Citizenship Constellations in Syria

Marika Sosnowski, German Institute for Global and Area Studies

In the Syrian civil war, where different territorial areas have, at different times, been outside of the control of the state, registering life-cycle events, such as births, deaths and marriages, has become a necessary service other actors have had to fulfil. In times of armed conflict, life does not pause – children continue to be born, people die, marry and divorce – and these life events need to be documented.[1] The gap left by the state in providing life-cycle event registration during the civil war has been filled by a range of other actors in different territorial areas: the Syrian Interim Government and Syrian National Coalition primarily in Aleppo and Idlib in the north and Daraa and Quneitra in the south; the Islamic State in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Hassakeh in the east; Jabhat al-Nusra’s Salvation Government in Idlib; and, most recently, Turkey in the northern Euphrates Shield zone.

This documentation is profoundly important. States are legally obligated to ensure the right to recognition as a person under the law.[2] In times of peace, this is straight-forward enough and generally involves first and foremost providing birth registration services which act as a condition precedent for citizenship and subsequent legal identity documentation. Lack of documentation of one’s birth, and consequently citizenship of a state, has a cascading effect on people’s rights such as access to education; healthcare; a travel document; housing, land and property rights. Above all, it poses the risk of statelessness.[3]

While the various actors standing in for the state sit in what Samer Abboud described earlier in this volume as crisis ecologies, I argue that the people in these areas exist in what Rainer Bauböck has labelled ‘citizenship constellations’.[4] In these citizenship constellations people are simultaneously de jure citizens of the Syrian state and citizens of other de facto sovereigns.[5] Understanding that many citizens of the Syrian state exist in citizenship constellations is helpful for academics, humanitarians and policy-makers for three fundamental reasons. The first is that it allows us to grapple with the reality that people make decisions in response to a given ‘citizenship opportunity structure’ that the existence of citizenship constellations represents.[6] As such, we can better comprehend the individual interests at play in relation to the possession of alternative citizenships and the incentives and/or necessity to ‘forum shop’ for the most beneficial citizenship documentation.[7] Second, we become cognisant of the significant risks associated with the possession of alternative documentation. Finally, we get a sense of how the documents on which Syrian state citizenship is based have become strongly intertwined within citizenship constellations and, in the after-life of war, can potentially better grasp the state’s negative reaction to citizenship documents produced by de facto sovereigns – which so far, has been one of blanket denial.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

While citizenship is about membership of a political community,[8] Andrew Grossman has argued that cases such as the Palestinian West Bank and Kosovo show that citizenship can potentially be ‘divorced from sovereignty and recognition’.[9] While Palestine and Kosovo may be further along the sovereignty and recognition spectrum, if we take some steps back along the same path we encounter the de facto sovereigns that exist (or existed) in certain territorial areas in Syria during the civil war – the Syrian Interim Government and Syrian National Coalition, the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra’s Salvation Government, and Turkey – entities that all have the ability to, ‘kill, punish and discipline with impunity’.[10] As Jerome Drevon and Patrick Haenni show in their analysis of Jabhat al-Nusra’s Salvation Government (this volume), in establishing bureaucracies and institutions of governance all these entities are effectively engaging in a dress rehearsal for statehood in the areas that they control that mimics the trappings of the state, including the creation of citizenship through life-cycle document registration.[11]

The creation of citizenship is a subtle but powerful weapon for actors in any civil war environment.[12] While it may be unsavoury to think of birth registration as a political act because registration of a child is a legal right in and of itself,[13] all de facto sovereigns in Syria (and elsewhere for that matter), including the Syrian state, register people not for purely legal or humanitarian reasons but for primarily political ones. This is because without people being bound to the state through the documented act of citizenship, a state would struggle to assert that it fulfilled the international legal criteria of statehood.[14] Whether documentation processes come as a “topping”—i.e. at the end of a process of state consolidation after the development and implementation of other bureaucratic and governance services; or, whether it is seen as a “base” in a rebel movement’s quest for statehood—i.e.  one of the first acts initiated by a would-be sovereign, often aligns with the actions of the incumbent state. In practice this means that if the de jure state continues to provide legal documentation to people living in territory outside its control, a rebel challenger may choose to prioritise other aspects of governance (e.g. the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka). However, if the state cannot (because of accessibility), or deliberately will not, provide documentation services to people in rebel-held areas, this service will most likely be fulfilled by de facto sovereigns (e.g. Myanmar, Syria).

