“A Political Economy Lens on the Syrian Revolution’s Shifting Landscape.”
Dr. Sherifa Zuhur, IMEISS
(Oral version. Not for citation or circulation without notification to the author firstname.lastname@example.org)
Presented to the Workshop “Businessmen in Arms: How the Military and Other Armed Groups Profit in the MENA.” Bonn International Center for Conversion, Bonn Germany, October 1, 2014.
Syrians of all sects and income levels are waging a revolution after decades of praetorian/security services, authoritarian rule. Secondarily, Syria now features a regional and international struggle between Assad’s government and his allies – primarily Russia, Iran, which considers Syria, it’s 35th province, and the revolutionaries and their allies (which have included the U.S., U.K., U.A.E., Egypt, Italy, Turkey, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others). On a third level, this conflict represents a new jihadist front as a spillover from Iraq and also into Lebanon. This is the target of the recently announced international coalition.
My paper partially concerned the military balance of the conflict and what it portends. While reliant on estimates, troop or personnel numbers, weaponry and capabilities may provide a window onto the longevity of a conflict. The American revolutionary war took 8 years (1775 -1783), Fidel Castro ousted Batista of Cuba after seven years. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were swiftly enacted –– in 27 days in Tunisia and 17 days in Egypt — because their militaries assented to regime change and both were incomplete revolutions. In Libya, where international intervention took place, the ‘war stage’ was about eight months, but then entered a different stage of militia warfare with the re-establishment of some local services. The uncertain tenure of a revolutionary phase may be punctuated or followed by incidents which appear to be game-changers (the Bay of Pigs for Cuba, for example) but that are interpreted quite differently in hindsight.
The staying power of warring groups is also beginning to rely on “‘markets of violence’ as defined by Georg Elwert: “areas dominated by civil wars, warlords or robbery in which a self-perpetuating system (italics are mine) emerges and links nonviolent commodity markets with the violent acquisition of goods.” (proper endnotes appear in the full written version of this paper).
However the problems of applying this latter formula to the Syrian revolution are that a) the situation does not equate to civil war (the claim has been made to argue for the rights of combatants under the Geneva convention, etc.) b) Many of the economic activities fitting into the markets of violence existed before this conflict. A * is used to indicate a pre-existing market of this nature in the list below.
Syria possessed a shadow, or black market economy for years, possibly 25% of its income & this has expanded during the revolution, and c) The most important economic aspect of the conflict is probably the transfer of funds by external sponsors which more directly influence the military balance d) because the profits obtained through the markets of violence are uncertain figures which accrue to loyalists, rebels, and also to criminals or other non-combatants, it is difficult to calculate their effects.
Rebels, loyalists and criminals now raise cash from
- Most have been of Syrian citizens held for smaller ransom, from $2000 to $20000; in some cases, Qatar’s government has paid hefty ransoms (for the nuns of Maaloula and Fijian UN peacemakers) foreign journalists were held for huge ransoms or beheaded as we saw by ISIS which serve as a recruitment device for the group & a means of declaring war on the US & the UK.. http://m.aljazeera.com/story/201310141237791322
- Drug smuggling.* – this involves hashish, much of it smuggled from Lebanon where the govt. has been unable to raid producers as in years past; heroin, cocaine and Captagon which is an amphetamine using fenytillin (made in Syria but also in S.eastern Europe and Turkey & used by fighters on both sides & smuggled out for profit – often to the Gulf http://www.thenational.ae/uae/health/drug-lords-cash-in-on-syrias-collapse
- Arms smuggling* to the fighters. These rings have been operated by tribes in border areas and long predate the conflict. There are naturally new actors and methods of arms acquisition, again coming in over the borders.
- Human trafficking. Version I – smuggling out of refugees. These pay a fee to get to the border. In other instances, they pay to be smuggled from second points to southern or northern Europe.
- Antiquities smuggling* In some cases, from UNESCO sites designated as being in danger. These transfer to Lebanon and elsewhere, but the routes and agents began their careers, in some cases, during the civil war in Lebanon.
- Human trafficking. Version II – Prostitution and the sale of women as temporary wives. The trade in women and girls burgeoned in some areas like Damascus, with the influx of Iraqi refugees, and that was fairly well-documented, while the reports include activities of marriage brokers and impact Syrians inside and outside of Syria.
- Oil, diesel , and gas. Syria’s official oil exports have ceased with a loss of 20 billion dollars. ISIS, Nusra and other groups are benefitting, but so are the tribes who hold rights to the oil wells in some areas. They sell to the armed groups and the armed groups sell some oil to the Assad govt. The Kurdish YPG controlled fields had won them from Nusra, setting up a new refining company the Distributing al-Jazeera’s Fuel (KSC).
