In its seventh year, the crisis in Syria became a major issue in the international media. The approaches to categorizing the violence in Syria range from a struggle for democratic change to a Huntingtonian interpretation of a clash of ethnic groups on the domestic level or is evaluated as an outcome of a regional Cold War between Iran and the Gulf-Cooperation-Council.
In this article, based on my bachelor-thesis, I will try to focus on the economic functions of the violence in the Syrian crisis, which was only concretely considered by a few observers. The theoretical foundations for this attempt are the Greed vs. Grievance controversy, which was widely debated at the end of the 1990s and fundamentally revolves around the two core issues, whether civil wars arise from social misery or an economic disadvantage of some sections of the population. Experts in the empirical analysis of the Syria case in are Aron Lund, Rim Turkmani, Hassan Hassan and Samer Abboud.
In his two essential works “The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars” from the year 1998 and “Useful Enemies – When Waging War is More Important than Winning Them” from the year 2012, David Keen tried to frame the violence performed by militant groups on the basis of a rational choice approach, which has the goal instead of winning the conflict to earn on its continuation. The militant groups embrace the fragile security situation and the retreat of state institutions as well as the collapse of the national economy and replace them with their own structures or occupy the previous ones in order to use them as their own source of income. Therefore the economic activities of the actors are linked with the global market through an internationally networked shadow economy, as explained by Dr. Peter Lock in his essay from the anthology “Kriege als (Über)Lebenswelten” from the year 2004. The environment constructed by the militant actors throughout the civil war, in the form of a war economy on the macro level, has a deep impact on the individuals living in those areas.
Empirical examples for the function of war economies and their linkages to the global market were seen in the long war in Afghanistan or in the civil war in Liberia.
In case of Syria, there are a few efforts to look more closely at the economic function of individual actors’ violence and, in the case of non-state actors in Syria, as a basis for their own governance plans. In this context, the widespread destruction of the formal economic structures and infrastructure, as well as the lack of security and governance in some areas because of the ongoing conflict, should be mentioned, as is particularly well documented in a UN report from 2017. Hassan dealt with the details of IS’s governance system, which are fundamentally different from other groups in the civil war. A recent report on the governance structures of the IS was also prepared by the New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi based on left-behind documents of the radical Islamist group.
The rapid rise of the IS was a prime example of the concentrated accumulation of capital to establish a long-term presence in two fragile states and thus to win the hearts and minds of the population through the establishment of administrative and social services systems. However, this procedure is used by all actors of the Syrian civil war in one way or another. In order to ensure an extensive supply of the own administrative unit and recruitment of other followers, an extensive network of civil war economies and trade networks is established that extends across Syria.
Due to the territorial fragmentation of the country into individual territories of local militant groups, the system relies on a co-operation on an economic level between all groups even despite the ideological hostility to each other. This cooperation not only arose in terms of the exploitation of other sources of income but also because some areas in Syria were dependent on the inflow of some goods and thus were in a degree of interdependence. Central to the rise of the IS was the targeted acquisition of the country’s few mineral resources such as oil or gas. This strategy was already being pursued by Jabhat al-Nusra, who sought the country’s central oil and gas fields even before the emergence of IS. By the end of 2016, due to the ownership of the highest quality oil fields, the Islamic state was the main supplier for the entire region. Therefore, units of the umbrella organization FSA, the Syrian regime and the SDF/YPF were dependent on deliveries from the areas under the control of the Islamic state or had to buy concessions to deliver their own resources through their area.
Areas like Ghouta were completely dependent on the supply of these goods due to the siege by the Syrian regime and the lack of sources. As a result, IS, the main supplier of the black market for oil trading was able to generate between one and three million dollars a day by 2014. Since IS’s territorial decline the SDF dominated by the YPG have become the central oil and gas facilities in the east of the country. Besides the energy resources IS also included the agricultural land in Syria and Iraq in its conquest strategy. By controlling food-related infrastructure and building drought-damaged fields, the Islamic State could raise up to $ 56 million in 2015 by taxing agricultural production, while at the same time saving the population from starvation. However, as the groups lacked the necessary expertise or materials to maintain crude oil processing facilities, an unofficial service agreement can be identified between some parties.
