Journal Essay

Social Change, Network Formation and Syria’s War Economies

Samer Abboud

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

Dr. Abboud is associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University and the author of Syria (Polity, 2015).

The Syrian tragedy has induced rapid changes in the country’s social structure. Moreover, new forms of collective and individual authority tethered to the conflict have emerged.1 Both processes will have long-term impacts on the future of Syria and the prospect for a peaceful resolution. Driving much of this transformation are changes wrought by the emergence of war economies in Syria. To date, a significant portion of the scholarly and popular focus has been placed on the sectarian2 and radical3 elements of the armed opposition, especially on groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), with scant attention paid to the emergence of Syria’s war economies.4

I employ the term war "economies" as opposed to economy to denote the plurality of economic activity, actors and geographies implicated in what we typically refer to as the economic conduct (and benefit) of war. To speak of a singular war economy in the way that we speak of national economies betrays the complexities and internal logics of specific supply chains, forms of accumulation and profit, armed and non-armed actors and the interrelationships that form distinct, although fluid, units. In much the same way that protracted strife tends to produce new geographies of conflict, typically defined by the fragmentation of sovereignty and the emergence of alternative authorities, so too do war economies take shape around processes of territorial fragmentation, sovereign retreat and protracted violence.

Syria’s war economies will shape post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Making the link clear between the impact of conflict and post-conflict policy is necessary to insure sufficient and timely service delivery and infrastructure reconstruction. One of the central challenges facing practitioners and planners in the post-conflict period is how to build sustainable structures to meet the social and economic needs of populations.

Syria’s challenges will be numerous. The first step in addressing them will be understanding how Syria’s economy was destroyed during the conflict and what patterns of economic activity emerged in its place. Such an inquiry demands an understanding of the multiple actors involved in driving economic activity associated with wartime structures of service provision. This is challenging, given that many post-conflict reconstruction plans, especially those heavily driven by outside donors and interests, fixate solely on security-sector reform (SSR) or the macroeconomic policies of stabilization. The latter often tend to ignore the specific ways in which conflicts shape post-conflict economic possibilities. In many cases, this leads to a serious disconnect between the needs of populations and the policies that donors and practitioners pursue.

This paper asks two questions. First, how has the territorial fragmentation of the country shaped and given rise to war economies? Though the geography of the conflict is often neatly demarcated in popular narratives between regime and non-regime forces, the war economies sometimes cut across these lines and extend into neighboring countries’ borderlands. Second, what forms of authority are implicated in the geography of Syria’s war economies? And how do complicated networks form around specific supply chains? These networks are not limited to armed groups, but may also include local councils, relief organizations and conflict entrepreneurs.

I argue that Syria’s war economies are structured around the microeconomies of violence involving such practices as looting, taxation, kidnapping, and aid theft and diversion. Rather than constituting disparate practices in an anarchic war, these microeconomies of violence are deeply intertwined in a specific supply chain that begins in Syria’s borderlands and often ends in areas under siege. The notion of a supply chain during conflict has been taken up in much of the economics literature, which focuses on how resources are extracted in conflict zones and exported to neighboring countries. In countries such as Syria, where resources play a secondary role in the financing of conflict and the emergence of war economies, the supply chain functions in reverse. The lack of productive activity has rendered Syria import dependent, while the territorial fragmentation of the country has made these imports subject to different forms of violent intervention, taxation and control. Within this supply chain, new forms of conflict agency are revealed, particularly in the formation of networks that seek to guide and benefit from Syria’s war economies.

This essay is only available in the print edition of Middle East Policy.

Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal articles.

Subscribe Today