ISIS is smuggling out diesel fuel & the revenues benefit Turkish border areas, not only ISIS. Nusra has been selling gas as well.
- h) Criminal networks’ use of children in the sales of contraband or smuggled goods, as for instance children working to sell smuggled cigarettes in Turkey. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/syrian-children-exploited-in-sale-of-smuggled-cigarettes-in-turkey.aspx?PageID=238&NID=64162&NewsCatID=341
Much of my paper dealt with the factionalizing effect of payments made by governments and individuals to the rebels. This effort to map the changes, especially on the rebel side was complicated by the efforts made by researchers to either inflate the efficacy of the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, the overstatements regarding the salafi-jihadist groups in the country, or efforts by other research institutes to promote the likelihood of a stalemate or worthiness of Assad’s tenure, and not least, by the war of words in social media over the issue.
This data led to the following conclusions:
- Markets of violence behave differently in revolutionary situations than in long-lasting endemic smaller scale conflicts
- The Syria revolution (like some other revolutions) has united and divided both its backers and opponents.
- It cannot be resolved through economic means. Violence is being waged to create or prevent a systemic change. The aim for political transformation is the dog wagging the tail of economic activities to sustain the conflict and not the reverse.
I made an effort in the paper to examine various assertions and claims that the conflict has been provoked through economic transformation. Certain commentators hold that transitions from state socialism to neoliberalism were the reason for Arab Spring revolutions. However, state socialism was never complete and nor tenable in Syria; there was no society-wide transition to a flourishing neoliberalism despite the infitah there. Rather, the efforts to separate economic from political liberalization accompanied a process where benefits accrued mostly to a small circle of businessmen and leading families who supported Bashar al-Assad’s “New Syria.”
Instead, the regime’s brutal response to nonviolent demonstrations in 2011 was the main trigger to revolution. Bouthaina Shaaban (a key advisor both to Hafez al-Assad and then, Bashar al-Assad ) suggested that financial aid be given to the rural areas, which had experienced great privations, but not revolted under the Assads for years. The protesters, who were not professional activists, were so angered by the governments’ actions and so exhausted by its political suppression, that they mocked her proposition, calling for an end to political ‘slavery.’
- Syria’s military was quite large for a country of its size, deliberately so with an aim to counter Israel, but it lacked a large-scale Military Inc. or milbus (the term used by Ayesha Siddiqa for Pakistan) sector as was described by other presenters in this workshop for Egypt or Jordan. Syria, however has possessed a medium-scale set of military/industrial/research endeavors and so, an exception to the first statement was Syria’s SCUD missiles production which was jointly accomplished with Iran and North Korea. Otherwise, Syria was reliant on weapons procurement from other countries and aid and training from the USSR, causing its military to adopt a centralized, authoritarian, low-risk style of warfare as Tony Cordesman has pointed out — ill-suited to confronting guerilla tactics. Syria has a significant chemical and biological weapons program, also developed with Israel in mind. At the outset of the revolution, Assad had approximately 295,000 troops plus 314,000 reserves and its military intelligence, known as the mukhabarrat and the forces of the General. Security Directorate, and Political Security Directorate which captures, interrogates and tortures rebels (paramilitaries also now operate checkpoints).
The revolution fractured Assad’s conventional forces. Defections began in July of 2011, resulting in he new Free Syrian Army umbrella (of numerous battalions and groups) which had then merged with the Free Officers Movement. Defections continued until 100,000 had left, and travel restrictions on males were imposed. Family members left behind were often arrested, tortured or faced property destruction, meaning that the loyalty of many who remained was also at question. Distrust of Sunni rank and file and reserves reduced the deployable size of Assad’s army troops. He has relied on his air force (and these are mostly Sunni, so the sectarian argument is not an overarching explanation, the Republican Guard, 4th division and Special Forces, but also on paramilitaries.
Syria’s shabiha, militias which operate like gangs or mafias, predate this conflict, and obtain funds from businessmen and the government as well as through smuggling – in the past, they dealt in cigarettes and other controlled products from food to batteries, or smuggled hashish, and antiquities. They have been accused of some of the worst atrocities in the fighting, as for example in the Houla massacres (25 May 2012) and reportedly are paid about $500 a month. National Defense Forces were also established; these are civilian militias who obtain their salaries from the Assad government. Altogether these Syrian militias were estimated at 60,000. The foreign fighters bolstering the loyalists consist of Hizbullah of Lebanon, (5,000 est.) at least 14 Iraqi Shi`a groups, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps advisors and a Syrian militia trained and operated by IRGC and Hizbullah operatives. These are waging jihad at least as fervently as the Sunni salafi-jihadists on the other side, with sectarian as well as political aims. This must be viewed alongside the immense amounts of credit have been extended by Iran to Syria and cash and weapons were provided both by Iran and Russia,
- The rebels are nonviolent revolutionary activists and about 1,500 armed groups. Dividing them into “secular” and salafi-jihadist is imprecise. Syria, like so many countries in the region underwent an Islamic revival in the ‘90s. Analysts have also suggested a differentiation between salafi-jihadists with nationalist goals and those with global aims.
