Dr. Abboud is associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University and the author of Syria (Polity, 2015).
The Syrian tragedy has induced rapid changes in the country’s social structure. Moreover, new forms of collective and individual authority tethered to the conflict have emerged.1 Both processes will have long-term impacts on the future of Syria and the prospect for a peaceful resolution. Driving much of this transformation are changes wrought by the emergence of war economies in Syria. To date, a significant portion of the scholarly and popular focus has been placed on the sectarian2 and radical3 elements of the armed opposition, especially on groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), with scant attention paid to the emergence of Syria’s war economies.4
I employ the term war "economies" as opposed to economy to denote the plurality of economic activity, actors and geographies implicated in what we typically refer to as the economic conduct (and benefit) of war. To speak of a singular war economy in the way that we speak of national economies betrays the complexities and internal logics of specific supply chains, forms of accumulation and profit, armed and non-armed actors and the interrelationships that form distinct, although fluid, units. In much the same way that protracted strife tends to produce new geographies of conflict, typically defined by the fragmentation of sovereignty and the emergence of alternative authorities, so too do war economies take shape around processes of territorial fragmentation, sovereign retreat and protracted violence.
Syria’s war economies will shape post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Making the link clear between the impact of conflict and post-conflict policy is necessary to insure sufficient and timely service delivery and infrastructure reconstruction. One of the central challenges facing practitioners and planners in the post-conflict period is how to build sustainable structures to meet the social and economic needs of populations.
Syria’s challenges will be numerous. The first step in addressing them will be understanding how Syria’s economy was destroyed during the conflict and what patterns of economic activity emerged in its place. Such an inquiry demands an understanding of the multiple actors involved in driving economic activity associated with wartime structures of service provision. This is challenging, given that many post-conflict reconstruction plans, especially those heavily driven by outside donors and interests, fixate solely on security-sector reform (SSR) or the macroeconomic policies of stabilization. The latter often tend to ignore the specific ways in which conflicts shape post-conflict economic possibilities. In many cases, this leads to a serious disconnect between the needs of populations and the policies that donors and practitioners pursue.
This paper asks two questions. First, how has the territorial fragmentation of the country shaped and given rise to war economies? Though the geography of the conflict is often neatly demarcated in popular narratives between regime and non-regime forces, the war economies sometimes cut across these lines and extend into neighboring countries’ borderlands. Second, what forms of authority are implicated in the geography of Syria’s war economies? And how do complicated networks form around specific supply chains? These networks are not limited to armed groups, but may also include local councils, relief organizations and conflict entrepreneurs.
I argue that Syria’s war economies are structured around the microeconomies of violence involving such practices as looting, taxation, kidnapping, and aid theft and diversion. Rather than constituting disparate practices in an anarchic war, these microeconomies of violence are deeply intertwined in a specific supply chain that begins in Syria’s borderlands and often ends in areas under siege. The notion of a supply chain during conflict has been taken up in much of the economics literature, which focuses on how resources are extracted in conflict zones and exported to neighboring countries. In countries such as Syria, where resources play a secondary role in the financing of conflict and the emergence of war economies, the supply chain functions in reverse. The lack of productive activity has rendered Syria import dependent, while the territorial fragmentation of the country has made these imports subject to different forms of violent intervention, taxation and control. Within this supply chain, new forms of conflict agency are revealed, particularly in the formation of networks that seek to guide and benefit from Syria’s war economies.
One of the central features of the Syrian conflict has been the contraction of regime authority and the emergence of armed groups to fill the vacuum. The normative view of conflict suggests that state retreat leads to sovereign gaps, but this is far from the case in Syria, where rival armed groups have established complicated systems of governance. This has created competing centers of military and political power throughout the country, including in areas that are ostensibly under central control. In so-called regime areas, for example, thousands of militia fighters, whether independent or in the National Defence Forces (NDF), have emerged as major sources of power and security alongside the intelligence services and the regular army. Thus, while the frontlines are constantly in flux, with control of entire regions shifting between the regime and various rebels, there is also a fragmentation within regions that defies centralization of command or structure.
The territorial fragmentation of the country has produced four identifiable geographies: the areas under regime control (from the south, through Damascus and Homs, to the Mediterranean coast), the areas under ISIS control (northeastern Syria), the Rojava5 areas under Kurdish control (in the north along the Turkish and Iraqi borders) and the remaining areas around Idlib and Aleppo that are controlled by a collection of armed groups. The borders of these territories are constantly changing, as are the authorities that control them. The Rojava areas, for example, have steadily expanded since the creation of the autonomous administration in 2012. Similarly, after a steady contraction, the regime has, especially since the Russian intervention of 2015, regained ostensible control over many key cities, transport routes and regions.
There is a wealth of scholarship that attempts to bring together the different agencies and geographies implicated in the emergence of war economies. One proposed that we think of war economies as regional conflict complexes, defined by a range of connections: smuggling, population movements, conflict spillover and so on.6 Four types of overlapping networks shape these complexes: economic, military, political and social. Such a framing is useful for conceptualizing the interconnectedness of violence, profit, identity and borders, but some of the assumptions around how economic networks form in relation to supply chains are misleading.
