While the Syrian regime’s priority since 2011 has been the conduct of military operations against opposition groups, it has never lost sight of the postwar order.
After a string of military victories following direct Russian intervention in late 2015, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has felt more confident that it will remain in power. This has allowed it to focus on development, aid, and reconstruction—matters central to future political and economic arrangements in Syria. However, the regime’s approach has remained unchanged from its longstanding method of rule. Through its actions, the regime primarily seeks to control rather than to govern.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE REGIME
Since the Assads took power in 1970, and especially during Hafez al-Assad’s three decades in office, the Syrian regime has depended on the security forces to maintain its control over the country. Under Hafez’s son Bashar, economic liberalization measures were enacted. These empowered a new set of private entities and gave rise to networks of businessmen and civil servants whose roles after the outbreak of the war in Syria were adapted to the conflict’s changing circumstances. Aid workers, businessmen, bureaucrats, and security officers all became intertwined in an expanding network of interests centered around the regime.
When the Syrian uprising began, its highly localized nature gave rise to a number of new non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that sprung up both inside and outside regime-controlled territory to address worsening humanitarian conditions. In 2013, the government started to grant licenses to some of these groups, and a year later, in 2014, the Foreign Ministry developed a list of Syrian organizations that were authorized to work with United Nations agencies and international NGOs. The primary condition for inclusion, in practice, was whether the heads of these bodies were a part of the regime’s networks of trusted individuals.
An example shows how the process often works. In the town of Mokharam in Homs governorate, a woman of Alawi background with family connections in the armed forces launched a local initiative in 2014 to provide aid to families of members of the army and the pro-regime National Defense Forces who were killed while fighting. She approached one of the UN agencies in Homs to obtain support but was rebuffed because her initiative was not included on the Foreign Ministry’s list of organizations approved for work in the country. At the time, the list included 79 groups.
Leveraging her connections within various regime security networks, the woman was able to integrate her initiative into the Al-Bustan Association, an NGO headed by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, which was on the Foreign Ministry list and therefore eligible for outside support. In such ways the regime has been able to control resources coming into Syria from abroad by establishing a legal framework for this. The regime has thus maintained centralized control by authorizing the work of NGOs from Damascus, even as it outsources the provision of services to them.
With Syria perhaps moving closer to a reconstruction phase, the regime realizes that state weakness and the changing nature of humanitarian needs on the ground means that a greater role for NGOs is probably inevitable. Local initiatives have sprouted up across Syria. Rather than contain and control all these organizations directly—which would likely be impossible—the regime has, instead, opted for a policy of trying to incorporate them into its own networks. This policy has the effect of extending central state authority to the local level while also maintaining a degree of control over aid flowing from international agencies abroad to NGOs in Syria.
EMPOWERING LOCAL TECHNOCRATS
The highly localized nature of the Syrian conflict has also pushed the regime to empower local administrative units in recent years. For example, in order to retain control over the reconstruction process the regime formed a Reconstruction Committee in December 2014. It is revealing that the committee is headed by the minister of local administration, which represents implicit acknowledgement that reconstruction will have to be managed through local bodies.
At the same time, creation of the committee ensures that all reconstruction efforts are performed in coordination with, and under the watchful eye of, the central government. In other words the process of devolving reconstruction to the local level in no way represents, or is intended to represent, a loss of the regime’s power.
Other changes have been imposed by necessity. For example, administrative bodies have been given latitude to engage in activities not previously authorized by the state. Assad’s Presidential Decree 19 of May 2015 is a case in point. The decree granted every administrative unit in the Syrian state—including governorates and municipalities—the right to form their own investment companies. In December 2016 the Damascus governorate did just that, establishing the Damascus al-Cham Holding Joint Stock Company with a capital of SYP60 billion (about $279 million according to the official exchange rate). The company’s eight-person board of directors includes four members who are not part of the administrative structure of Damascus governorate, while the governor himself serves as the company’s head.
The company’s mandate is to invest in real estate within the Damascus governorate. The model is novel in that it allows private investors to make a profit from real estate owned by the state, which retains official ownership of the land and thereby ensures continued regime control. In return, the state can secure access to funds. If deemed successful, the experiment in Damascus may be replicated elsewhere in Syria.
This would have significant implications for the reconstruction process. By granting influence to local administrative units and friendly investors, the regime can assert its dominance over the reconstruction process while avoiding the need to act transparently, consult with local communities, or perform other work associated with actual governance. The ultimate decisions about what is best for the communities engaged in reconstruction will rest not with the communities themselves but rather with the regime and its network of affiliates, as represented by these new companies.
As the regime has looked toward a time when distributing aid and disbursing reconstruction funds will become important in reasserting its control over the country, authorities have also moved to empower local administrative units and technocratic bodies that will be central to these processes. This was exemplified in the city of Homs in 2015 and early 2016, when car-bombs targeted the mainly Alawi neighborhood of Al-Zahra. Residents staged protests demanding the resignation of the Homs governor, Talal al-Barazi, and the head of the local security council, Louay Mouala. In January 2016, the regime complied with the protesters’ demands by removing Mouala, but kept the civilian governor in place. Before the war, the idea of removing a security figure because of public pressure would have been unthinkable,
That Barazi remained in office was not due so much to his personal influence as to the regime’s desire to empower the position of the governor, in response to the growing importance of such civilian positions in overseeing aid and reconstruction. While security and military institutions have been vital for regime survival throughout the war, what happened to Barazi shows that the Assad regime is well aware that on their own they will not be enough to guarantee its power.
Although these changes have resulted in the relative strengthening of certain civilian, technocratic, and local administrative entities, the regime’s model of rule has remained, and will continue to remain, highly centralized. Rather than devolve power, the aim of these changes has been to allow the regime to retain its sway over development, aid, and reconstruction funds as the major military campaigns in Syria appear to wind down.
More perniciously, this is likely to increase the hardships endured by Syrians and place them at the mercy of wartime networks of influence. The same actors who participated in the destruction of Syria are now, paradoxically, positioned to oversee its reconstruction.