Trajectories of Rebel Governance in the Syrian war
Session XI-10, 2022 Annual Meeting
On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am
The Syrian civil war, which erupted in 2011 as a mass uprising against President Bashar al-Asad, has produced a multitude of rebel groups that claimed territorial control, set up governance structures, and engaged in the provision of public goods. Despite that, systems of rebel governance, however, varied greatly over time and space. At times, civilian modes of governance under rebel rule were also possible. This panel aims to focus on a frequently overlooked component of the Syrian civil war: rebel governance.
As the country fell to a civil war, rebel groups, first tied to the Free Syrian Army, sprang up in different parts of the country. Over years competitive groups were formed and militant Islamist groups increasingly gained dominance. At all times rebel governance has been fragmented, the actors often dependent on or connected to the armed group in charge.
The Syrian war offers us possibilities to study rebel governance from various new viewpoints. The country has witnessed a multitude of oppositional actors seeking to govern, be that by traditional authority, military power, or claims to represent the revolution. The opposition, consisting of hundreds of groups that have competed with each other, was never united, and complex forms of rebel governance have been created. Old societal networks, such as tribes, connected with new power holders.
The panel contributions explore rebel governance based on original interviews and material published by rebel groups. This interdisciplinary panel reaches beyond several overlooked themes of rebel governance and gives new trajectories for the scholarship. How is governance built? How do different actors maintain authority and seek to legitimize themselves vis-à-vis the population? What kind of challenges do they encounter? Does the political economy of the rebel groups differ from that of the regime? How do traditional authorities negotiate with rebel groups? The panel invites scholars to investigate several aspects of rebel governance, its limitations and motives in addition to the multiple actors.
This paper explores civil governance in the Syrian war. By civil governance I refer to governance by civil actors in areas controlled by armed, rebel groups. I ask, how have local councils in opposition-held areas created and sustained governance structures and thereby performed civil action. Civil action is defined as nonviolent action which requires authority and capacity. I argue that civilians are not only passive victims, but they can have the needed authority and capacity to establish governance structures even in an extremely violent war. These structures form part of a new, revolutionary identity among the participants.
Building on previous research by Deborah Avant, Erica Chenoweth, and Raymond Hinnebusch, I examine how civilians transformed mass mobilization into local governance, while facing multiple challenges and violence from variety of perpetrators. Using interpretive methods, I have conducted semi-structured interviews with council members and others working with the councils. In addition, I draw from open-source material provided by and about the local councils.
This policy-relevant research highlights that civil governance has been and continues to be exercised in Syria, despite of many challenges. The councils have provided life-saving basic services in opposition-held areas. They have created structures and invented new ways to support civilians while being targeted with brutal violence. The councils also have an ambiguous role as they balance under different armed actors while trying to maintain legitimacy. Different actors, such as armed groups or external actors, have provided varying conditions for civil governance, at times making it impossible.
This research informs us about civilian agency in armed conflicts and supplements the scholarship of rebel governance. Local councils in Syria show that new forms of governance and civil action can be established even in violent settings. The experiences of the councils can be utilized in the future, possible post-conflict Syria.
How do rebel groups seek to legitimize themselves vis-à-vis the local population? The dimension of legitimacy and the legitimation strategies of rebel groups have long been understudied topics in scholarship on rebel governance and in conflict studies at large. Nonetheless, in recent years, an increasing number of works have sought to address these aspects, from both a theoretical and empirical perspective. In particular, Schlichte and Schneckener observed that such groups might resort to a range of “sources of legitimacy” to legitimize themselves—both symbolically and performatively—in the eyes of different audiences, including the local audience. The paper seeks to contribute to research on the topic by analyzing the legitimation strategies employed by different militant Islamist groups in Syria vis-à-vis the local population. It will focus on Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (former affiliate of al-Qa‘ida); Ahrar al-Sham (part of the National Liberation Front); the so-called Islamic State; and Tanzim Hurras al-Din (comprising al-Qa‘ida loyalists). The analysis draws on different sources—mainly official documents and media production by the groups under consideration, as well local news reports, ideally complementing them with interviews and conversations with experts, local observers, and community members. The paper investigates inter-group differences and the variance of legitimation strategies over time. Besides this, it tries to understand how legitimacy building relates to the groups’ modes of governance versus lack of engagement in governance. In doing so, it argues that legitimacy building is relational and can be subject to change, and it is closely connected to the trajectories of such groups at large. Findings could contribute to further illuminating processes of legitimacy building in rebel groups and non-state armed actors at large.