In their treatment of regional conflict complexes, Pugh and Cooper7 emphasize the importance of regional supply chains in establishing these linkages. However, this work has a resource bias and only considers how these linkages form around supply chains that begin in the conflict zone and end in regional or global spaces. Resources such as diamonds, oil, opium, timber and coltan provide excellent examples of how supply chains form around single commodities and shape different kinds of network agency during conflict. Coltan supply chains, for example, begin with mining that is typically conducted by prison or child labor, Congolese locals and armed soldiers, who transfer the coltan to local companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These entities then enter into contracts with trading and processing companies that ensure the manufacture and distribution of coltan to technology companies — including Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Nokia — for which coltan is an essential component in the manufacture of phones, game consoles and computers. The cycle begins in DRC mines and ends in mobile phones and other electronics.8
While this supply-chain model recognizes the importance of microeconomies, with their taxation, prostitution, looting, and checkpoint and mobility control, they are integrated into the analysis of war economies as annexes or appendages to a larger process centered on resource extraction. The supply-chain model proposed here is one that is unidirectional; production begins inside the conflict zone, is transported to regional countries and the end product is consumed in far-off places. A host of agents — workers, armed groups, companies and consumers — are all implicated in the specific structure and flow of the supply chain.
In contrast to this model, others have proposed that our understanding of war economies be expanded to focus on the range of activities of armed groups that form the economies of violence central to their reproduction. Drawing on the DRC, Laudati9 argues that a comprehensive, broader political economy of conflict in the DRC needs to account for "secondary economies." The six secondary economies he identifies are roadblock taxes, civilian taxes, rent-seeking on the trade of timber and hemp, theft of livestock, looting and pillaging, and the control of labor.10
While some resource extraction occurs in oil and phosphates, Syria’s war economies are largely structured around short-term opportunism and predatory behavior, including taxation, smuggling, kidnapping, looting, aid theft and diversion, and the commodification of violence as a form of protection. These activities, whether understood as strategies of opportunism or reproduction, are unstable. They do not offer armed groups fixed economies of supply, trade or payments, such as a war economy structured around the extraction and distribution of a single, coveted resource like diamonds, oil or coltan. Rather than microeconomies of violence forming an annex of the war economies, they are central to the conduct of them. In Syria, all major armed groups rely on predation for financing. Very little, if any, productive or extractive activity occurs under the control of these groups. This is a function not merely of Syria’s lack of natural-resource endowments, but of the fluidity of territorial control that has precluded the realization of long-term, stable economic strategies by warlords. Control of checkpoints, highways, border crossings and other sources of revenue is constantly shifting among armed groups.
How is agency to be understood through the perspective of microeconomies of violence? The discipline of economics has largely peripheralized the study of civil war and conflict. Most advances in the field have come from insights drawn from behavioral economics and, unfortunately, attempt to replicate similar questions and methodologies employed to study non-conflict cases. This leads to a substantial divide between the realities of contemporary conflicts and what economics has to offer us in understanding them. As Blattman and Miguel11 suggest, economists are mostly interested in explaining the causes and consequences of civil war and conflict. This does not, however, tell us anything about the conduct of war. As such, economics has little to offer on key questions about the organizational structure of violence, the fragmentation of countries in times of conflict or how war produces long-term social changes.
This is a troubling lacuna given the central role war economies play in propelling violence. A different approach is to ask how armed groups materially and socially reproduce in the context of conflict and to draw on this question to provide broader insights into war economies. This provides a wider assessment range and moves us from a focus on the quantification of war economies to a more intersecting analysis that accounts for factors such as the geography of conflict, cooperation and conflict between armed groups, and the social impact of long-term violence. In other words, focusing on network formation can offer insight into the conduct of war.
Baylouny12 provides a useful definition of armed groups that helps to distinguish them from networks of violence. In Lebanon, the consolidated control of territory gave rise to armed groups that established administrative and service institutions for the populations under their control. Both consolidated territory and a hierarchy of command defined armed groups in Lebanon and distinguishes them from networks of violence. While networks similarly come together to provide the administrative and service institutions of a population under their control, they often do so in territories that are not consolidated. In Syria, such has been the case; the territorial contraction of regime control has not led to the monopolization of violence by a select few armed groups. Rather, the regime’s territorial contraction has produced a proliferation of violent groups that remain in conflict and cooperation with one another. Such instability is central to network formation as groups enter into and ultimately sever alliances with others. Such alliances are often determined by a number of factors — resource access, supply demands, access to markets and weapons — with ideology playing a complementary, rather than a hegemonic, role.
The needs that drive alliance formation — territorial control, administration, resources and so on — distinguish networks of violence from armed groups. Baylouny13 highlights this distinction by pointing out that the term "armed political parties" (APP) best describes such groups in Iraq and Lebanon; they represent a specific political party or ideology and rarely enter into alliances on the ground with political and military competitors. While territorial control is essential for both networks of violence and APPs, the latter are often militarily and politically embedded in areas that make possible the control and administration of a population without alliance formation. Why is alliance formation a feature of contemporary conflict, especially in Syria, and how does this structure networks of violence?