In one case, the Syrian regime sent Russian engineers to maintain a gas field refinery in Tuweinan, Raqqa, which was occupied by the IS. This agreement guaranteed further supplies of gas to the regime, while IS was able to earn the proceeds from the sale. Informality and a steady access to black market infrastructure or trading through intermediary were seen in many cases in Syria. On the one hand, Syrian soldiers traded their weapons and ammunition stocks in exchange for prisoners with opposition groups. There are also reports of weapons supplies from the Syrian regime and the YPG.
The actors in Syria have adjusted to the zeitgeist of digitization and are organizing their trade via the messaging service Telegram. Weapons in circulation were supplied to opposition groups by the support program of the CIA called “Timber Sycamore”. Also important to mention would be the supplies of the Pentagon over the Balkans, which also fill the arms market of the Syrian crisis with a total volume of $ 2.2 billion dollars. Another major source of income for the some groups of the FSA, as well as for Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham and also for IS, at least from taxation for delivering through their territory, the trade with the so-called Jihadi-drug Captagon became not only a fuel for endless fighting power for the own fighting force, but also a major contribution for the cash flow of those groups by supplying the whole Arab region and some destinations in the EU. The internal slave trade of the IS, for which the group has received special attention in the international media, is also to be considered from an economic point of view. Thus the slave trade serves the short-term raising of funds and as payment for the own fighters. According to estimates by the Henry Jackson Society, IS has made a profit of $ 10- $ 30 million in 2016 with this human trafficking.
Central to all militant groups is control over the infrastructure of Syria, as well as dams, important trade routes, traffic junctions and border crossings. This priority can be explained by the fact that all operators must benefit from certain taxation on the goods delivered throughout the country. In the case of Syria, this system has developed a sophisticated mechanism, because due to the few resources, everything is taxed what can be made to money. Therefore, even within the opposition bloc, in addition to political or ideological disputes, there is an intensified fight to establish check-points and to carry out taxation. This dispute was one of the reasons for the failure of a joint command structure of the FSA groups, as Samer Abboud in his book “Syria” from the year 2016 worked particularly well.
In mid-2017, a battle was fought over the Bab al-Hawa border with Turkey between Ahrar al-Sham and Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham, which went out in favor of the last group. This border crossing is a key trade route from Turkey to the rebel enclave in northeastern Syria and is estimated to bring $ 3-6 million a year worth of goods from Turkey. A deeper insight into the trade of this border crossing and its profiteers gives Armenak Tokmajyan in his report on the war economy in northeastern Syria.
Especially for the civilians in the besieged areas like in eastern Ghouta, check-points turn out to have a macabre function. On the one hand, as a source of survival, on the other, as a potential location to be eliminated or imprisoned as a traitor by one of the two rival sides during a planned flight from the war and the lack of supplies.
In particular, the Wafideen checkpoint in eastern Ghouta, called the “One-Million-Dollar-Checkpoint”, became a hub for supra-factional cooperation between opposition groups and the regime to generate money from the plight of civilians. As Aron Lund already pointed out, how businessmen like Mohiyeddine Manfoush became a rich man by using contacts in all camps to manage this trading system, which was organised through networks of warehouses, that were protected by the local militant groups and widely approved by the Syrian government for as long as it was able to earn its share of the network. The sale of the required goods to the starving civilians at over-average prices made a lucrative business out of this practice for each side. Prohibited goods such as medicine or weapons were brought via tunnels from the militant groups to Ghouta.
The control of the infrastructure also made it easier for the violent actors to carry out personal controls and thus to operate a lucrative kidnapping business. Thus, both the Islamic State and Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham can take several million dollars for their own war chest by kidnapping either important Syrian personalities or foreigners.
