Governance by Corruption & Extortion

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The Pillars of Authoritarian Resilience Part 2


The most part are too busy in getting food, and the rest too negligent to understand.


– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

In order to understand the tactics for maintaining the Syrian regime’s resilience during its ninth year of conflict, it is essential to understand the condition of the Syrian state, which Steven Heydemann, a professor in Middle East Studies at Smith College and a senior non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, aptly describes as a “fierce state”. This condition is distinguishable from a fragile state, in which the state institutions are characterized by dysfunction or inadequate authority over the respective political space. In a fierce state, “ruling elites elevate survival above all else and design institutions to support this aim.” The persistence of this regime through violence prevents an active process of reformability.1.Heydemann, Steven. “Beyond fragility: Syria and the challenges of reconstruction in fierce states”. Publication by Brookings Institute (June 2018)

A central aspect of the Syrian regime’s strategy was to uphold the governance system of the pre-war era while managing an advanced political marketplace. Therefore local capitalist cronies are used to organize the regime’s capital liquidity. This system comprises a sophisticated welfare system for the Syrian population, which includes public subsidies, social services, and interaction with both private charities as well as international organisations. By acting as a political entrepreneur in countering the insurgency, the informal network of ruling personalities, like businessmen and warlords, is concerned with assuming state responsibilities, which inevitably leads to a blurring of the concepts of regime and state.2.Khaddour, Kheder. “Shielded by the State: Assad’s Monopoly Over Syria’s Public Institutions” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (17 August 2015) Those attempts should be recognized as the essential precondition for Assad’s hold on power during Syria’s civil war.

As institutions in fierce states are reduced to the political elite’s ability in ensuring power and prestige, the regime falls back on its traditional instruments of social control to counter socio-economic grievances and political demands. Those instruments are a redistributive social policy as well as a co-optation of key actors in the Syrian society. In this article, we will  formulate an overview of this governance system that must be regarded as a further pillar of authoritarian resilience and as the breeding ground of the radicalised social space. Here we will divide this analysis into two embodiments of authoritarian governance that are crucial to the maintenance of state order and the role of the institutional functions of the Syrian state.

The regimes authoritarian adaption towards the experience from the “Arab spring”

After the first waves of democratic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya took place, the Assad regime thought itself prepared enough to deal with the dynamics and demands of its population. The regime gained these insights after the establishment of a special committee that evaluated that those governments had been overthrown. It was concluded that the primary cause was because they refrained from violently smothering the beginnings of protests.3.Heydemann, Steven. “Tracking the ‘Arab Spring’: Syria and the Future of Authoritarianism” Publication by the Journal of Democracy (October 2013) In addition, to maintain grip on power, the regime has “learned from the experiences unfolding across the region and have adapted their strategies of governance in response”.4.Heydemann, Steven, and Leenders, Reinoud. “Authoritarian Governance in Syria and Iran: Challenged, Reconfiguring, and Resilient” in: Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, contestation, and regime resilience in Syria and Iran, pp. 3. (2013) It is important to understand that this governance system already underwent a transformation process with the inauguration of Bashar al-Assad, which must be seen in the context of the hybrid authoritarian character of the political system.

For Syria and the already mentioned hybrid authoritarian political structure, there is already significant distinction between state, regime, and civil society. If state means the totality of political institutions, the regime represents the decision-making actors, and civil society encompasses the informal political platform for citizen to participate in, then this conceptual separation becomes much more opaque in Syria. This results out of the fact that the Assad regime hijacked the state apparatus to monopolise all public services and goods to its own advantage.5.Khaddour, Kheder. “Shielded by the State: Assad’s Monopoly Over Syria’s Public Institutions” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (17 August 2015) As mentioned previously in this series, the regime around Bashar al-Assad is keen to co-opt several social classes to generate legitimacy. The same pattern is true for the entanglement of state institutions and civil society organisations.6.Khalaf, Rana Marcel. “Syria: Destruction of Civil Society Means Dictatorship, Extremism, and Displacement” Publication by the Chatham House (7 October 2016)

This connection is referenced clearly by Hobbes, who described in his book Leviathan, “reputation of power is power, because it draweth with it the adherence of those that need protection.”7.Hobbes, Thomas 1996: Leviathan, Cap. X, pp. 69. Assad has suggested similar stances in an interview with Foreign Affairs in 2015, where he described his approaches in reconquering rebel-held territory. The statement; “Before talking about winning territory, talk about winning hearts and minds and the support of the Syrian people. That’s what we have won”, shows that the war in Syria is not only a war between weapons and thought, but a fight over the capabilities to guarantee some level of governance for the controlled population.8.“Syria’s President Speaks” : Foreign Affairs

The infiltration of the ruling class and the security branches within the state institutions makes it possible for the ruling elite to coordinate the distribution of public services according to obedience and political humility. The fusion of business and regime has allowed the power center in Damascus to maintain a degree of legitimacy by abusing its population’s good faith in state institutions. The institutions remain the inescapable cornerstone through which the regime organises social life, even if simultaneously the Syrian Leviathan organises certain decentralisation of governance and security in its own dominion. This applies in particular to law and order, as well as in the ability to ensure its resilience through a minimal supply of resources.9.De Waal, Alex. “The real politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, war and the business of power” pp. 19. (2015) In this context the regime established a political marketplace as a governance system, in which “cooperation and allegiance are determined by supply and demand.”10.ECFR post previously archived on archive.org.