There is remarkable fluidity among armed actors in Syria. The constant changing of names, alliances, interests and territories is virtually impossible to capture in real-time analysis. Armed groups form and quickly contract; fighters move from one group to the next; some put down their arms and others pick them up. Stories abound of fighters who once pledged allegiance to ISIS, only to switch allegiance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Other reports suggest that fighters even move between regime and rebel forces.14 This fluidity is a function of the organizational structure of violence in the Syrian conflict. This structure revolves around three nodes that form the networks of violence: battalions or localized units, brigades and fronts. The localized units often consist of a few dozen fighters with limited training and resources. The brigades have a few hundred fighters and slightly more resources. Both the units and brigades are typically associated with larger structures that bring together a network of fighters/rebels versus those outside of any broader structure (independent rebels). Many of these groups are independent of a larger central command, their preferred association occurring through the creation of various fronts that serve more as regional conglomerations of fighters than hierarchical commands. This organizational structure of violence gives Syria’s war economies their distinctive features, structures and patterns.
Battalions are small conglomerations of fighters that emerged from, and remained concentrated in, specific neighborhoods, towns, streets or villages. These nodes emerged to fulfill security needs and provide protection of the population. Typically, these nodes emerged in both regime-loyalist and rebel areas as civilians turned to their neighbors for protection from encroaching violence. As such, these battalions are typically made up of a small number of fighters who are geographically concentrated in specific areas. Limited resources, small numbers and geographic concentration define the battalion nodes. In the case of regime loyalists, many of these fighters have joined larger brigades (see below) as they hone skills in fighting and looting.
Brigades are the second node in the network: conglomerations of battalions that are under the command of a centralized leadership. Because of this structure, brigades have a much wider geographic range than battalions and are active in larger parts of cities and provinces. They are distinguished from battalions because they consist of dozens, if not hundreds, of fighters who have a wider geographic reach and a looser command structure. Fighters in both battalions and brigades are not always loyal to commanders. One of the key features of the organizational structure of violence in Syria is the remarkable fluidity of fighters, switching allegiances from one battalion to another with tremendous frequency. These nodes are thus defined more by their commanders than any coherent or consistent fighting unit.
A larger, non-hierarchical form of coordination is the front, the third node in the networks of violence. Fronts are conglomerations of brigades that serve more as military alliances than hierarchical command structures. The fronts usually form in situations of military or battlefield necessity and are typically composed of dozens of brigades, with a small number of powerful brigades dominating the structure of the fronts. Because the fronts are made up of dozens of brigades, loyalty is often very weak; different brigades pledge or withdraw allegiance with alarming frequency. These networks are thus defined by their fluidity. In Syria, the structure of the armed groups is what Paul Staniland calls "fragmented"15 based on their weak entrenchment.
The example of Liwa al-Tawhid (Tawhid Brigade) is an excellent example of the fluidity of allegiance and coordination. Formed in and around Aleppo, Tawhid was made up of thousands of fighters who had initial success on the battlefield. Their original affiliation was with the FSA, but, owing to their increasingly Islamist leanings, they broke away in 2012 and formed a coalition called the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF). Within a year, Tawhid, along with two of the larger and more powerful brigades (Jaish al-Islam and Suqoor al-Sham), withdrew from the SILF (which subsequently ended all joint operations and dissolved its command structure) to join the Islamic Liberation Front (ILF), a newly formed group of Islamist brigades. By August 2014, the ILF, with Tawhid still a member, had joined the Majlis Qiyadat al-Thawra al-Surriya (Syrian Revolutionary Command Council), an alliance of more than 70 armed factions from across the geographic and ideological spectrum.
The basic function of the fronts is to provide leaders a space for coordination and joint decision making and resource sharing. The fronts sit as central nodes of networks of violence and include groups such as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Syrian Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, all of which share remarkably similar characteristics in their networked structure. They are composed of smaller, less mobile fighting units that are active in geographically concentrated areas, and larger brigades of a few hundred members who are more mobile, more active and have greater fighting power. The key question is how these units form, contract and become embedded in different networks.
The landscape of violence varies throughout Syria’s governorates with smaller, localized units concentrated in specific areas. The network is thus extremely spread out and decentralized; coordination across governorates, let alone on a national scale, is extremely difficult. In each governorate, there is a common structure to the armed groups, larger brigades being made up of smaller units. These brigades are often associated with a front that gives the appearance of a national character, when in reality the coalitions are amalgamations of entrenched brigades. The reason for this entrenchment is mainly resource and capacity issues. On the one hand, many brigades are strong enough to defend areas, hold territory and establish some semblance of an administration. On the other hand, they are not strong enough to make significant advances across territories because of the presence of other hostile armed groups and regime forces. However, because coordination is weak and mistrust among the groups very high, the coalitions do not exercise national power and have differentiated capacities across governorates. Thus different brigades exercise power in their specific locales — town, city, village, governorate — rather than on a national level. Such limitations have largely driven coalition making in the Syrian conflict. More important, these structural features have fueled the microeconomies of violence in Syria, as the demands of material and social reproduction force armed groups into predatory economic activities.
Conflict and violence create multidirectional pressures on the economy, affecting productivity, wages, trade, currency valuation, private consumption, savings and debt. There has been a severe contraction of the formal economy that, by all accounts, will have a multigenerational impact on the Syrian economy.16 Contraction is often the catalyst for the transition of individuals from civilians to combatants, as formal economic opportunities or the presence of conflict encourage armament and participation in the war economies. A lack of access to basic goods further drives economic transactions into the realm of war economies.