The Syrian Mukhabarat’s widespread kidnapping of opposition activists made it possible for the Syrian regime to demand large sums of money from the family members to allow them to return to their families alive, as Amnesty International reported in 2015. In the process, this revenue acted as a constant cash flow for the regime’s war machine.
The range of economic violence in Syria extends over the entire country and presents itself in many different forms. The general economic crisis in Syria leads to unsystematic as well as systematic looting by militant groups. Exemplary of these looting, were the images of Turkish backed fighters who plundered the shops and homes of fled civilians in Afrin after the incursion. However, this is just one example of an infinite number of other cases of looting by violent actors in the Syria civil war
These actions can be valued as a compensation for the meager pay that is paid out to the fighters. Much more central to the steady capture of money and use for tactical maneuvers, however, is the systematic looting. Thus, according to Russian estimates, the IS could make a profit of 150 – 200 million dollars with the conquest of Palmyra and the sale of antiques. The al-Muthana brigade, allied with the IS, even has its own excavation team for excavations in Daraa. The IS manages to sell the antiques to the local and global consumer market by building a network of merchants, which is described by Aisha Ahmad in her empirical field work “Jihad & Co. – Black Markets and Islamist Power” from the year 2017 was described in detail.
A tactical application of plunder by the violent actors in Syria is reflected above all in international aid deliveries to Syria. The Syrian regime seeks to use its central position in civil society and the country’s economy, to take advantage of the UN’s attitude of neutrality, to benefit from the humanitarian aid provided and to use it strategically. The aid by the UN is distributed by the Syrian representative of the Arab Red Crescent, which is staffed at senior level with people who are closely linked to the regime. Therefore the Assad regime got about 5 Million Dollars from the U.N. organization WHO for the national blood bank, which is under the control of the Syrian Department of Defense, the main contributor of violence in close urban areas and attacking of hospitals in opposition-held areas. The regime uses its central position as a point of contact for many local and international aid organizations to maintain a minimum welfare state despite intense military spending and thus to exert a certain pull effect on the suffering population in the opposition areas.
However, this tactic of creating a material dependency of the population is not used only by the Syrian regime alone. The Salafi group Jaysh Al-Islam, which gained media attention again after the recent battles over Douma, managed to silence the political demands of the local population in Douma by accumulating important relief supplies. The IS, which assures 30% of its own supplies of any relief supplies, uses this artificially created culture of dependency in its dominion and, with stolen relief supplies, bought the loyalty of local tribes or presented itself as a benefactor by distributing relief supplies as Islamic Zakat-tax in the population.
If one classifies the described processes as a superordinate entity, one recognizes the influence that this newly created social and economic space has on the entire existence of the people remaining in the war. This social space creates a dominant dependence on a system that is determined by violence and reproduces itself again and again through this violence. In my bachelor-thesis I called this situation as social and economic exclusion, because of it’s effect to drag down individuals, which for the time being had no intention to become part of the war, but because of the existential need and the lack of economic alternatives, have no choice but to become part of the conflict. Within the highly monopolized economic structures, the violent actors with their earned profit act as a potential employer for the impoverished population.
As Rim Turkmani pointed out in her paper about the war economies in Syria, places like Ghouta are plagued by unemployment of up to 90%. The last remaining places of civil society are partly dependent on the financing of the ruling combat groups and integrated into the network of civil war economies. Getting a job within the LACs is thus coupled with a mental attitude toward these violent actors.
A much simpler way to quickly get the economic resources needed to secure your own survival and secure your own family is to join a local combat brigade. Payments vary between $ 20 and $ 100 per month, with the least paid to FSA groups and the highest paid by Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham. For many fighters who participated under the banner of the FSA in the Turkish invasion of Afrin, further material benefits were established by the Turkish state. Thus, the families of fallen fighters receive various social benefits from the Turkish state and it is made possible for the fighters to apply for Turkish citizenship.