Prior to the crisis, the power circle around the Assad’s managed largely vertical economic distribution. The current focus on decentralization pushes the regime to distribute economic capital to several partly independent actors.

The Assad regime’s inner core, as the main political entrepreneur, is ambitious to increase its profit. According to de Waal profit is a more complex term, because “political businesspeople are still political actors: their goals are rarely confined to personal material reward but commonly extend to enjoying power and fulfilling ambitions”.11.De Waal, Alex. “The real politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, war and the business of power” pp. 20-22. (2015) Thereby power is executed through a system of clientelism, which co-opts several parts of society.

Co-optation and Clientelism in the Syrian society

While Thomas Pierret has already extensively explained the co-optation processes regarding religious groups, Salwa Ismail tries to consider an explanation of clientelistic rule in Syrian society as a whole.12. Pierret, Thomas. “The state management of religion in Syria : the end of ‘indirect rule’?”, in: Middle East authoritarianisms: governance, contestation, and regime resilience in Syria and Iran. (2012) Here, Ismail refers to the central focus of populist differentiation towards various social groups. In particular, she focuses on this through the lens of the Baathist relationship to rural and working classes in 1963.13.Sadowski, Yahya. “Patronage and the Baath: Corruption and Control in Contemporary Syria”. Published in Arab Studies, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 442-461. (1987) Those populist dynamics of governance are continued in a different form under the rule of Bashar al-Assad with a greater focus on the needs of his capitalist elite.

According to Ismail, the regime’s practice of co-opting diverse social groups leads to a construction of social identities that overlaps with the origin of tribe and sect. The process of co-optation goes hand in hand with a forced identification with the state, which has a decisive effect on the interpersonal relationships between the citizens.14.Ismail, Salwa. “The Rule of Violence: Subjectivity, Memory and Government in Syria”, pp. 85. (2018)

An indispensable part of authoritarian governance is the cooptation process of various social groups, which is accompanied by a division of society. Even if a great portion of the Alawite citizens of Syria are represented in the upper echelons of the Syrian state, it’s more accurate to explain the identity of the Assad loyalist as an overlapping mixture of the respective sect, origin or tribe, embedded in an artificial discourse of a national conception that is pre-formulated by the regime.15.Pipes, Daniel. “The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria” in: Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 429 – 450. (1989) In this discourse, it is also important to what extent the respective person is affected by the securitisation speech of the regime. Securitisation in the context of Syria means that the existence of a religious minority is turned into a security problem that must be addressed by the Syrian regime. This discourse is part of Assad’s minority politics, in which Assad is represented as patron of Syria’s religious minorities such as Syrian Christians or Alawites.16.al-Haj Saleh, Yassin. “The Dark Path of Minority Politics” Publication by The Century Foundation (18 April 2019)

The projection of this power identity culminates in a governance system which splits citizens into two groups: integrated and excluded citizens. Salwa Ismail shows how the lines of division intersect class, regional origin, sect and actual residence. All those factors identify an individual with regard to his attitude towards the regime and impact his opportunities in Syrian society.17.al-Haj Saleh, Yassin. “The Dark Path of Minority Politics” Publication by The Century Foundation (18 April 2019)

This hierarchical and divided social order leads to constant tension between citizens, which can be exploited by the perfidious ruler for his own purposes. The asymmetric advantage of a social group also leads to suffering between the citizens and promotes opportunistic behavior among the worse-off, which in a system where loyalty can be bought with money is a fertile field to operate for authoritarian reign.

This asymmetry of social relations manifests itself in the Syrian bureaucracy. Employment in state institutions and the Syrian bureaucracy requires relations with the Syrian military or security services, whose upper ranks are occupied by individuals with an Alawite identity.18.Stéphane, Valter. “The Dynamics of Power in Syria: Generalized Corruption and Sectarianism” in: The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory, Raymond Hinnebusch and Omar Imady (edit), pp. 49. (2018) This explains, among other things, why up to 80% of Syria’s Alawites are employed in the state sector. What looks like a pure preference for sectarian affiliation should be seen much more adequately as a product of clientelisation, in which individuals of a political elite in Damascus and in the upper military ranks favor family and friends through the patronage system.19.Stéphane, Valter. “The Dynamics of Power in Syria: Generalized Corruption and Sectarianism” in: The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory, Raymond Hinnebusch and Omar Imady (edit), pp. 92. (2018)20.Balanche, Fabrice. “The Alawi Community and the Syrian Crisis” Publication by the Middle East Institute (14 May 2015) It should be noted that the abuse of sectarian policy is not an invention of the Assad family. At the time of the French mandate in Syria, the colonial power, in collaboration with the Sunni majority, used sectarian policies against the Alawite minority, which led to their political and social exclusion. Although the Baath idea has officially abolished such sectarianism on basis of a straight secularism, these techniques of social control were secretly re-introduced after the coup of Hafez al Assad in the year 1970.21.Adham, Saouli. “The Tragedy of Ba’athist State-building” in: The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory, Raymond Hinnebusch and Omar Imady (edit), pp. 19. (2018)