The Islamic State is the most obvious recent example of an actor that saw the provision of citizenship as fundamental to its statehood vision. During the time it controlled territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq; it deliberately destroyed the Syrian state citizenship documents of the people in these areas and instead developed its own fine-grained system of citizen documentation, including the issuing of birth certificates. This was done as a type of citational practice, whereby it reproduced how it thought a state (or Caliphate in this case) ought to behave, and in the process make a claim to the mantle of statehood.[15] ISIS’ behaviour of staging state repertoires is in line with Cynthia Weber’s observation that the legal and political conduct of states is not new but always an adaptation of earlier state conduct.[16]

In a more byzantine manner, the Syrian Interim Government also issued its own identity documentation in the north and south of the country with the (good-intentioned although arguably not well-considered) assistance of two external organisations: private international development firm Adam Smith International and the International Legal Assistance Consortium, an international non-government organisational that works in the rule of law and justice field. Both organisations worked through NGOs and civil servants who had previously issued legal identity documentation for the Syrian state to supply Syrian state documents with a Syrian Interim Government stamp to Syrian state citizens.[17] The International Legal Assistance Consortium estimated that from 2014 to 2019, twenty-one registry centers it supported issued over 300 000 life-cycle documents.[18] Apparently, for a time, the Syrian National Coalition even contracted a Swiss manufacturer to issue its own passports that contained the unique metadata of Syrian citizens from a database smuggled out of the Syrian state.[19] Again, the emphasis placed around the production of these material documents confirms that the state the Syrian opposition is attempting to create looks a lot like the one they are supposed to be replacing. Zaid Muhammad, who works for an Aleppine NGO, clarifies this phenomenon: ‘the regime brought us up. It takes years to escape from this corrupting influence. The opposition’s institutions have failed – but they themselves are the product of Assadism.’[20]

In the Turkish-controlled Euphrates Shield area in the north-west of Syria, when Adam Smith could no longer pay the salaries of the bureaucrats which staffed the registries due to US-funding reprioritisation away from the Syrian opposition towards combating the Islamic State, two registries were effectively taken over by Turkey. Turkey continued to pay the salaries of the Syrian staff but began to issue Turkish citizenship documents to individuals now located in this area. Many of these citizens internally displaced from other areas of Syria, potentially already possessed Syrian, Syrian Interim Government, and in some cases Jabhat al-Nusra’s Salvation Government documents.[21]

People who found themselves in territory conquered by the Islamic State often had little choice as to whether they acquired Islamic State citizenship. Many in areas ostensibly controlled by the Interim Government, the Syrian National Coalition, the Salvation Government or Turkey acquired citizenship of these de facto sovereigns for more pragmatic reasons. These included access to humanitarian aid which often could not occur without identity documents attesting to a persons’ residence or number of family members; access to local justice mechanisms, healthcare and education; to ensure freedom of movement through internal checkpoints; conduct trade or real estate transactions; and/or in many cases as a necessary show of allegiance to the de facto sovereign.[22] Notably though, even when they acquired the more mercurial citizenship of a de facto sovereign, individuals continued to possess Syrian-state citizenship as it was seen as the “gold-standard”, recognised all over Syria as well as outside the country.[23]

Consequently, predominantly out of necessity, many individuals in Syria became caught up in citizenship constellations that offered them certain benefits, rights and duties dependant on the sovereign of the day. However, when the fortunes of the sovereign changed, any rewards they may have gained under one quickly gave way to substantial risks from another. This occurred most frequently when the Syrian state regained control. Evidence suggests that possession of alternative legal identity documentation has been used as evidence of support and/or collaboration with the opposition, therefore many citizens of areas newly conquered by the regime simply threw away or burnt any alternative documentation they had in an attempt to (re)prioritise their de jure Syrian citizenship and not be branded as traitors.[24]

The North Star

Citizenship as a legal status is a relationship between individuals and territorial political entities. Of these, states are only the most obvious. However, there is also a more active dimension to citizenship: political rights and participation in political life which ‘imbues the notion of citizenship with political power’.[25] Bauböck’s idea of the citizenship constellation as a, ‘structure in which individuals are simultaneously linked to several such political entities’, is a useful framework for thinking through the triadic relationship between people, the Syrian state, and de facto sovereigns and the overlapping spheres of political influence these bodies represent. Importantly, existing in citizenship constellations also means that a person’s ‘legal rights and duties are determined not by one political authority, but by several’.[26] This overlap creates opportunities and threats both for individuals and for each territorial political entity.