Of course, one can’t reduce the economic grievances to war alone, as the unjust distribution of wealth in Syria can be traced back to the neoliberal reforms under Bashar al-Assad in the years of the so-called Damascus Spring in June 2000, as David Sorenson does in his book “Syria in Ruins – The Dynamics of the Syrian Civil War” from 2016 describes very well. Above all, a minority close to the regime and the Syrian security service have benefited from these economic reforms. However, this economic privilege now attributable to the ethnic minority of the Alawites, of which the Assad clan originated, would not reflect the complexity in its reality, since many Sunni functionaries within the regime were able to expand their power and economic position. Nonetheless, the role of ethnicity is central to the regime’s tactics and to the other violent actors in the Syrian civil war as well as to their narrative.
IS has long been the most lucrative employer in the militant employer market. According to an official IS document, each member earned $ 50 monthly, $ 50 more for each wife and grandparents and $ 35 for the children. So people with a special qualification or training could earn up to $ 1200 a month, which was especially attractive for foreign fighters. In addition, the fighters received free food rations, fuel, gas and a housing option. If young fighters managed to become members of the notorious IS Intelligence Agency, Emni, they were able to earn up to $ 5,000 by uncovering a supposed spy. Here was the basic requirement that you had previously fought in any other militant group. At the same time, cooperation with the IS secret service was also an opportunity to operate undisturbed entrepreneurial activity within the IS area.
The Syrian regime responded with a transformation of army structures due to the initially high rate of desertion of Syrian soldiers in the first year of the revolution. This was supplemented by paramilitary units that maintain a complex relationship with the Syrian intelligence services. These units were deployed as the National Defense Force by the leader of the Republican Guard, Bassam Al-Hassan, and funded by the cousin of Bashar Al-Assad Rami Makhlouf, who is one of the wealthiest businessmen in Syria. These paramilitaries received a higher monthly salary of $ 136 compared to $ 81 to an average monthly Syrian soldier wage, and have a choice of deployment within their home region. It is striking that the recruitment of these paramilitaries takes place primarily among the uneducated, impoverished Alawite minority, who also could not be counted among the winners of the reforms under Bashar al-Assad. A study of the Heinrich Böll Foundation describes the so-called Shabiha from the coastal region populated mainly by the Alawites, as an organization that consists primarily of the lower and uneducated income class, a group of people who has a long criminal tradition within Syria and was already networked with the Syrian intelligence service before the revolution.
The aspects I’ve pointed out in this article try to explain another framework to describe the complex situation on the ground in Syria. The categorization of so-called new wars, to which the Syrian civil war is attributable, calls for an analysis of the motivations of the participants and their effects on the duration of the conflict. The point is not to give a monocausal explanation for the situation in Syria, but rather to broaden the view of social processes that result from the dynamics of the conflict and the scarcity of existential goods. Only then will it be possible to successfully grasp the complexity of the so-called new wars. An extension of this field of vision should also help to implement better political and intelligence measures, not just within the discursive interpretation of cultural or ethnic differences, which in many cases are part of the actors’ strategy and propaganda.
At the same time, despite its regional location, Syria is also a global-scale conflict. The recruitment of the jihadist groups also attracts an international audience. For example, a report by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution called Bundesverfassungsschutz from 2014 shows that a large part of the emigrants from Germany spent their journey to Syria or Iraq with regard to their own social and economic disadvantage. This group of people is made up of one-third of former petty criminals, and half of the people leaving the country are so-called globalization losers, who have no school-leaving qualifications, were long-term unemployed, or only worked in the absolute low-wage sector. Here, the narrative of these groups, as well as their materialistic conception for the fight, play a central role, which also radiates to a global audience. However, how this narrative is constructed, used by the individual groups for real political purposes, must be examined in a separate method.
Sascha Ruppert, B.A. Political Science at the LMU Munich, focus: conflict sciences, MENA region and discourse analysis. Present activity: M.A. Graduate in three semesters.