Corruption as an instrument of authoritarian persistence

The causes of corruption in authoritarian states are manifold, and in Syria it permeates all sections of society, which even before the conflict puts the country at the bottom of the international rankings for corruption.22.Chang, Eric & Golden, Miriam. “Sources of Corruption in Authoritarian Regimes” in: Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 1, pp. 1-20. (2010)23.Balanche, Fabrice. “The Alawi Community and the Syrian Crisis” Publication by the Middle East Institute (14 May 2015)24.Freedom House report on Syria (2010).25.Transparency International’s Syria report. However, corruptive behavior functions as an instrument of social and political control is of particular importance with regard to the employment in the state sector of Syria. With approximately 1.5 million employees, the state maintains public institutions like hospitals, universities,  and courtrooms for nearly 2/3 of the Syrian population, and was for a long time the first port of call for many young job-seeking Syrians.26.Huitfeldt, Henrik, and Kabbani, Nader. “Returns to Education and the Transition From School to Work in Syria” Presented at the 12th Annual Conference of the ERF (19 December 2005)

The transaction practices of the upper level of the system, characterised by both patronage and abuse of state institutions, are also projected to the middle level of the Syrian political system, namely the employees in the state administration. It should be noted that despite some advantages, such as preferential access to advantageous healthcare system, state employees were clearly among the losers of changing policy under Assad. This outcome results from the fact that the Assad regime attempted to open its economy according to the pattern of controlled economic liberalisation in China, while exposing the state bureaucracy to the lasting effects of this transformation.27.Raymond, Hinnebusch/Tina; Zintl 2015: Introduction, in: Syria from Reform to Revolt: Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations, (Hrsg.) Raymond Hinnebusch/ Tina Zintl, New York, pp. 5-7. The government tried to contain these socio-economic side effects, which were intensified by the ongoing conflict, by implementing higher wages for the public sector. However, these measures had only a minor impact on the large wage gap and instead boosted existing corruption.28.“Syria raises the wages of state employees” : The Daily Star

The high degree of everyday corruption makes bribes a central part of regular transactions among Syrians. Depending on the size of the transaction or the service this bribe ranges from a minimum 25-pounds (at the current exchange rate: 0,04 $) to several hundreds.29.“How I came to appreciate German bureaucracy” : Deutsche Welle Opinion As civil servants earned with every public service one of the factors, which strongly affected the trust ordinary Syrians had in their dealing with public institutions.30.“How I came to appreciate German bureaucracy” : Deutsche Welle Opinion

The war, and the associated burden on the state budget, motivated civil servants to expand this practice. In order to guarantee stability in its bureaucratic system, the regime largely allowed this expanded practice to continue as long as a portion of the money flowed into the exhausted war-chest.31.Khaddour, Kheder. “The Assad Regime’s Hold on the Syrian State” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (July 2015) According to the Syrian Law Journal, a source of the Syrian Ministry of Interior claims that until 2018 this practice accumulates two Billion $ within Syria and around 900 Million $ outside of the country.32.https://twitter.com/syrian_law/status/1112307945646276608 Even if that information must be considered with some caution, regarding the difficult nature of tracking bribery, this sum makes around 1/3 of the current state budget for Syria in 2019, which is around nine billion $.33.“Syria president announces $9bn budget for 2019” : Arab News

While Max Weber defines the core principles of bureaucracy through the separation of office and person, a general duty of personnel to comply with the law and a hierarchical principle within the respective state institution,34.Max Weber 1922: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie, Tübingen, pp. 650-678. only the latter can be observed in the administrative apparatus of the Syrian state. The social interactions between civil servants and ordinary citizens can therefore be described as exploiting the improvement of an individual at the expense of the less wealthy masses. For example, government employees have been able to extract hundreds to thousands of $ in bribes for processing and issuing government documents or temporary passports.35.“Economic conditions warn of the explosion of Syrian regime-held areas” : Nedaa36.CSIS Newsletter, January 2016.

The role of corruption as a flexible instrument of authoritarian rule deserves to be considered in context. Toleration, or even the cultivation of corruption, functions as a central instrument for persistence, since it serves an authoritarian regime in two respects. On the one hand, it functions as an instrument of reward for political loyalty37.“Government by Corruption” : Forbes Magazine and, on the other, as a vehicle for disciplining possible dissidence.38.“Government by Corruption” : Forbes Magazine As Salwa Ismail notes, this shadow economy makes every Syrian guilty in one way or another.39.Ismail, Salwa 2018: The Rule of Violence: Subjectivity, Memory and Government in Syria, New York, pp. 80.  If one recalls the functioning of anti-corruption campaigns in authoritarian regimes as instruments for gaining political legitimacy in the absence of plebiscitary participation, it should be assumed that some of these cases in a post-conflict phase could become pawn-victims for a so-called social reconciliation process.40.Ismail, Salwa. “The Rule of Violence: Subjectivity, Memory and Government in Syria”, pp. 80. (2018)

While this corruption should be considered as one of the main causes of the uprising against the regime, the fact that the state, as the most important organ of order in social life, fails to address this corruption leaves the individual with no other choice than to participate in this system of social interaction. It is important to grasp the social space in which Syrians are forced to interact with each other. The compulsion to pay for every human interaction leads to a vicious circle that replicates itself like a tumor and spreads to all levels of society.