Economic contraction has increased Syria’s dependence on imports, especially in food and medicine. Extreme scarcity and a decline in productivity have accelerated these trends. Food insecurity, for example, impacted around 9.5 million people in June 2016, with more than a million living under siege by either the regime or other forces.17 Throughout the country, there has been a complete collapse of household life, as reduced food availability, high prices and unemployment have created conditions in which 80 percent of households do not have enough food or lack the money to buy any.18 In addition, the intentional destruction of crops, the targeting of water supplies and the high cost of agricultural inputs have fueled the crisis. Similar conditions have decimated the health sector. The majority of hospitals that were operational before the war have been destroyed, and around 95 percent of the population lack access to health services. Basic medications and vaccinations are simply not available for many Syrians. Prior to the conflict, more than 90 percent of medicines consumed in the country were produced there, and now the number has decreased significantly.
Economies of violence have emerged around the provision of food and medicine. Key links in the supply chain bring together the purchase or procurement of goods and transport to and across borderlands, the smuggling or receipt of goods into markets, including areas under siege, and consumption by civilians. The supply chain produces the specific forms of agency that give rise to networks. As I detail below, the violent and nonviolent forms of agency are deeply intertwined in these networks that ensure the supply and movement of goods. The necessity for such supply chains emerges, in the first place, from the disastrous impact of the conflict on the economy and employment, and the methods of survival and coping necessary to sustain life in times of severe violence.
Economic contraction initiated sustained capital flight from Syria.19 Many businesspeople fled to neighboring countries, mainly Lebanon and Turkey. Still others found their way to the Arab Gulf, Egypt or Asian and European countries. The largest concentration of Syrian businesspeople and capital is, by far, in the southern regions of Turkey. Figures from Turkey suggest that Syrian businesspeople have been extremely active, with foreign currency deposits, especially in southern banks along the Syrian-Turkish border, reporting yearly increases from 2011 through to 2016. In addition to increasing deposits, Syrian investors are the primary source of new registered enterprises in Turkey. In 2014, Syrian investors established more than 26 percent of all new foreign companies in Turkey.20
The movement of capital from Syria and the establishment of businesses in Turkey are not surprising given the extensive economic relations between the two countries prior to the war. This is also unsurprising given that Turkey was an ideal location from which Syrian enterprises and trade with the Syrian market could be re-established. Although many have been set up in Istanbul, the majority of Syrian business activity is in the borderlands of Gaziantep, Mersin and Kilis. By mid-2016, trade between Turkey and Syria had returned to pre-conflict levels.21 This merely reflects the official, recorded trade; accounting for informal and illegal trade would increase this figure considerably.
Turkish and Syrian businesses are reaping the benefits of the conflict economy and the increased needs of Syrians. Enterprises in Gazientep and the southern areas have been growing each year. Despite Gazientep’s status as an industrial hub that connects Turkey to the wider region, around one in six companies operating there today are Syrian, and one in three in Killis and Sanliufra is Syrian-owned.22 The majority of these Syrian businesses deal in foodstuffs and clothing, others in services and construction.
Transport of goods from Turkey into Syria involves multiple forms of agency. The process begins with wholesalers or traders who secure the supply of goods and their delivery to the Syrian-Turkish border, the next major link in the chain of Syria’s war economies. When armed groups took control of the border crossings early in the conflict, they imposed arbitrary fees and taxes on individuals and vehicles. This source of income quickly drew other armed groups to the border areas. It was, in fact, conflict over control of these crossings that was the first spark in rebel-versus-rebel conflict. For financial and strategic reasons, border crossings have been coveted areas of control for major armed groups. In 2012, the Northern Storm Brigades assumed control over Bab al-Salama, the main crossing at the Turkish-Syrian border, linking the Turkish city of Killis to the Syrian borderlands. Within a few weeks, Northern Storm had entered into an armed conflict with the Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade that ended in an agreement between the two to share control and profits from the crossing. Not long after that, the agreement was expanded to include two other groups.
Many features of the Syrian war are reflected in the conflict over Bab al-Salama, which, to this day, remains subject to intense rebel-rebel conflict. First, the multiple authorities at the border, in the form of different brigades, reflect the fragmented nature of the armed opposition. Second, the relative weakness of the various armed groups that prevents them from defeating each other forces them into cooperative agreements. These extend to the battlefield, administrative matters, and even issues of governance and justice.23 As such, many armed groups are involved in interdependent relationships with other armed groups in military, administrative and financial matters, while not necessarily sharing ideological or strategic commitments. Finally, the mosaic of authorities implicated in issues of border control, governance and the like has prevented the centralization of opposition control. This has contributed to the continued fracturing of Syria’s war economies.
The realities of inter-rebel conflict and cooperation are reflected in the wider transport network. Syria’s border with Turkey has more than 10 official and unofficial crossings.24 Those in Kurdish- or ISIS-controlled areas have been closed, as have those that were under the control of the Syrian regime. This has left two or three crossings controlled by the armed groups, mainly at Bab al-Salama and Bab al-Hawa. Goods and commodities exported into Syria from Turkey typically enter through one of these crossings. In addition, these are the main crossings that humanitarian aid agencies have to work through. This does not mean that smuggling and informal trade does not occur; the movement of goods in the northeastern parts of Syria has remained strong.