In civil war environments such as Syria, because multiple claimants are vying for the allegiance of the same body politic, the people become simultaneously something to be protected but also feared.[27] When citizens have been subsumed once again under Syrian state control, their citizenship of de facto sovereigns has frequently been used by the Syrian state as evidence of treason. becoming a threat to the state or a fifth-column.[28] As a humanitarian noted of Syria, ‘we have not found any other conflict where the risk of retribution linked to an identity document is so pervasive’.[29] Existing in a citizenship constellation in Syria risks being made a denizen of the Syrian state;  becoming a second-class citizen with restricted rights despite never relinquishing Syrian state citizenship. This quasi-citizenship status effectively diminishes the value of national citizenship, no longer guaranteeing access to a cascading set of other rights.[30] Because the Syrian state sees itself as the only political entity with the sovereign right to create citizenship, Syrians with de facto citizenship that return to the Syrian state run the risk of new forms of marginalisation, extortion and persecution.

People living in areas controlled by de-facto sovereigns in Syria seem to have been aware of these risks. Despite alternative documentation being widely available, many people living in areas controlled by de facto sovereigns opted not to register life-cycle events.[31] Even in 2015 when the Syrian Interim Government and Syrian National Coalition controlled a relatively large amount of territory, individuals still preferred Syrian state documents, which were generally only available at large financial cost, through connections (wasta) and/or through a thriving industry of brokers.[32] In this way, the creation of citizenship constellations in Syria illustrates how, ‘the unforeseen course of social and political life produces reluctant or unpredictable traitors’.[33] While for many people the acquisition of multiple citizenships was done out of necessity, for the Syrian state the issue remains primarily one of reaffirming its sovereign right as the only political entity capable of creating citizenship while simultaneously denying all potential challengers.[34] Unfortunately, this assertion has all too real consequences for those in possession of non-state issued documentation when the tides of war change.

Rainer Bauböck and Virginie Guiraudon have argued that the, ‘territorial borders of states generally do not coincide with the boundaries of citizenship’;[35] however, this is a particularly acute phenomenon during internal armed conflicts. In essence, during civil wars, different sovereign claimants attempt to create new nations out of the same people. What more often than not happens in practice is that individuals exist in citizenship constellations where they take on multiple citizenships simultaneously, albeit with each taking different priority at different times. Consequently, there is a question-mark over whether Syria’s conflict has ever really been “frozen”. The dynamics of the armed conflict have certainly changed and evolved over time, including into the supposedly post-war era which is far from static or free of fear, insecurity and violence. Likewise, the motivations of the Syrian state, various local and international actors and individuals regarding how they relate to the prioritisation or delegitimation of citizenship shifts within these constellations, most-times due to perceived necessity; but at others, due to whim.

Charting the constellations

Hannah Arendt famously said that citizenship entails ‘the right to have rights’ and as such, it underpins virtually every aspect of human welfare.[36] Conceptualising the situation many citizens in Syria now find themselves in as part of citizenship constellations helps us better understand complex webs of citizenship; individual interests in relation to alternative citizenship statuses; the risks and benefits these entail; as well as the Syrian state’s reaction to citizenship documentation created by de facto sovereigns.