How important corruption is as an instrument for subsidizing the controlled population can be seen in the different approaches to local governance. Here, the regime tries not only to guarantee its power elite a profit from Assad’s persistence, but implemented a dual strategy “of both hierarchical political centralization and accommodation with a highly diverse array of local actors.”41.Neep, Daniel. “Why Hasn’t the Asad Regime Collapsed? Lessons Learned from Syria’s History of Tyranny” Publication by the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies (June 2019) With this approach, it succeeded in integrating certain local intermediaries, which were mostly part of influential families or tribes, into its patronage networks by busing their loyalty through indifference to their local economic ambitions.42.Khaddour, Kheder. “Local Wars and the Chance for Decentralized Peace in Syria” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (28 March 2017)43.Neep, Daniel. “Why Hasn’t the Asad Regime Collapsed? Lessons Learned from Syria’s History of Tyranny” Publication by the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies (June 2019) These differences in the regime’s regional governance approaches can be observed when the regime returns to former opposition areas. The regime makes its willingness to perform state functions dependent on the extent to which it can exercise a monopoly on violence towards the respective social interactions and institutions.44.Haid, Haid. “Understanding the characteristics of the new emerging state in Syria” Publication by Chatham House (June 2019)

 The normalization of corrupt behaviors not only prevents any reformability of interpersonal relationships to an equal and just level of interaction, but establishes a convenience in the individual’s behavior that integrates the ordinary citizen into the kleptocracy of the authoritarian system and thus contributes to an authoritarian persistence.45.Yerkes, Sarah. “Corruption, Not Terrorism, Is Tunisia’s Biggest Threat” Publication by Carnegie Center Europe (8 December 2017)46.Freedom House public press release, 3 August 2006. Tolerance of such behaviour of state employees towards a citizen fuels the populist thinking on both sides, and therefore contributes to the populist polarization the authoritarian rule is based on. The omnipresence of militias in conjunction with economic decline confronts all strata with abuses of power and corruption.

The “embodied relations of clientalisation and incorporation” in each person leads to a coupling of the lower state functionaries to a patronage network of the upper floor, which the lower ranks hope will provide better job security and other benefits.47.Ismail, Salwa. “The Rule of Violence: Subjectivity, Memory and Government in Syria”, pp. 79. (2018) At the same time, years of corruption practices have intensified fears held by state employees of losing this relative betterment through a systemic overthrow, since they could face the same fate as state employees of the Baath regime in the post-invasion Iraq.48.Zinn, Cherish M. “Consequences of Iraqi De-Baathification” in: The Cornell International Affairs Review, Vol 9, No 2 (2016) Thus the regime put its survival in dependence on further loyalty to its rule.

Taming the Lions” – Material advantages of the regime

The same pattern of populist co-optation can also be observed in a more pronounced form in the regime’s officer corps. This economic advantage is expressed above all by the function of the military industrial complex in the Syrian economy, especially in the real-estate business of Syria.49.Said, Salma. “The Uprising and the Economic Interests of the Syrian Military-Mercantile Complex” in:  The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory (2018)

Besides the probably most dazzling example of the Damascene district of Mezzeh, inhabited predominantly by Assad loyalists, is the suburb called Dahiet al-Assad. This gated community, run by the military and the Syrian security services, symbolizes the systemic advantage of some social groups, the so-called Minhibakji. The district is predominantly inhabited by middle-ranking military officers and can be seen as a symbol of patronage systems of Assad rule to generate loyalty from its servants. This binding of the weaponised arm of the regime through subsidy programs and the transfer of income from real estate functions as the opportunity for many Syrians to achieve social advancement. Here it can be seen n that the sectarian background of an officer does not necessarily determine perceived allegiance towards the regime. Nevertheless, an Alawite identity of an officer in Assad’s army can mostly be interpreted as a decisive advantage over its Sunni counterpart. As the highest ranks of the military and security branches are occupied by people who are close to the Assad clan and therefore can be identified with an Alawite background, this sectarian hierarchy plays a crucial role in many decision processes. According to Stéphane Valter of the Centre d’Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et sociates, “the hierarchical inferiority of Sunni officers manifest itself in the fact that Sunni commanders are obliged to defer to the powerful Alawite subordinates on certain sensitive issues who are theoretically under their orders.”50.Stéphane, Valter. “The Dynamics of Power in Syria: Generalized Corruption and Sectarianism” in: The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory, Raymond Hinnebusch and Omar Imady (edit), pp. 49-50. (2018) The regime attempted to conceal these hierarchical differences based on sectarian affiliation by representing high-ranking officers with a Sunni identity in high government offices such as the Ministry of Defense.51.“Assad’s Sunni Foot Soldiers” : Foreign Policy However, this did not change the fact that their mostly Alawite aides passed on any conspicuous behavior to intelligence services or that the respective Sunni officers have been degraded to assume responsibilities that allowed only a vague glimpse of the important military details.52.Lister, Charles. “All the President’s Militias: Assad’s Militiafication of Syria” Publication by the Middle East Institute (14 December 2017)

In gated communities like Daieht al-Assad, the officers are accommodated in a living environment which isolates them from other layers of society, since all vital infrastructure is housed in this community. This is especially tempting for people from rural areas with a socially weak background. In addition to the possibility of turning state housing into private property at some point, the entire family of the military member also benefits, not only because his descendants have better access to various state educational facilities, but also because the place of residence of a person in Syria often goes hand in hand with his professional and social prospects.53.Ismail, Salwa. “The Rule of Violence: Subjectivity, Memory and Government in Syria”, pp. 90. (2018)54.Abyad, Maya. “Racism, sectarianism, or sexism? On Damascus and the Syrian geographic barcode” Published on OpenDemocracy (10 October 2018)

The perfidious mechanism in this social segregation of military servants not only leads to an increased socio-economic asymmetry, but also has createsa sub-identity that links itself to the survival of the regime, which removes the officer from the general population. This identity overcomes local patriotism, sect, and tribal affiliation and thus makes him more controllable.