The funneling of commercial goods and humanitarian aid into two or three border crossings has concentrated armed-group activity into these areas and produced a supply route known as the Killis corridor or the Castello Road Supply Route. It runs directly from the border areas to the eastern parts of Aleppo and has been the main source of rebel supplies, civilian commodities and humanitarian aid for the region. Profits from the border crossings are primarily derived from charging crossing fees for individuals and trucks. Over time, complicated systems to calculate these fees have emerged and been agreed upon by different armed groups, leading to increased standardization. Typically, fees are charged based on the nature of the cargo. Food aid and basic products such as clothing generate smaller fees than luxury goods or goods intended to be smuggled into regime areas
Hallaj25 has suggested that the profits accrued from control over borders is miniscule and that the primary benefit of controlling border crossings is the armed groups’ projection of power. However, this is a very limited view of how border financing works. The direct fees collected at the border are accrued in addition to downstream fees from affiliated armed groups on the highways, protection payments and, most important, the control over lucrative smuggling routes that tend to parallel the formal border crossings. At Killis, the beginning of the corridor that enters into Syria, control over the border crossings is extremely lucrative.
Control over the territory around a crossing necessitates a level of military strength. It also requires enough political clout to maintain relations with the other armed groups that are part of the alliances at the border. This entails cooperating on issues of dispute resolution, governance and revenue distribution. Smaller, more localized units do not have immediate benefits from the border crossings, as they lack sufficient geographic mobility or political strength. Those units that are networked — that is, part of larger networks of violence in which the commanders have relationships and agreements on strategy — reap some benefits from the distribution of revenues that maintains the relationships among commanders. Localized units that are not networked with larger brigades have to rely on permanent or temporary checkpoints to derive revenue from the supply chain.
The situation in Aleppo is instructive in highlighting the central role that checkpoints play in Syria’s war economies and how transportation routes provide sources of taxation, as well as looting and kidnapping revenues, for armed groups. In addition, these activities provide space for recruitment and material and social reproduction of the groups. In Aleppo, the proliferation of checkpoints and their high-density structure enhance the interactions between combatants and civilians. Checkpoints provide a means for armed groups to govern civilian areas under the pretext of security provision, when, in reality, such checkpoints serve multiple reproductive functions for the combatants. The checkpoints provide a major source of revenue through taxation and fees while also providing spaces to recruit civilians, especially younger ones, into the ranks of armed groups. They also demarcate spaces of authority between groups and contain populations that are linked together through checkpoints. In 2014, the latest year in which reliable information was available, Aleppo alone contained 1,462 checkpoints.26 Of these, regime-affiliated armed groups controlled around 35 percent of the city (20 of 56 neighborhoods) but had created almost 70 percent of the total checkpoints (1,054 of 1,462).27
The regime forces deeply embedded in residential areas rely on fortified checkpoints that are permanent in nature and represent clear front lines. These are controlled by existing (or newly created) physical structures that serve as the main conduits of civilian mobility. These checkpoints are often heavily armed and are largely defensive, in so far as the forces controlling them devote their energies to maintaining the front lines and not advancing them. The majority of these fortified checkpoints exist on the front lines and on the perimeters of the city. Although less permanent, other checkpoints also serve an important function for rebel and regime forces as well as criminal elements who attempt to shake down the local populations. Mobile checkpoints established by armed forces in the city are typically set up to facilitate certain kinds of mobility, such as of convoys or fighters, in areas that are not of strategic importance but nevertheless require secure control or passage at a particular moment. Similarly, criminal groups often establish checkpoints for a few hours at a time in order to extract mobility taxes from the population, engage in looting, and sometimes kidnapping and other criminal activity.
The checkpoints have emerged as primary vehicles for the integration of civilians into the armed groups either through institutional linkages or through recruitment into combatant roles. As many as 70 percent of all armed opposition groups in Aleppo are estimated to be small fighting units whose combatants come from the specific areas they control.28 While these fighting units are continually in flux and the checkpoints they control shift according to strategic needs, the basic structure of the unit and its role within a residential population have remained the same: a small group of fighters control a semi-permanent checkpoint in an area in which they were all resident. Despite being so fluid, such structures and patterns actually guarantee the material reproduction of the armed groups while facilitating the continued fragmentation of the city into competing networks of violence. Smaller groups that control checkpoints have virtually no mobility across the city, but play an important role as further sites of recruitment for larger brigades who control permanent checkpoints on the front lines and the perimeters.
Control over the checkpoints and the battlefield, in general, has led to a process in which local governance councils are effectively militarized by the (forced) inclusion of combatants on the councils. The separation between civilian and military operations that had loosely emerged by 2012 — whereby armed groups co-existed in the rebel landscape with local councils focused on performing civic functions and providing governance and services — has slowly broken down as the local authorities are absorbed by combatants. In April 2015, for example, after Idlib was entirely taken over by armed groups, the local council offered seven seats to Ahrar al-Sham and four seats to Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), a distribution that reflected the relative strength of each group on the battlefield. In these cases, combatants have essentially institutionalized rebel linkages with the civilian populations inside areas under their control.
