There are always profits to be made during civil conflicts, where entrepreneurial networks often emerge to reap the benefits of chaos and conflict, and the Syrian case is no different. As the revolution approaches its third year, these networks are becoming more entrenched and Syria is developing a “war economy” as individuals and networks seek to exploit the opportunities of conflict. This is not merely born out of the financial necessities of the rebels; even elites connected to the regime are taking advantage of the situation to turn a profit.
Like the conflict itself, Syria’s war economy has morphed considerably in recent months. In the beginning, it was structured around fulfilling basic livelihood needs, mostly through the underground economy. The smuggling and cross-border trade that fueled this black market were largely outside the control of regime forces. Similarly, rebel groups did not have the capacity or the will to exercise control over the underground activity—although, to be sure, they were linked to it.
Eventually, this changed. As rebel groups assumed control over more areas of the country, they were drawn into the lucrative war economy, both to sustain their military efforts and purely for profit. Much like the revolution itself, the war economy became highly militarized and is now controlled by many of the armed groups on the ground.
The Rise of a New Rebel Economy
The increasing takeover of the war economy by rebel groups was made possible by their control of land routes and areas around the Turkish border. This control allowed rebel groups to begin regulating and taxing the cross-border movement of goods that were fueling the war economy.
Such was the case with the Northern Storm Brigade, a rebel group affiliated with the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). The brigade came to control the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey in 2012. Based out of Azaz in northern Syria, the brigade used the seizure of the border crossing to control key supply and distribution routes for the rebels in what became a profitable side business to its smuggling and kidnapping activities. Eventually, a negotiated agreement with the Tawhid Brigade, one of Syria’s biggest armed rebel groups, led to shared control over the border and, presumably, its profits.
Armed rebels have also targeted Syria’s oil resources. While their methods of extraction and refinement are rudimentary, the assorted rebel groups and tribes that have assumed control of oil fields are reaping tremendous profits from the distribution of oil. Profits accrued from regulating distribution routes or from oil distribution are more or less the same at the end of the day, and they are all made possible by the conflict.
Profiteering as an Obstacle to Peace
Such economic opportunism is to be expected in times of conflict. What is concerning in the Syrian case is the fusion of the revolution with the war economy, a phenomenon that will have long-term impacts on the continuity of the war as many of the rebel groups develop vested economic interests in conflict. This already seems to be a concern of some rebel leaders.
When Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, a senior rebel commander, resigned his post on the Revolutionary Military Council, the FSA’s military structure in Aleppo, he decried the fragmentation of rebel areas into cantons led by warlords who were “racing each other for power” and had turned their back on the fight against the ruling Syrian regime.
Similar criticism accompanied the very recent creation of the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), a coalition of brigades nominally under the umbrella of the Supreme Military Council, the FSA’s unified command structure. Some Islamist rebels decried the SRF as nothing more than a collection of thieves. There may be some truth to this; some of the rebel leaders associated with the SRF have dedicated as much of their energies to the fight against the regime as they have to carrying out kidnappings, robbing food convoys, and smuggling.
The coalescing of rebel groups in networks of violence that control key areas of the war economy is a problem that will be difficult to undo. As a planned Syrian peace conference, known as Geneva II, approaches, the prospects of a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict, especially one that would have buy-in on the ground, are extremely thin. There are many reasons why rebel groups and the opposition in general should not, and will not, support the Geneva process. These are legitimate reasons that have to do with preserving some of the goals of the revolution.
But there are also other, more nefarious reasons, that some rebel groups will want Geneva to fail—peace is often bad for business.