This policy of social control is an instrument of authoritarian resilience, since it includes and binds the armed elements of society that are the ultimate executive forces when the authoritarian house of cards is shaken.55.Ismail, Salwa. “The Rule of Violence: Subjectivity, Memory and Government in Syria”, pp. 90. (2018)

Structures of Discrimination – the preconditions to superiority and discrimination in state structures

One needs to consider the structural dimension of discrimination in a respective society when addressing the argument that the fall of Assad would result in greater sectarian conflict.56.Pincus, Fred L. “Discrimination Comes in Many Forms: Individual, Institutional, and Structural” in: American Behavioral Scientist, 40(2), pp. 186-194 (1996)57.“Don’t Push Syria Away” : NYT Opinion Empowering a certain religious or ethnic group in a system that builds on a certain degree of disadvantage for other social groups leads to structural discrimination. According to Joseph Daher, this structural difference among the respective religious denominations in Syria is already characterized by eight personal status laws.58.Daher, Joseph. “Pluralism Lost in Syria’s Uprising” Publication by The Century Foundation (7 May 2019)

While in Syria, the Assad family and its affiliates receive greater access to public goods and social advantages, this does not mean a general advantage for all Syrian Alawites.59.Abuhamad, Grace, and Tabler, Andrew J. “All the Tyrant’s Men: Chipping Away at the Assad Regime’s Core” Publication by the Washington Institute (23 August 2013)60.al-Haj Salih, Yassin. “The Syrian Shabiha and Their State” Publication by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Beirut (3 March 2014) Despite the fact that some Alawites do not profit from this current system, an identification of a ruling caste with a strong sectarian character emerges, which is a byproduct of the polarized identities of all adversaries of the Syrian conflict.61.al-Haj Salih, Yassin. “The Syrian Shabiha and Their State” Publication by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Beirut (3 March 2014) An overlapping of clientelism and sect, combined with the respective socialized prejudices of the individual religious and ethnic communities, leads to a social environment of fear. This social space is nourished by the horror image of sectarian hyperpolarization as represented by the Islamic State, which at the same time is the ultimate justification for an increasing sectarianization of the regime.62.Rifai, Ola. “Sunni/Alawi Identity Clashes during the Syrian Uprising: A continuous Reproduction?” in:  The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory (2018) The current political climate in Syria reinforces the discriminatory distinction between those in power and those who question the current system. Due to the hegemonic discourse of Assad’s war on terror, a rejection of the current system is always associated with radical Islamism and terrorism, regardless of its political orientation.63.Balanche, Fabrice. “Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War: A Geopolitical Study” Publication by The Washington Institute (2018)

State welfare as an instrument of social control in times of conflict

Despite the predatory behaviour of the Syrian bureaucracy, the state remains the main carrier of all relevant public institutions and social systems such as state-run healthcare, bakeries, and electricity.64.UNOCHA summary of relief actors in Syria, December 2013. The regime tries to defend this dominant position as the only relevant provider of those services to highlight its position as a sanctuary for ordinary Syrians. The widespread attacks on alternative civilian sectors in opposition-held areas should also be evaluated regarding the desired hegemony over civil administration, as Amnesty International’s recent paper on the air raids by Russia and the regime in Idlib reported.65.Martinez, Jose Ciro and Eng, Brent. “Stifling stateness: The Assad regime’s campaign against rebel governance” in: Security Dialogue, 49(4), pp. 235–25366.“Syria: Unlawful attacks by government forces hit civilians and medical facilities in Idlib” : Amnesty International

During its military efforts to challenge further popularity of the uprising, the regime makes use of the social space of conflict and constant tension in the society through an approach similar to the tactics used by the Italian Mafia. This approach focuses on the provision of social services in the absence of effective institutions.67.Saeed, Khalid, and Sardell, Jason, et. al. “Economic Origins of the Mafia and Patronage System in Italy” in: SSRN Electronic Journal (January 2009) The infiltration of the ruling class with the state institutions in implementing a “Strategic Syria”, which according to Anthony Elghossain is conducted through consolidation, compromise and destruction, the regime focused the capabilities of its occupied institutions to make the ruled population dependent on its services.68.Elghossain, Anthony. “Assad’s Syrian State Strategy and the Disappointments of De-escalation and De-centralization” Publication by the Atlantic Council (22 June 2017) Due to the state-controlled economy from the Baathist political origin, the public service “controls, regulates, and operates most industrial and commercial facilities.” Under the strict supervision of Assad’s security branches, those public institutions remained temporarily accessible for this part of the population, who decided to stay outside of regime-held territory. This militarization of public administration was used by Syrian intelligence branches to get an overview of the demographic composition of the population in the territories outside of its control and thus helped profiling capabilities on political dissidents in those areas. Those security checks were an open door for those branches to tighten their grip on the state institutions.69.Khaddour, Kheder. “Local Wars and the Chance for Decentralized Peace in Syria” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (28 March 2017