Checkpoints and geographic control are also central to maintaining siege economies in Syria. These economies are deeply enmeshed in Syria’s war economies and reveal the connections among smaller and larger armed brigades, traders and consumers. Some have estimated that approximately 80 percent of sieges29 are imposed by groups linked to the Syrian regime, including the army, regional militias, the National Defence Forces and assorted irregulars. The sieges provide a lucrative opportunity to reap the benefits of the war economies through direct taxation of mobility across front lines. Goods and people are subject to these taxes. In most cases, the besieged civilians live under the direct control of armed militias, and thus suffer from a dual siege by the regime and by rebel forces.
Mediating between these ostensibly opposing forces are traders or intermediaries whose sole function is to facilitate the movement of goods from one side of the siege to the other. Elsewhere I have argued that intermediation is an important form of agency during the conflict, as the regime has relied on Syrian business people to circumvent sanctions.30 These intermediaries function as fronts for both importing goods and paying for them. In addition, they often facilitate large-scale transactions between regime and non-regime forces, as in the case of George Haswani, a Syrian engineer recently placed under sanctions for brokering oil deals between the regime and ISIS.31 Intermediation, however, is not restricted to circumventing sanctions and facilitating deals across military lines.
These intermediaries in siege areas are often referred to as traders because they broker deals between rebel groups, regime forces and civilians. In most cases, traders are residents of the area whose businesses collapsed once the conflict started. Like many other business people, they were faced with the choice of leaving the country or trying to integrate into the new war economies. As has been the case with George Haswani and others who have directly benefited from the conflict, these traders represent a new class of business actors — conflict elites — who have a direct stake in its continuation. Their role as intermediaries is protected by their connections with regime forces, rebels and outside business interests that often facilitate the delivery of goods.
The web of armed groups and traders, and how they shape Syria’s war economies, is best illustrated by two examples from some of the more brutal sieges in Syria today. In Madaya, a village of just over 40,000 people, hundreds of armed fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army share an uneasy alliance in the besieged area. Traders who have relations with all four groups as well as the regime possess warehouses that are protected by some of the fighters. These stores are full of food and medicine, with prices soaring as high as 50 times since the start of the conflict. Civilians have very little ability to resist the armed groups; they are almost entirely composed of fighters from the area. Most resistance ends with retribution against families. The traders themselves are also from the area and thus enjoy social relations with all of the fighters.32
A similar web of control and profit exists in Eastern Ghouta, an area under regime siege. There, Todman has profiled Abu Ayman al-Manfush, a businessman from the area who has established a virtual monopoly on the import of food and fuel.33 In return for the monopoly granted by the regime, he distributes a portion of the revenues to regime forces. Through this monopoly, replicated in other besieged parts of the country, traders such as al-Manfush are able to control the supply and cost of goods and their distribution to a network of traders working on their behalf. The only way for opposition groups to break these patterns is through the construction of tunnels to divert goods underground.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
The liberal-peace model of conflict resolution rests on the premise that combatants engage in violence in order to access the state and political power. To ensure the cessation of conflict, liberal institutions and ideas need to be propagated in post-conflict spaces. This occurs through the centralization of reconstruction responsibility in the nation-state, as part of a broader attempt to reinscribe sovereignty. Danielle Beswick calls this the "single sovereign" problem of post-conflict state building. Planners and the wider international community locate the solution to conflict in the (re)establishment of strong, centralized state institutions.34 Many approaches to post-conflict resolution are based in the liberal peace model. These assumptions often ignore the important role war economies play in perpetuating conflict. Often, in the urgency to establish peace and demobilize and demilitarize combatants, the material effects of conflict and their persistence are ignored or willed away. There is a striking absence of provisions in peace agreements dealing expressly with how to unravel war economies.
Some, such as Kaysie Brown,35 have argued that the language and policies of peace agreements should explicitly address questions about natural resources, major drivers of conflicts. This view, however, replicates the bias in so much of the literature that war economies are primarily structured around natural-resource exploitation and extraction. There is certainly an oil economy in Syria today, but the majority of Syria’s war economies are structured around secondary economies or the microeconomies of violence I have described.
The major economic activities shaping these war economies are kidnapping, looting, taxation, intermediation, aid diversion or theft, and mobility control/restrictions. These practices are secondary to larger supply chains based on resource extraction and distribution, but they are primary activities when we consider war economies such as Syria’s.
These new forms of agency reflect the dramatic social changes that have occurred in Syria since the conflict began. Capital flight has restratified the Syrian business community and created the conditions for the rise of a conflict elite,36 while violence has empowered armed groups and given them control over key areas of administrative and judicial authority throughout Syria. The key questions for post-conflict planners, then, should not revolve solely around how to distribute political power after the conflict. Instead, they should focus on how to integrate these new social changes and forms of economic and political agency.
Peter Andreas has argued that a "bottom up" or "clandestine" approach to the political economy of conflict encourages us to think of the critical role that smuggling and other criminal practices played during the conflict and how this shaped the possibilities for post-conflict reconstruction.37 Similarly, Sorensen has argued that social transformations in Serbian society occurred during the war alongside the development of an illiberal economy.38 These social transformations produced various kinds of social and economic networks that persisted well into the reconstruction period. However, their persistence was not consistent with the reconstruction plans.
