which is controlled by executive entities under the Autonomous Administration’s jurisdiction. Local players, grouped into communes, choose local economic policies. However, in reality, “evidence of its authoritarian heritage is significantly felt in its administration and economic management,” as shown by one examination of the political economy of the AANES. Similar to other zones of control, the YPG’s dominant political figures, their security allies, and significant business figures exercise ultimate control over the economy. As a result, the KRG supports the illegal trade of private sector traders who operate extensive smuggling networks across zones of control, regime-held areas, and into Iraq.

The challenges of human security are armed actors

Throughout Syria, a decade of conflict has resulted in state devolution in areas controlled by the regime and the rise of proto-states in areas controlled by the opposition. As types of organised crime, these systems have converged around similar economic governing tactics. Authoritarian ruling coalitions dominated by armed players have taken control of or formed official institutions that ostensibly oversee an interdependent economic ecology built on predation, extortion, smuggling, bribery, and violence in both regimes- and opposition-held areas.

The shape of a potential post-conflict transition becomes more precise and unsettling as the categories of state and nonstate lose meaning on the ground in Syria and economies grow more intricately intertwined across conflict lines. While it may seem far off, external actors see a political agreement as a chance to reshape institutions, enhance governance, and lower crime. However, it appears more likely to solidify and legitimise current economic structures. Under scenarios where the Assad regime’s normalisation proceeds without a resolution, such a result becomes much more likely.

The most important lesson from Syria’s experience for practitioners and politicians is the necessity to put human security first when providing humanitarian aid and negotiations surrounding Syria’s transition to post-conflict status. Any political agreement in Syria will be shaky, and a return to armed conflict is more likely without a commitment to lessen the harm to civilians by predatory economic orders.

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