These governance activities helped the regime attract refugees to their territories to escape the detrimental effects of war. In the aftermath of the fall of rebel-held Aleppo in 2016, about 200,000 IDPs fled to regime-held areas, while only 40,000 people settled in territories outside of the government’s control.70.Khalaf, Rana Marcel. “Syria: Destruction of Civil Society Means Dictatorship, Extremism, and Displacement” Publication by the Chatham House (7 October 2016) The influx of IDPs into regime-held territories were useful figures for the regime to prove its claim that it remained the civilians preferred sanctuary.71.Leenders, Reinoud and Mansour, Kholoud. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War” in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 245 (2018) Since state institutions could only inadequately cope with such an onslaught of indigence, the regime had to diversify the material as well as the monetary resources of its social policy in order to meet the demands of sanctuary adequacy. Bashar al-Assad’s reform policy implemented a withdrawal of the state from traditional social welfare tasks and left these to religious organizations or private charity organizations, which are ran by personalities close to the regime.72.Akdedian, Harout. “The Religious Domain Continues to Expand in Syria” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (19 March 2019)73.Ruiz de Elvira, Laura “Christian Charities and the Baathist Regime in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria” in: Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 2: Culture, Society, and Religion, Christa Salamandra & Leif Stenberg (Hrsg.), pp. 92 – 109 (2015)

Authoritarianism 2.0 – The Syrian Trust for Development and other private charities

Until Hafez al-Assad’s death, all social activities were organised via the centralist structure of the state through the Ministry of Social Affairs & Labour. The so-called Damascene Spring established several foundations and NGOs to cushion the social effects of the economic liberalization of the Syrian society. Many of these newly established, privately run organizations in the Syrian charity sector were either forced to act in the “as if” logic of the regime. This logic means that those organisations behave as if they support the state, which includes an absolute restriction on criticism of the ruling practice of the regime.74.Ruiz de Elvira, Laura. “Associations de bienfaisance et développement dans la Syrie de Bachar al-Assad” Cahiers de l’Ifpo, n° 8 (2014)

Moreover, a whole series of private welfare and development organisations were established and led by personalities directly descended from- or close to the ruling family, including those under the label Syria Trust for Development (STD). This particular development was presented by the regime as liberalisation in the civil sector, using the image of the First Lady to polish the Syrian state’s own image. With its mission to be an incubator for Syria’s controlled civil society, the STD has established an extensive network of charity organisations since its inception. The STD finances, for example, aid associations for veterans, ecological projects or educational initiatives in rural areas.75.Fioroni, Claudie. “Société Civile et Évolution de L‘Autoratisme en Syrie”, pp. 9 (2011)

Syria Trust for Development Logo

In addition, a number of international NGOs were granted access to work in Syria, but they had to operate under the strict supervision of the Baath regimes security branches. The first development conference organized by Syria Trust in 2010 gave insight into this rather technocratic, socio-economic approach. This controlled civil society eventually became the operational basis for local partners for various UN and other global aid agencies to carry out their humanitarian work in Syria. STD was thus able to collect around 8.5 million dollars in aid from UN agencies through a constant subsidy as a central hub for many “national NGOs”, even though Asma al-Assad has been subject to Western sanctions since 2012.76.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/un-pays-tens-of-millions-to-assad-regime-syria-aid-programme-contracts 

Claudie Fioroni identifies the STD as a central instrument in the resilience of Assad’s grip on power. In addition to the function of generating legitimacy vis-à-vis the domestic opposition, which is to be achieved through an apparent diversification of the participation possibilities of the individual citizen, it creates trust among liberal states abroad. As probably the most shining example of Syria’s “authoritarian upgrading”, the organisation of the First Lady allows the regime to adapt to the social consequences of its market-oriented reforms while at the same time serving as a modern instrument of association for the ruling class to form the citizen. It also enables the citizen to carry out a social commitment, contributing to the generation of a social capital with a predefined national goal, while requiring less ideological assumptions from the participant than other Syrian political organisations.77.Fioroni, Claudie. “Société Civile et Évolution de L‘Autoratisme en Syrie”, pp. 56-59 (2011)

Asma al-Assad visited a prosthesis manufacturer for a PR campaign of the STD

The role of the STD will be decisive for the reconstruction period. Emma Beals reported on the organisation’s role in assisting IDPs currently residing in regime-held areas. Such individuals were not involved in anti-Assad opposition, and the STD provided assistance in proving their land and property rights to local authorities.78.Beals, Emma. “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace” Publication by The Century Foundation (25 April 2018) While the regime tries by all means to accumulate the necessary resources for this billion dollar task through international donors, the regime foresees each NGO to cooperate in the field of development with the co-opted Syrian Arab Red Crescent or a subsidiary organization of STD. This cooperation requires an attitude that does not overlap with the political goals of the regime. With regard to the Syrian regime’s cooperation with right-wing radical parties in Europe, it remains to be seen which private development organizations will receive the necessary profile for such cooperation. A first example is given by the Alternative Help Association (AHA), a German NGO associated to the German Identitarian Movement, which, according to its own statements, is involved in a reconstruction project of the infrastructure of the Christian town of Maalula.79.“How the UNOCHA Helped Assad and Hurt Syrians in Need” : Foreign Affairs

Another example of an organisation that appeared to be an independent charity organization and made massive profits from the influx of aid is the Al-Bustan Association (ABA) founded by Rami Makhlouf. Several marketing materials of ABA also show the distribution of UNICEF boxes by employees of the organisation.80.“How Assad regime controls UN aid intended for Syrian children” : The Guardian Currently on all US and EU sanctions lists, ABA financed a number of private militias on the regime side and carried out its social activities largely in loyal Alawite territories.81.Primavera, Mauro. “Rami Makhlouf and the Syrian war economy” Publication by the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University (25 April 2018) A more precise selection process by the UN would indeed stop the formal cooperation between the UN and an organisation close to the regime, but does not prevent further resources from entering the country in favor of regimes insiders.82.“How the UNOCHA Helped Assad and Hurt Syrians in Need” : Foreign Affairs83. “How Assad regime controls UN aid intended for Syrian children” : The Guardian