Conceptualising the existence of citizenship constellations in Syria has major academic relevance because it raises pertinent empirical and conceptual questions about the underpinning of state sovereignty, subjectivity and the foundation of law. Citizenship regimes reflect evolving trends in the way the citizen-state relationship is conceptualised and subsequently managed.[37] They are also considered an integral component of functioning states.[38] Consequently, the politics of this relationship mirror specific ideas about the nation and who belongs and who does not at any given point in time.[39] Conventionally, ‘notions of citizenship delineate national identity and membership in a single ethno-cultural or national community.’[40] However, there is a circular logic at play in the creation of citizenship. While citizenship comprises a documented relationship between a person, the law and the state, from which that person derives rights and duties, the process also reproduces state authority because without citizens, a state struggles to be a state.[41] This circularity raises unsettling questions about the nature of sovereignty, particularly in contested civil war environments such as Syria’s where multiple entities make claims to statehood. The conceptual and normative challenge is that sovereignty is ultimately self-referential. States are sovereign because they are; non-state actors are not because they are not. However, the reality of de facto sovereign citizenship necessitates a rethinking of this conundrum. One concrete way to do this could be the recognition of documents issued by de facto sovereigns by external states for certain limited purposes—e.g. refugee or asylum claims. Conversely, external states could potentially use the offer of document recognition to induce compliance with various diplomatic and political imperatives or legal norms.

The existence of citizenship constellations in Syria also has far-reaching practical implications. This is because possessing multiple citizenships may offer benefits and enable access to certain entitlements but it can also have major negative consequences. This is particularly acute when the fortunes of sovereign claimants change, as they did in Syria, and citizenship documentation can threaten people’s welfare as the new sovereign may take these documents as evidence of being on the ‘wrong’ side. As the Syrian state slowly regains territorial control of the whole of the country, there is renewed imperative to understand the ways in which Damascus uses citizenship to its own political advantage. This is relevant for how and why it treats certain subsets of the population as denizens in order to keep them in an extended bureaucratic limbo; but conversely, how it uses citizenship to bind people to the state as part of its political project.[42]


[1] See e.g. Stephen C. Lubkemann, Culture in Chaos: An Anthropology of the Social Condition in War, 2008.

[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, Article 4.

[3] Norwegian Refugee Council, “Lost Identity: Challenges Relating to Legal Identification and Civil Documentation in the North-West of the Syrian Arab Republic,” 2019, 60-63.

[4] Rainer Bauböck, “Studying Citizenship Constellations,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36, no. 5 (2010), 847–59.

[5] Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, “Sovereignty Revisited,” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 295–315 define de facto sovereigns as those with, ‘the ability to kill, punish, and discipline with impunity’.

[6] Bauböck adopts this term from social movement studies, where the concepts of political and discursive opportunity structures has been used to explain mobilisations around specific issues (see e.g. Koopmans et al. 2005).

[7] Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, “Forum Shopping and Shopping Forums: Dispute Processing in a Minangkabau Village in West Sumatra,” Journal of Legal Pluralism 13, no. 19 (1981), 117–60.

[8] Gëzim Krasniqi, “Overlapping Jurisdictions, Disputed Territory, Unsettled State: The Perplexing Case of Citizenship in Kosovo,” Citizenship Studies 16, no. 3–4 (2012), 362.

[9] Andrew Grossman, “Nationality and the Unrecognised State,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly,  no. 50 October (2001), 860.

[10] Hansen and Stepputat (2006).

[11] Bart Klem and Sidharthan Maunaguru, “Insurgent Rule as Sovereign Mimicry and Mutation: Governance, Kingship, and Violence in Civil Wars,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 3 (2017): 629–56; Fiona McConnell (2016) Rehearsing the State: The Political Practices of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile; International Rescue Committee and United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “Civil Status Documentation in Non-Government Areas of Northern Syria,” 2016.

[12] Katharine Fortin ‘To Be or Not to Be?: Legal Identity in Crisis in Non-International Armed Conflicts’, Human Rights Quarterly, forthcoming February 2021, 43. Available at:

[13] Interview with humanitarian actor via Skype, Amman, 6 February 2020.

[14] Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, 1933, Article 1(a).

[15] Rukmini Callimachi and Andrew Rossback, ‘The ISIS Files: Extreme Brutality and Detailed Record- Keeping’, New York Times, 4 April 2018; Mara Revkin (2016) ‘The legal foundations of the Islamic State’, Brookings Institute. Available at; Meira Svirsky, “First Islamic State Birth Certificate: Guns and Grenade”, Clarion Project, 28 April 2015.

[16] Cynthia Weber (1995) Simulating Sovereignty: Intervention, the State and Symbolic Exchange.

[17] Interview with development professional via Skype, 20 February 2020.