The larger problem for reconstruction planners is how best to capture the social transformations that have occurred into a reconstruction program that incorporates the new agencies and economic practices produced by the conflict. In the absence of policies and programs that streamline new forms of agency into the reconstruction period, there is the risk of continued conflict, instability and violence, as conflict agents revert to established practices. This suggests that a more comprehensive approach to breaking the war-economies cycle is needed in Syria, one that moves beyond the liberal-peace model and towards a more robust treatment of the social transformations that occurred during conflict. Most obviously, this involves taking the microeconomies of violence seriously and concentrating policy efforts on dismantling the networks that perpetuate them.
To speak of a war economy in the singular suggests that there is a coherence that simply does not exist. Most studies of war economies focus on resource issues and how extraction and distribution create concrete and structured supply chains linking conflict zones to regional and international economies. In these narratives, microeconomies of violence — looting, taxation, kidnapping and so on — are secondary to the larger supply-chain structure. In Syria, however, the supply chain actually operates in reverse, as production and procurement of goods occurs outside of the country and is then distributed inside. This "reverse" supply chain produces different forms of agency tethered to the conflict, from the business person in Turkey procuring goods, to the border guards collecting taxes for armed groups, to the battalions in urban areas that erect temporary checkpoints to reap some material benefit from the war economies. These forms of agency are links in the wider supply chains that are essential not only to the survival of average Syrians living under conflict and siege, but to fueling the violence.
There will come a time when the Syrian conflict ends and Syrian and international planners are faced with the task of demilitarizing and demobilizing fighters who have accumulated wealth and power through practices that typically escape the traditional policies associated with Security Sector Reform (SSR) or Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) that can sometimes produce negative results.39 These are dilemmas facing all post-conflict countries. In recent decades, policies have not always been successful, in large part because they do not target or engage with the microeconomies of violence that have been detailed in this paper. Syria will need more than macroeconomic stabilization or the investment of resources and effort into building and reinforcing institutions.
This paper highlights the need to think beyond existing reconstruction paradigms and to develop alternative needs-assessment models that contribute to policies that will unravel microeconomies of violence and their impacts. Thus, rather than targeting macroeconomic policies during the post-conflict reconstruction period, planners and practitioners should direct their energies towards the micro level — the individual, the household and the community. Doing so will begin to address many of the drivers of the Syrian war economies, mainly unemployment, lost savings and insecurity. However, there are many challenges practitioners and planners face in doing so.
First, the micro level of conflict and post-conflict zones is too often invisible to international donors and practitioners. Many post-conflict reconstruction cases result in development of national capitals at the expense of peripheral areas. This is certainly the case from Rwanda to Lebanon to Iraq. Second, many donors are looking for immediate results or for policies that speak to donor interests and concerns, not those of the population. The relatively short attention span of many donors and practitioners induces a conflict fatigue that precludes long-term planning and engagement. Donors and their funding priorities change, so long-term policies are viewed as less desirable than short-term immediate and quantifiable results. Third, the tendency is toward projects rather than systemic-based policies. Focusing solely on rebuilding infrastructure or providing resources to an area is not always generationally sustainable. Such policies do not address the long-term issues of social cohesion or economic productivity that are essential to maintaining peace.
Central to overcoming these challenges is to provide needs assessments that focus on the impact of microeconomies of violence as a major cause of destruction, conflict and insecurity. At the very minimum, this means taking seriously the knowledge, expertise and capacities of local organizations that know the terrain of conflict zones better than anyone else. In the case of Syria, hundreds, if not thousands, of small organizations have emerged to help meet relief and rehabilitation needs of populations. There is no reason that these organizations cannot be integrated into any post-conflict reconstruction planning. In fact, overcoming the challenges listed above necessarily requires genuine engagement and partnership with organizations working on the ground.
1 Samer Abboud, "Conflict, Governance, and De-centralized Authority in Syria" in The Levant in Transformation, eds. P. Seeberg, D. Jung, and M. Beck (Palgrave, 2015), 57-78; Jihad Yazigi, "No Going Back: Why Decentralisation Is the Future for Syria," European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief, September 6, 2016, http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/no_going_back_why_decentralisation_is_the_future_for_syria7107; and Rana Khalaf, "Governance without Government in Syria: Civil Society and State Building during Conflict," Syria Studies 7, no. 3 (2015).
2 Christopher Phillips, "Sectarianism and Conflict in Syria," Third World Quarterly 36, no. 2 (2015), 357-76; and Charles Glass, Syria Burning: A Short History of A Catastrophe (Verso, 2016).
3 Ben Rich and Dara Conduit, "The Impact of Jihadist Foreign Fighters on Indigenous Secular-Nationalist Causes: Contrasting Chechnya and Syria," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 38, no. 2 (2015): 113-31; and Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Regan Arts, 2016).
4 Jihad Yazigi, "Syria’s War Economy," European Council on Foreign Relations, April 2014; and Hamoud Al-Mahmoud, "The War Economy in the Syrian Conflict: The Government’s Hands-Off Tactics," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 15, 2015.