Even as criticism of the UN for its comprehensive cooperation with the regime’s organizations grew louder, they remained relatively less flexible in selecting operative partners. This results from very strict registration processes for INGOs to be allowed to operate in Syria. Furthermore, incumbents were able to sanction unpleasant decisions by UN agencies through administrative hurdles or corruption charges, which often resulted in a complete cessation of the humanitarian operation.84.Leenders, Reinoud and Mansour, Kholoud. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War” in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 242 (2018) The work of INGOS often failed because the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused entry visas for humanitarian aid workers, and international sanctions and anti-terror laws inhibit their work.85.“Assad regime maintains strangle-hold over humanitarian access in Syria” : The New Arab86.“How the UNOCHA Helped Assad and Hurt Syrians in Need” : Foreign Affairs

The deprivation of international relief as a lifeline of authoritarian persistence

With regard to the operations of the UN, there is a comprehensive documentation of direct cooperation with the regime.87.“How the UNOCHA Helped Assad and Hurt Syrians in Need” : Foreign Affairs Emma Beals and Nick Hopckins provided a comprehensive overview on the extent of the UN’s cooperation with organisations and business sectors in Syria, ranging from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Syrian Ministry of Tourism and even including cooperation with the telecommunications company SyriaTel, which is known to be operated by Rami Makhlouf.88.“How Assad regime controls UN aid intended for Syrian children” : The Guardian The UN had to rent services, warehouses and housing for its staff for hundred thousands of dollars, largely provided by people who were among the economic pillars of the regime.89.Leenders, Reinoud and Mansour, Kholoud. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War” in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 242 (2018) In addition to these infrastructural services for the UN, the regime was able to exploit its penetration of all state institutions to misuse other UN-related activities for its purposes.90.Khaddour, Kheder. “Shielded by the State: Assad’s Monopoly Over Syria’s Public Institutions” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (17 August 2015) This is particularly the case regarding the systematic robbery of aid supplies, which supported the regime with additional resources to administer its social policies towards the population in its controlled territories. In terms of figures, in 2015 the regime was able to direct 99% of aid deliveries to its own territories, while only 1% of deliveries went to opposition-held territories.91.“How the UNOCHA Helped Assad and Hurt Syrians in Need” : Foreign Affairs

UNHCR Aid Supplies in Syria

The main targets of this deprivation were several aid departments of the United Nations, which are harshly criticised for collaboration with the regime.92.“73 Syrian Aid Groups Suspend Cooperation with the UN” : The New York Times In coordinating aid deliveries with state institutions, the United Nations are accused of strongly favoring the regime in serving as a source of financial and material support. While the WHO subsidized the National Bloodbank of Syria with several million dollars, which is under control of the Ministry of Defense, the WHO defends this cooperation with reference on the accumulation of IDPs in territories under government control.93.“Enabling Assad: The UN’s Failure in Syria” : Foreign Affairs This entanglement of humanitarian work by the regime was so comprehensive that every “UN agency had at least one person who is a direct relative of a Syrian official”, which were on the payroll of certain UN agencies in order to conduct relief operations on the ground.94.“UN hires Assad’s friends and relatives for Syria relief operation” : The Guardian

Despite the absolute denial of this fact by those in charge and the reference to its obligation to neutrality, the UN went from the beginning of its action in Syria into a moral labyrinth, as Aron Lund aptly described. This labyrinth is a product of a merging between state and private capital, which has established a structure within the regime that corresponds to that of a hybrid authoritarian state. Thus it is understandable how exorbitant sums have flowed directly into the regime through UN funds, without directly addressing the regime. Even if the total amount of the UN payments can only be roughly estimated, it’s clear that it favored exactly those elements in the system of the Syrian political marketplace that had a profound interest in the resilience of the regime.95.Lund, Aron. “The UN Enters Syria’s Moral Labyrinth” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (9 September 2016) According to Annie Sparrow, the fact that the UN was reliant on coordinating its operational activities with private companies in Syria, has “permitted the Assad regime to take control of the $30 billion international humanitarian response, using donor funds to skirt sanctions”.96.“How the UNOCHA Helped Assad and Hurt Syrians in Need” : Foreign Affairs

In spite of the adapted policy of the UN through Resolution 2165 implemented in 2014, which enabled cross boarder delivery into rebel-held territories, up to 60% of aid deliveries were still channeled through regime territory in 2018.97.UNOCHA Syria mission briefing. This strategy, which was previously known as the “Whole of Syria” approach, was revised again with the decision of UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, to re-coordinate all aid deliveries via Damascus, with fatal consequences for areas outside the regime’s control.98.“Outcry at UN plans to consolidate Syria aid operations in Damascus” : The New Humanitarian

The humanitarian state of emergency – A measure of Assad’s sovereign dictatorship

Only a few government approved local NGOs were allowed to operate in oppositional areas. These activities were only permitted as long as they promised Damascus the leverage to break the will of the people to resist reintegration into state structures under its control.99.Lund, Aron. “The UN Enters Syria’s Moral Labyrinth” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (9 September 2016)