The rebel forces have taken much of the country & that is due to the fact that
- the nonviolent revolutionaries are still viewed as “worthy resistance” – in Charles Tilly’s language . Their goal is a free, democratic, nonsectarian Syria with a civilian government and rule of law. They have received training and funding from outside of Syria for example, in the use of video-making and branding, democracy education, and governance.
- political and financial support by foreign governments of the formal political opposition structure – the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
- Religious (and thus ideological) and financial support by governmental and private donors to the salafist fighting groups and the Free Syrian Army.
The middle section of my paper concerns the largest fighting groups – the umbrella group of Free Syrian Army which includes non-salafi and more or less extreme salafi groups; the Jabhat Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham; Older and newer Islamist coalitions like the Harakat Ahrar al-Sham – 13 of its leaders were recently assassinated – and newer ones like the Islamic Front and the Hazzm movement, and some of the Kurdish fighting movements and brief mention of the activities of the nonviolent movement’s organizations.
Funding is important to these groups in two ways 1) fighters require provisioning and stipends 2) those with more heavy weaponry could respond more effectively
The expansion of global jihad meant the salafi-jihadists very successfully used social media to fundraise & in turn, demonstrated the use of those funds to donors. And this could all be done on an individual basis, and is thus extremely difficult to track or interrupt.
- Since the summer of 2012, the FSA or ‘moderate’ elements of the revolution and confronted various problems
- chaotic infighting in the revolution, which was supposed to be managed – by a new structure. The Supreme Military Command set up in Dec. 2012
- continuing difficulties in obtaining heavy weaponry.
The US provided $26 million by 2013 and a total of $80 million in nonlethal assistance was promised, but not provided. As President Obama turned the question over to Congress to argue over sending weapons to the rebels, when he must have known they would balk, many experts thought he and his advisors wanted the FSA to be strong enough to prevent Assad from victory, but not able to prevail, thus requiring a political solution. A CIA program in Jordan was funded[i] but only for 1 ,000 to 3,000 troops; this is the program to be upgraded into a training for trainers effort to provide a force to fight ISIS and towards which some $4 billion is being reportedly allocated.
- Assad’s forces with Hizbullah and other militias managed, albeit with great difficulty – to recapture some areas (only three) – and the FSA’s battalions regrouped in various new alliances.
- The lessening of international pressure on Assad; the United Nations/Arab League special representative Lakhdar Brahimi declared his own mission a failure ; Obama’s brief threat against Syria for using sarin in attacks on August 25, 2013 was withdrawn as Russia negotiated that Syria to turn over its chemical weapons; and the meetings in Geneva last winter (’14) failed to produce any outcome.
- FSA leaders were involved in a sex scandal, gruesome videos and accused of war crimes even as thousands of photographs of Assad’s war crimes were obtained and shared in testimony to Congress by the mysterious Caesar, a Syrian defector .
- ISIS and Jabhat Nusra gained the most territory, while they together had had only about 10,000 troops last year, ISIS is now estimated by the CIA as being perhaps 30,000 (15,000) in Syria and 50,000 by Bill Roggio. In January of 2014, a sub-war between ISIS and Jabhat Nusra, was launched, which did not result in ISIS’ defeat.
Reactions to the US-coalition launched war on ISIS and Nusra were being protested by rebels all over the country. Assad is presumably happy with the attacks on his foes, but unsure of the West’s next move.
Assad’s military’s dilemma, in Clausewitzian terms, is the diffusion of the conflicts’ center of gravity throughout the country, and his inability to extinguish the popular will for revolution. The direct economic funding of the conflict is as crucial to his effort as it is to that of the revolutionaries. Whether the markets of violence, are or are not a determining factor, and merely a subsidiary aspect of the conflict remains to be seen.
[i] Yezid Sayigh. “Is Armed Rebellion on the Wane in Syria?” Carnegie Middle East Center, April 24, 21014. http://carnegie-mec.org/2014/04/24/is-armed-rebellion-in-syria-on-wane/h8z6#