5 Ghadi Sary, "Kurdish Self-governance in Syria: Survival and Ambition," Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme, September 2016, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/publications/research/2016-09-15-kurdish-self-governance-syria-sary_0.pdf.
6 Michael C. Pugh, Neil Cooper, and Jonathan Goodhand, War Economies in a Regional Context: Challenges of Transformation (Lynne Rienner, 2004).
7 Ibid., 28.
8 Ibid., 28-29.
9 Ann Laudati, "Beyond Minerals: Broadening 'Economies of Violence’ in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo," Review of African Political Economy 40, no. 135 (2013): 32-50.
11 Christopher Blattman and Edward Miguel, "Civil War," Journal of Economic Literature 48, no. 1 (2010): 3-57.
12 Anne Marie Baylouny, "Born Violent: Armed Political Parties and Non-state Governance in Lebanon’s Civil War," Small Wars and Insurgencies 25, no. 2 (2014): 329-53.
14 Frederik Pleitgen, "Syrian Civil War Creates New Class of Defectors — from Rebels to Regime," CNN, December 4, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/03/world/meast/syria-civil-war-defectors/.
15 Paul Staniland, Networks of Rebellion (Cornell University Press, 2014).
16 Syrian Center for Policy Research, "Confronting Fragmentation," February 11, 2016, http://scpr-syria.org/publications/policy-reports/confronting-fragmentation/.
17 Annie Sparrow, "The UN’s Role in the Sieges in Syria," Foreign Affairs, March 29, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2016-03-29/uns-role-sieges-syria.
18 Annie Sparrow, "The UN’s Role in the Sieges in Syria."
19 Samer Abboud, "Capital Flight and the Consequences of the War Economy," Jadaliyya, March 18, 2013, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/10617/capital-flight-and-the-consequences-of-the-war-eco.
20 The Syria Report, "Economy," First Quarter 2015, 2-23.
21 Laurence Lee, "Turkey-Syria Business Booms as Conflict Continues," Al Jazeera, March 14, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/turkey-syria-trade-booms-conflict-continues-160314150048463.html.
22 Zulfikar Dogan, "Despite Ongoing War, Is Trade between Turkey, Syria Rebounding?" Al Monitor, November 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ru/contents/articles/originals/2015/11/turkey-syria-trade-level-increase-despite-civil-war.html.
23 Samer Abboud, "Conflict, Governance, and De-centralized Authority in Syria"; and Rana Khalaf, "Governance without Government in Syria: Civil Society and State Building during Conflict."
24 Syria Needs Analysis Project, "Cross-Border Movement of Goods," December 2013, https://www.acaps.org/sites/acaps/files/products/files/19_cross_border_movement_of_goods.pdf.
25 Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, "The Balance Sheet of Conflict: Criminal Revenues and Warlords in Syria," Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center Report, May 2015, https://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/Hallaj_NOREF_Clingendael_The%20balance-sheet%20of%20conflict_criminal%20revenues%20and%20warlords%20in%20Syria_Apr%202015_FINAL.pdf.
26 Caerus and the American Security Project, "Mapping the Conflict in Aleppo, Syria," February 2014, http://caerusassociates.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Caerus_AleppoMappingProject_FinalReport_02-18-14.pdf.
27 Caerus, "Mapping the Conflict in Aleppo, Syria."
29 Will Todman, "Sieges in Syria," Middle East Institute, June 14, 2016, http://www.mei.edu/content/sieges-syria-profiteering-misery.
30 Samer Abboud, "Sanctions and Elite Factionalization in Syria," Centre for Syrian Studies, July 2015.
31 David Blair, "Oil Middleman between Syria and Isil Is New Target for EU Sanctions," The Telegraph, March 7, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11455602/Oil-middleman-between-Syria-and-Isil-is-new-target-for-EU-sanctions.html.
32 Annia Ciezadlo, "The Siege Sector: Why Starving Civilians Is Big Business," News Deeply, August 11, 2016, https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2016/08/11/the-siege-sector-why-starving-civilians-is-big-business.
33 Will Todman, "Sieges in Syria."
34 Danielle Beswick, "The Challenge of Warlordism to Post-Conflict State-Building: The Case of Laurent Nkunda in Eastern Congo," The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 98, no. 402 (2009): 333-46.
35 Kaysie Brown, "War Economies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Identifying a Weak Link," Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 3, no. 1 (2006): 6-19.
36 Samer Abboud, "Syria’s Business Elites: Between Political Alignment and Hedging Their Bets," German Institute for International and Security Affairs, August 2013, https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/comments/2013C22_abo.pdf.
37 Peter Andreas, "The Clandestine Political Economy of War and Peace in Bosnia," International Studies Quarterly 48 (2004): 29-51.
38 Jens Stilhoff Sorensen, "War as Social Transformation: Wealth, Class, Power and an Illiberal Economy in Serbia," Civil Wars 6, no. 4 (2003): 55-82.
39 Ursula C. Schroeder, Fairlie Chappuis and Deniz Kocak, "Security Sector Reform and the Emergence of Hybrid Security Governance," International Peacekeeping 21, no. 2 (2014): 214-30.