This control over the distribution of aid implies a certain understanding of the regime’s sovereignty both vis-à-vis its citizens and vis-à-vis the international community. As with the international community’s call for the establishment of a Constituent Assembly, the regime always refers to Syria’s sovereignty.100.“Syria to UN envoy: Constitution is a ‘sovereign’ matter” : Associated Press In the case of aid deliveries, the regime reiterates UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, which stresses respect for the sovereignty of a nation in the distribution of aid.101.“Enabling Assad: The UN’s Failure in Syria” : Foreign Affairs This strong emphasis on sovereignty vis-à-vis foreign countries largely ignores whether a large part of the population endorses this demand. Despite the fact that sovereignty, due to the loss of the absolute monopoly on violence as well as a large part of its territory and population, only became a negotiating concept vis-à-vis the international community, it was possible for the regime to refer to preferred transfer channels for international aid, which in nearly 75% of the cases bypassed areas held by the opposition.102. Leenders, Reinoud and Mansour, Kholoud. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War” in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 251-252 (2018)103.Martinez, Jose Ciro and Eng, Brent. “Stifling stateness: The Assad regime’s campaign against rebel governance” in: Security Dialogue, 49(4), pp. 235–253

Pro-Assad Forces with Aid Supplies of UNHCR and SARC

These additional material resources were used by the regime to pacify the demands of its passive and loyal supporters. The resulting subjective perception of a certain stability and reliability in regime-controlled areas thus stood in strong contrast to the opposition areas. The latter were to be kept under a permanent lack of existential goods in order to discredit the alternative state structures in these areas in the population and to force them to a renewed subjugation under the rule of the regime.104.Leenders, Reinoud and Mansour, Kholoud. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War” in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 248 (2018)

In this context, the Assad regime illustrates a very firm idea of the sovereignty principle that can be reduced to the formula of Carl Schmitt, who has his spiritual roots in the political turmoil of the Weimar Republic on the eve of Hilter’s rise. According to Schmitt, the “Sovereign is who decides on the state of emergency.”105.Carl, Schmitt 1922: Politische Theologie – Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität, Berlin, pp. 9.

Here the regime not only decides Syria’s state of emergency by pointing to an international conspiracy with terrorist elements within Syria, but also in the allocation of aid. Thus Assad determines which territories are threatened by an acute state of emergency and determines what relief these areas may be entitled to.106.“Syria’s President Speaks: A Conversation With Bashar al-Assad” : Foreign Affairs During the siege of Daraa, the UN was regularly threatened by Damascus that it would no longer have any operational authority in Syria if it’s bodies did not agree to adapt to the demands of the regime.107.Lund, Aron. “The UN Enters Syria’s Moral Labyrinth” Publication by the Carnegie Middle East Center (9 September 2016)

This sense of sovereignty used by the regime to reportedly manipulate the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan in 2016 and 2017. The plan, which represents the factual basis for the distribution of resources in a conflict region, saw the Syrian regime delete terms such as “siege”, “besieged” and “war”.108.“UN Again Allowing Assad Regime to Edit Syria Aid Document” : The Daily Beast During the international donor conference in Brussels on 14 March 2019, at which up to 7 billion dollars were promised for Syria, many international aid workers mentioned that this manipulation by the regime will continue in 2019.109.“Donors in Brussels pledge $7B aid for Syria in 2019” : TRT World110.“Outcry at UN plans to consolidate Syria aid operations in Damascus” : The New Humanitarian

Although other authoritarian states have abused the UN as a strategic instrument for their authoritarian persistence, the Syrian case is different.111.Hurd, Ian. “The Strategic Use of Liberal Institutionalism: Libya and the UN Sanctions 1992 – 2003” in: International Organizations, Vol. 59 (3), pp. 495-526 (2005) Reinoud Leenders rightly refers to the uniqueness of the abuse of humanitarian relief as an extension of suffering in the case of the Syrian conflict, as “the Syrian war suggests that authoritarian regimes can be highly successful in selecting and altering relevant audiences to uphold their claims.”112.Leenders, Reinoud and Mansour, Kholoud. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War” in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 228 (2018)

The fact that an authoritarian regime, which has itself appeared as a warring party, is invoking an outdated understanding of sovereignty in order to use precisely those resources as war tactics is becoming a major challenge for the UN. If the UN wants to live up to its mission of alleviating the humanitarian emergencies of war and destruction, it is faced with the task of reassessing the conceptual content of state sovereignty in the case of intrastate conflicts.

In reality, it is crucial that in the case of Syria, the concept of sovereignty itself is confronted with a grave deficiency in terms of Schmitt’s formulation, as an expanded political marketplace and the involvement of foreign actors have dissolved part of that sovereignty.

In addition to a changed UN policy towards the Syrian regime, the actors empowered by the war – the conflict-related economy – are becoming the main problem for Damascus. The provision of public services and critical goods, which has so far been used as the most basic incentive for political obedience, is increasingly difficult for Damascus to maintain and is developing into an increasing danger for the regime to hide its true nature under the guise of regular statehood.113.“Assad loyalists are turning on their government as living standards deteriorate” : The Washington Post This nature can be recognized in the second modality of governance: the rule of fear and violence.


The article gives insight on how corruption and extortion as co-optation mechanisms towards its controlled population must be seen as another pillar of authoritarian resilience. The aim was not only to show the structural differences of the state and the impact as well as backgrounds of an excessive patronage on the Syrian society, but also to refer to the various tactics used to meet the public demands for socio-economic security. In addition to a selective social policy in interaction with classical welfare policies, cooperation with private organizations close to the regime and the manipulation of international relief goods as well as subsidies were also identified as central.

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