[18] International Legal Assistance Consortium Syria Programme. Available at:

[19] Norwegian Refugee Council, “Lost Identity: Challenges Relating to Legal Identification and Civil Documentation in the North-West of the Syrian Arab Republic,” 2019, 45; Interview with development professional via Skype, 20 February 2020.

[20] As quoted in Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami (2016) Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, 171.

[21] Syrians for Truth and Justice, “Syria: Turkish Identification Cards Obliterate Identity of Natives and Displaced Populations Alike,” 2019; Interview with development professional via Skype, 20 February 2020.

[22] Kathryn Hampton, “Born in the Twilight Zone: Birth Registration in Insurgent Areas,” International Review of the Red Cross 101, no. 911 (2019): 513; Synaps Network, Before the Ink Dries, 2 April 2018, 3; Personal interview with humanitarian actors, Amman, 27 February 2020.

[23] Aron Lund, ‘Stop Gap Solutions for Syrians Without Papers’, The New Humanitarian, 4 August 2020. Available at:

[24] Interview with development professional via Skype, Beirut, 24 February 2020; Personal interview with humanitarian actors, Amman, 27 February 2020; International Legal Assistance Consortium, Summary Note: Dialogue on civil documentation in Syria, Stockholm 30 January 2020; Aron Lund,

[25] Jelena Vasiljević, “Imagining and Managing the Nation: Tracing Citizenship Policies in Serbia,” Citizenship Studies 16, no. 3–4 (2012), 324.

[26] Bauböck (2010), 848

[27] Tobias Kelly and Sharika Thiranagama, “Introduction: Specters of Treason,” in Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy, and the Ethics of State-Building (2010) ed. Sharika Thiranagama and Tobias Kelly, 10.

[28] Interview with development professional via Skype, Beirut, 24 February 2020; Personal interview with humanitarian actors, Amman, 27 February 2020; International Legal Assistance Consortium, Summary Note: Dialogue on civil documentation in Syria, Stockholm 30 January 2020; Aron Lund,

[29] Aron Lund,

[30] Samer Abboud, “Reconciling Fighters, Settling Civilians: The Making of Post-Conflict Citizenship in Syria,” Citizenship Studies, 2020, 1–18; “Syrian Regime to Change Identity Cards, Passports, Interior Ministry”, The Syrian Observer, 4 May 2018.

[31] International Rescue Committee and United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “Civil Status Documentation in Non-Government Areas of Northern Syria,” 2016, 24-25.

[32] International Rescue Committee and United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “Civil Status Documentation in Non-Government Areas of Northern Syria,” 2016, 24; Synaps Network, Before the Ink Dries, 2 April 2018, 2.

[33] Tobias Kelly and Sharika Thiranagama (2010), 20.

[34] Interview with humanitarian actor via Skype, Amman, 6 February 2020.

[35] Rainer Bauböck and Virginie Guiraudon, “Introduction: Realignments of Citizenship: Reassessing Rights in the Age of Plural Memberships and Multi-Level Governance,” Citizenship Studies 13, no. 5 (2009): 440.

[36] Hannah Arendt (1951) The Origins of Totalitarianism, 296.

[37] Yael Berda, ‘Citizenship as a mobility regime’, POMEPS Studies 41, Israel/Palestine: Exploring A One State Reality, 15.

[38] Vasiljević (2012), 323.

[39] W. R. Brubaker, “Citizenship Struggles in Soviet Successor States,” International Migration Review 26, no. 2 (1992), 269–91.

[40] Eric C. Dahlin and Ann Hironaka, “Citizenship beyond Borders: A Cross-National Study of Dual Citizenship,” Sociological Inquiry 78, no. 1 (2008), 55.

[41] Katharine Fortin, Bart Klem and Marika Sosnowski, ‘Legal identity and rebel governance: A comparative perspective on lived consequence of contested sovereignty ’, in Statelessness, Governance, and the Problem of Citizenship, ed. Tendayi Bloom and Lindsey Kingston, forthcoming Manchester University Press, 2021.

[42] Marika Sosnowski, “Reconciliation Agreements as Strangle Contracts: Ramifications for Property and Citizenship Rights in the Syrian Civil War,” Peacebuilding (2019),; Synaps Network, Before the Ink Dries, 2 April 2018, 8.